Ethics in the Newsroom: A Business of Details

4 Dec

As professional journalists must filter through mass amounts of sensitive information every day in order to provide the public with the knowledge it needs, ethical dilemmas are inevitable.

Ashley Craig, now the assistant city editor at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, has dealt with her fair share of ethical issues in her nine years working as a journalist since college. While working her first job, as a crime reporter, she dealt every day with deciding whether or not to release a victim’s name in a published story.

Craig knows well that if she were to publish a victim’s name before due time, there could be incredible fallout.

“If I didn’t do my job right, I could put people in danger. I didn’t take that lightly,” Craig stressed the importance of weighing the effects of releasing an individual’s name with the public’s right to know. She said she would regularly run through a checklist before publishing someone’s name on a story to avoid backlash that comes from sloppy mistakes.

Craig also mentioned that there is no set rule to how one should decide which names to publish. It has to be done case by case, story by story. A person’s name may not seem like a big deal, but publishing it without properly thinking it through can have dire consequences. For example, a family reads about the loss of a loved one before authorities have reached them, an individual’s reputation is ruined by unverified facts, or someone is put in direct harm’s way for speaking out about an event.

Craig’s anecdotes are examples of ethical issues that may not seem so dramatic and apparent when a young journalist comes across them in an everyday setting. It can be a problem when a journalist is waiting for the clinical, out of the textbook, flashing light ethical dilemma, and misses something more procedural, but just as important, such as publishing a name.

We see it all the time in the headlines when a news organization goes ahead and prints an individual’s name before verifying the information.

After the bombing at the Boston marathon in 2013, news outlets came under fire for publishing stories about suspects who ended up having nothing to do with the crime. After the New York Post published “Bag Men,” a photo of Salaheddin Barhoum, 16, and Yassine Zaimi that insinuated the two were responsible for the bombing, it turned out that they had nothing to do with it and had great grounds for a libel case. The suit settled in 2014.

As journalists, we hold an incredible responsibility of supplying the public with the information necessary to maintain a democracy. This includes fact checking every tip, name, and detail that comes our way. The only way that the future public will restore its faith in the news is if a generation of careful journalists rises and works to verify even the smallest of details.

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