The ethics of public interest

25 Apr

In the wake of fake news and the rise of white supremacy leaders in the media, reporters have to consider the public’s best interest now more than ever. At the Huffington Post, Senior Politics Editor Paige Lavender and her team are faced with this dilemma everyday when reporting on white supremacy leaders, such as Alex Jones.

Jones is a well-known media figure that regularly touts conspiracy theories. He often makes extremely incendiary comments that many news outlets think are worthy of coverage, including the Huffington Post from time to time.

“We try to avoid writing up his eyebrow-raising comments because that is just part of his schtick, and we don’t want to give him more attention,” Lavender said.

Lavender and journalists around the world are faced with choosing when to publish stories about personalities like Jones, whether that be every time he or she makes a fuss in public or makes an appearance on a news broadcast.

“Ethically it can feel like we’re giving this guy, who regularly touts false flag theories and is really a major figure in fake news, a platform,” Lavender said. “But when there’s legitimate news about him­–like when someone files a lawsuit against him or he appears on a legitimate news show–we do try to cover what he says.”

Locally, reporters may not have to make decisions on such a larger scale as Lavender and the Huffington Post do, however must still consider public interest when reporting local stories.

When Jenni Vincent, business reporter at the Martinsburg Journal, discovered that Macy’s would be building a factory in town before anyone else, she had to decide whether or not to report their name. While she wanted to be the first to report the company was coming to town, creating hundreds of jobs, she didn’t want to ruin the sale.

Macy’s was considering either bringing the plant to Martinsburg, West Virginia or a small town in New York.  Vincent had also heard that Macy’s was hard to work with and was scared that if she reported their name, which was information no one else had, that Macy’s would back out of the deal leaving local disappointed and also hurting her credibility.

Vincent and her editors decided it was in the public’s best interest to not release the name of the company.

“If I had run their name, which we really considered, Macy’s probably would have left because I heard they were really hard to deal with,” Vincent said. “Instead the amount of jobs that were created because of the Macy’s maybe would not exist today.”

Even though I have been studying journalism for three years, I have never had to consider one of my articles to be harmful to the public’s interest. I think that both Lavender and Vincent made the right decision in their situations because it falls back to each of their credibility. Had Lavender reported on someone like Jones and shared an article about fake news, her credibility and the Huffington Post would take a hit. Had Vincent used Macy’s name in her article and they backed out, it would have looked bad on her behalf as well.

Another point to consider is that sometimes while the public may think they want to know the details of a story like Macy’s coming to town or Jones spreading false facts, it may not be in the general public’s best interest, such as in cases like Lavender’s. While public interest does not have a clear definition it is very much still up to the reporters and editors of a story to decide whether something is in the audience’s best interest. Unfortunately in some cases, the stories that serve the public’s best interest are not always what the public is interested in.

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