Every day there are ethical decisions that impact the hundreds or thousands of people who watch, read, listen, and/or click on a media source. The foundation for making the right decision starts with ethics classes in college. Students in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism will use this blog to reflect on ethical questions in the media today.
Wednesday, September 2, 2015
Cigarettes Underage: The Ethical Choice I Made As A Journalist
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
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.
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
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.