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.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
Pipe-cleaner Journalists: When Journalists Start Bending the Rules
Pipe-cleaners bend under pressure; journalists shouldn't.
Ryan Chittum’s article
on “Checkbook Journalism’s Slippery Slope”
opened my eyes to the slew of pipe-cleaner
journalists across the U.K. and the U.S.. Pipe-cleaner journalist is a term I’m using in this blog post to
describe journalists who consistently bend the rules to meet deadlines and
craft competitive content.
These pipe-cleaner fiends don’t just consist of young,
lowly interns like Jayson Blair who buckle under the pressure of real-world
news rooms. Pipe-cleaner journalists don’t have to go as far as fabricating
content. They don’t ignore the rules… they just, bend them.
One of these ways is through checkbook journalism,
when news organizations pay either their sources or the subjects themselves, for
Robert Murdoch, of New Corp. in the U.K., admits to his
staff using checkbook journalism. Murdoch also alludes to his staff
compensating whistle-blowers with money!
Trevor Kavanagh of The
Sun, shamelessly admits to paying whistle-blowers and bribing police and
‘Sometimes money changes
hands. This has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed,
here and abroad.”
Kavanagh’s callous tone exposes his evident lack of
remorse. Murdoch and Kavanagh embody a (not so popular) type of journalist who
believes that because it’s not illegal, it must be okay…
“There is nothing
disreputable about it. And, as far as we know at this point, nothing illegal.”
The problem is, that there aren’t that many hard and
fast rules in journalism that make a producer’s actions outright illegal. Most
news organizations leave it up to the journalist to act with integrity. That’s
why we have so many codes of ethics!
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics doesn’t
specifically cover whether or not to pay a source for info, but it does refer
to “consider[ing] a sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” I would argue
that a journalist should not only consider a source’s motives before promising
anonymity; but considering his/her motives before paying them for said info!
Doesn’t a worker have much more incentive to fabricate
information about say, a scandal, if you promise to pay them for it!
The pedestrian who video-taped the Texas shooting by two
deputies of an un-armed man, actually asked for payment!
ABC/KSAT 12News released a transparency statement regarding payment of the source,
“Before sharing the video
with us, Thomas asked for payment. While most viewers share video with us at no
charge, we agreed to pay Thomas a $100 licensing fee for the video. It is not
uncommon for news organizations to pay for video from freelancers or citizen
KSAT 12 News’ forth-coming article on how they
obtained the Texas shooting video demonstrates their commitment following
ethical journalism practices. The SPJ Code of Ethic advises journalists to, “Identify
sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to
judge the reliability and motivations of sources."
Bravo for transparency! But even if viewers
have access to this information, they may not have the where-with-all to know
to look for it. The other problem with civilian-shot video, payed for or not,
is its lack of context. Thomas didn’t get a chance to see the altercation that
lead up to the shooting of Gilbert Flores. He started shooting the video
as soon as he noticed something strange going on in the man’s yard. The Texas deputies
reported Gilbert having resisted their non-lethal efforts to take him into
custody, allegedly leading up to the shots. But we have no evidence of what
happened before the shooting, only the deputies’ words, because Thomas hadn’t started
taping (or even watching) yet.
Not only this, but Thomas shot the video from very far
away. The picture quality looks grainy and poor. I honestly had no idea what
was going on when I watched the video, myself!
The Texas shooting video exemplifies how civilian-obtained
information – even something like a video – can lead to confusion and lack of
clarity when journalists use it to cover a story. I’m not saying KSAT 12 News
shouldn’t have published the video: they have a responsibility to the public to share
the raw footage they receive.
But civilian journalists – whistle blowers included –
may not have the same sense of ethics that journalists are trained in and
(hopefully) feel a responsibility to the public to follow. When you wave dollar
bills (or English pounds) in front of the faces of potential sources, you just
can’t be sure of how credible the information will be. That’s why Murdoch and
Kavanagh’s strategy of checkbook journalism is not only unethical, but leads to less credible stories.