Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How valuable is the conscience of a journalist?

By: Shelby Dermer

It was Waylon Jennings who sang in his 1977 country music hit, Luckenbach, Texas, "I don’t need my name in the marquee lights. I got my songs and I got you with me tonight."

This is similar to what a large majority of journalists want—their 15 minutes of fame, their time in the spotlight. It all seems just one popular story away, but if that story produces information that is proven fiction, consequences are inevitable.

Unless Journalists use their conscience to decide that covering a story that is false is not in their best interests.

Yes that “big break” story maybe at a journalist’s fingertips, but like a kid extending on his tip toes to the cookie jar before dinner, sometimes it is best not to reach yet.

This was the case for journalist Michele Gillen in 1993. Gillen, a correspondent NBC News, was covering a story that proclaimed that gas tanks in trucks manufactured by General Motors would catch fire in crashes.

Knowing that the claims against the company were not entirely true, Gillen sought the guidance of her boss, Jeff Diamond, hoping to get the new tests with the trucks (that were tweaked to make the outcome of the crashes more dramatic) stopped.

This is an example of a journalist successfully using their conscience for the better good of the story and journalism as a whole. However, that was not the end result for Gillen.

With persuasion by Diamond, who had assured her that the concerns she expressed would be noted at the conclusion of the broadcast, Gillen reported the story against her better judgement. Only to find out the story failed to mention any wrongdoings that she had pointed out.

The end result was anything but pretty and the consequences, as aforementioned, were inevitable. The broadcast, which aired on Dateline, turned out to be an enormous embarrassment for NBC News and cost Michael Gartner, president of the news division, his job.

The segment Gillen reported on NBC's Dateline titled, "Waiting to Explode."
Photo Credit:

One similar situation involved Charlie Savage, a New York Times reporter who published false information about a congressional investigation in 2012.

Savage wrote incorrectly about House Speaker John Boehner’s participation in the talks of the investigation, and ended up breaking the publication’s code of ethics.

In either case, it goes to show the importance of a journalist’s conscience is. I feel that at any time a journalist has a stable argument that a story provides false information, that he or she should take the higher road and either turn down the story, or make sure the facts are there to support, although the story could be beneficial for a career.

It was the Society of Professional Journalists that wrote in their ethics code, “Journalist should remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” As well as, “Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.”

At the end of the day, many people, like me, have pursued the journalism path to make a difference and to bring the best content to the many viewers out there.

Any journalist that fails to use his or her conscience in a decision about a story and produces erroneous content is simply reaching into the cookie jar at the wrong time.

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