Friday, September 4, 2015

"Five Star Final" and Ethics

Eben George 

Journalism is the exchange of information between the media and the mass public centered around the belief that the information being exchanged is both truthful and ethical. This is the backbone of the institution. If the public cannot trust the information that is being given them, or if the methods used to gather that information are unethical, then why does the media exist at all?

Journalists are swore protectors of the people. According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, journalists must recognize their duty to serve as watchdogs over public affairs, government and society as a whole.  SPJ also states that ethical journalists treat their sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public with respect.

The 1931 film "Five Star Final" provides a perfect example journalism gone rouge. Although, "Five Star Final" is a fictional representation of journalism, it still gives us a glimpse of the public perception of journalism in the 1930s. The film takes us inside the walls of a New York City publication called the Gazette.
("Five Star Final"/ Mervyn LeRoy)

Times are tough for the Gazette in "Five Star Final." The Gazette, driven by a profits-above-all philosophy is willing to do anything to make a dollar. Circulation numbers are way down, and the publication needs to find a way to get those numbers up.

According to the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics, journalists and media companies should not under any circumstances sabotage the work of other journalists. However,  this standard did not hold back the Gazette. The publication hired thugs to intimidate newsstand workers, and sabotage other publications products to the point that they were illegible. The editors of the tabloid even stoop low enough to revive a 20-year-old murder case.

The Radio Television Digital News Association Code of Ethics says that deception in newsgathering conflicts with journalism's commitment to truth. In "Five Star Final" a journalist named Isopod disguises as a minister in his quest to discover the whereabouts of Nancy 'Voorhies' Townsend. Nancy was the woman accused of murdering her husband 20 years prior.

By revisiting the murder story, the Gazette did not take into consideration the possible harm the story could do to the Townsend family. The story hit the news stand on the morning of Jenny Townsend's wedding day, Nancy's daughter. Once word of Nancy's past got out she was bombarded by phone calls.

Distressed about the story, Nancy attempted to call the Gazette and request the story be taken down. The paper failed its obligation to respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness. Instead of answering to Nancy's concerns, the executives at the Gazette simply told their secretaries to give her the classic "I am sorry, he is not in right now. May I take a message?"

As a result, disaster strikes. Nancy makes the decision to take her own life. Upon discovering her body in the bathroom her husband Micheal Townsend also commits suicide.

Is "Five Star Final" an extreme example of ethical journalism ran amok? Yes, but it does show the importance of ethics in journalism. As journalists we walk the fine line between right and wrong. One misstep or poor decision can compromise not only the integrity of the story, but also of your entire career.

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