Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Cigarettes Underage: The Ethical Choice I Made As A Journalist

Rachel Hartwick

When I worked for my high school newsmagazine, Spark, I often wrote feature stories. Feature stories, especially for a magazine, required lengthy, in-depth conversation with sources. When I had these interviews, people would often tell me things they didn’t want run in the story—they’d divulge a secret, then quickly retaliate, “don’t run this,” or “that’s off the record.” (This happens all the time in journalism—why people do this, I still don’t know).

So a few years ago, after a source asked me not to run a detail from an exciting, fun interview I had with a local high school “garage band” a few years ago, I was stuck in an ethical dilemma.

The band and I talked on a the band member’s grandma’s porch. The band members wore button-us and backward-turned hats. They cursed a lot. Tattoos decorated their arms. Most of them held cigarettes between their fingertips, despite not being of age to legally buy them. Grandma would pop in every once in a while and ask the boys if they wanted any milk. That always made them laugh.

When I went to write the story, I remembered everything about that interview that had really told the story about them—the tattoos on their arms, the smell of their cigarettes, and their grandmother’s nonchalant attitude about it all. I described the way one band member sat up straight in his tie-dye shirt and how the other two leaned back with cigarettes in their mouths. To me, this told a lot about their personalities.

After the interview, though, one of the band members reached out to me. He told me to not mention anything about him smoking. He was in the marching band, and he wasn’t 18 yet. Potentially, he said, he could be kicked out of the club for being a smoker.

Photo via Pixabay Creative Commons 

So, do I run it or not?
I had to make an ethical choice: was setting the scene, the characterization of each band member and my writing overall, as important as potentially causing one of these boys to be kicked out of a school organization? And all because of me? It seems like an easy answer: of course I’d remove it. It wasn’t something the general public needed to know. It added to the story, but really only a smidge. That small detail wasn’t worth the backlash.

But, selfishly, I wanted it in the story. The cigarette was a detail I felt was important. It put readers on that grandmother’s porch. Indirectly, it spoke to his personality and his bandmate’s personality.

In the end, I did include the cigarette detail, but I didn’t say which band member smoked it. Instead of referring to them by name in that paragraph, I delayed my lead and called them “one boy,” “another boy,” and “the third,” saying that only the “other boy” lit his cigarette. This way, I set the scene and didn’t divulge any information that could be used against one band member.

I followed the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.” To me, which band member smoked the cigarette and whether or not he was underage wasn’t what the story was about. It was not about the ways in which underage people get cigarettes, or the health issues behind it. It wasn’t relevant or appropriate to include his name against his will. It was about their band and their music.

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