Lines We Shouldn’t Cross

28 Apr

Journalists face a lot of challenges, whether it may be finding timely stories, building relationships with sources or collecting data. One challenge that is often overlooked, given this generation’s bloggers and other pseudo-journalists, is ethics.

Blogs, which are filled with fictitious and fabricated information, plagiarized ideas and personal opinions, have blurred the lines between journalism, whose employees are held to very high ethical standards, and writing as a hobby, without any professional knowledge.

Today’s reporters must take extra caution to avoid these dilemmas, given that the use of technology has become prevalent, even unavoidable in the field. Facts found online must be double and triple checked, and plagiarism can happen all too easily and unknowingly, due to the lack of monitors on the web.

In order to gain trust and respect, journalists of the information age must work extremely hard and be extremely careful, in addition to the traditional goals, like making deadlines and meeting word counts. While technology is almost always there to help with the latter, it inherently hinders the former.

Each journalist in the world has his or her own one-of-a-kind stories and writing style. So, it is only natural that ethical dilemmas are unique to particular journalists, as well.

April Johnston, a Reed College of Media professor, who has been in the field since graduating with a journalism degree in 2001, has had her fair share of ethical dilemmas while working at a Fayetteville, North Carolina city newspaper.

One instance stands out in Johnston’s mind as a challenging and pivotal moment in her career.

“The Last Full Measure,” an issues feature about fallen soldiers featured on the front page of a 2007 Fayetteville Observer, hangs proudly in a frame facing Johnston’s desk. Among the other landmark stories Johnston wrote, “The Last Full Measure” is at the very center of the top row, adorned with the faces of seven Americans in uniform.

“That was tough, because we were talking to people at the most vulnerable time in their lives, and we were talking to them about something really personal.” Johnston says. “They had just lost their sons or brothers.”

Johnston’s editor chose to put taglines next to the portraits of the young men. While lines like “Ryan gave up scholarships to find discipline in the army,” shined, another did not receive such great reviews.

“A small town trouble maker who make the unit’s best gunner,” a line Johnston says was intended as a term of endearment, caused the fallen man’s mother to call her sobbing. Understandably, the grieving woman did not take it as such.

“That was really hard, especially knowing that I fought it because I knew it might be an issue,” Johnston says. “That was a terrible dilemma for me.”

“I co-wrote this piece, and he was our favorite. We loved his family. We loved him. We loved the idea of him that the editors presented to us,” Johnston says. “To have his family be hurt by it was also really hard. To have to have that conversation (with his mother) was terrible.”

“’I know that this is not what you want to see on the front, but if you read the entire story, you will see that we really did explain who he was in a more nuanced way that that cover makes it seem,’” Johnston told his mother.

Issues features also presented a more common dilemma among all journalists, Johnston says.

“I spent weeks or months with the people about whom I was writing, and I think that there is a possibility that (a journalist) can spend so much time with a professional source that it starts to blur the line between source and friendship,” Johnston says.

Sports journalists often cross the line between fan and reporter with their sources. Needing to stay on good terms with somebody because there is a need for information, while simultaneously getting the facts that the public needs to know can be tricky, Johnston says.

Rob Rossi, a Pittsburgh reporter who covers the hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, recently published some things that were not so flattering about the general manager, with whom Rossi in turn lost rapport, Johnston says.

“Finding where friendship stops and sourcing begins is a professional problem, not a personal one. The way to overcome this dilemma effectively is to first recognize that that’s what it is,” Johnston says.

“Look at all of the ways that it might affect you, and decide which is going to be the least damaging to your career credibility. The people to whom you are reporting trust you, and you have to consider them in the equation, too.”

Journalists can avoid ethical dilemmas so long as they keep asking questions, Johnston says, her so-called words to live by.

“The more questions you ask, both your sources and yourself, the better you are able to overcome any dilemmas you may face,” Johnston says.

Questions such as, “Am I doing the right thing? Is this the right source? Do I need another source? Do I need to fight this?” serve as Johnston’s guidelines.

“Know the story that you are trying to tell will always help you to ask the right questions. That is really important, and a lot of people don’t focus on that,” says Johnston. “Too many people focus on the big picture, and you really have to break it down into smaller pieces and explain it thoroughly.”

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