By Ed Otte
What would you do?
The Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists partnered with the Colorado Press Association this fall in arranging visits to the state’s four-year university journalism programs. The visitation teams were comprised of SPJ and CPA representatives, most of whom were with daily and weekly newspapers near the campuses.
Ethics and news judgment were discussed during each visit, either with ethics classes or reporting and newswriting classes. Copies of the SPJ Code of Ethics were distributed in each class and the visitation team members asked real-life ethical questions.
1. Should your news organization identify the gunman in a mass shooting on a college campus in your city? Or should you subscribe to the “no noteriety” campaign to not name mass murderers? What would you do?
2. In early September, a BBC reporter interviewed a Syrian who was walking with other refugees in Hungary toward the Austrian border. A few seconds into the interview, the man asked the reporter to help him and his family. They were thirsty, hungry, tired and his children needed shoes. If you were the reporter, what would you do?
3. You are a TV reporter and the newly elected sheriff in your county asks if you would coach him on how to conduct large news conferences. He says he is comfortable in one-on-one interviews but doesn’t have news conference experience and feels nervious facing a group of reporters and TV cameras. What would you do?
4. You are a TV news director and your station manager wants to establish a policy to avoid conflicts between your staff’s consumer reporting and the station’s advertising clients. Should you push for a firewall that forbids communication between the newsroom and the advertising department? Or should you opt for a policy in which the ad department is advised not to schedule certain ads during a newscast that will feature a critical consumer story? What would you do?
5. You are the editor of a daily newspaper and you hire a young out-of-state reporter to cover the business beat. Two months into the job, you get a telephone call from a local businessman who said after the reporter interviewed him for a story, he asked if his company is looking for a public relations person. The reporter explained that his girlfriend majored in PR in college, she needs a job and would be a good hire for his company. What would you do?
6. You are the editor of a daily newspaper and you have an impressive college intern who is doing a terrific job covering concerts and interviewing touring musicians. One day you get an email urging you to compare recent stories in The New York Times with the stories written by the intern. You realize the student plagiarized the stories. What would you do?
7. You are the editor of a newspaper that has a strict policy against accepting gifts or favors, from news sources or advertisers or people in the communty. All such offers are to be declined. One day in mid-December, the newsroom receptionist knocks on your office door and tells you a woman wants to talk to you. Standing near the receptionist’s desk is an older woman holding a tray of homemade Christmas cookies. She wants to give you the cookies in appreciation for the coverage of her organization’s work in the community. What would you do?
1. This topic was discussed during our visit to Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction on Oct. 1, the day a gunman killed nine people on a community college campus in Roseburg, Ore.
Some of the CMU students criticized the news media for “glorifying” the shooters in these incidents and said the news coverage encourages copycat killings. When asked which news outlets glorify the gunmen, no one could cite an example. But they said using the gunman’s name and photo in stories gives him the noteriety he sought. The students were asked two local news questions: If a similar incident occurred on the CMU campus, would they want to know the identity of the gunman? Would they want to know the gunman’s motive?
Some students said the victims are forgotten while the gunman’s name is used repeatedly in stories. The four-month Aurora theater shooting trial was cited as an example. It was pointed out by one of the editors that many of the news organizations that covered the trial devoted space or time to the victims and their families. And the judge listened to comments by the families during the sentencing phase, and those were reported.
The topic was discussed during subsequent campus visits and the visitation team members emphasized two points:
A. Many young people don’t read newspapers or watch TV news. They get their information from the Internet and social media. It is there that the copycats learn about the shooting at Umpqua Community College.
B. “Don’t shoot the messenger” is how to describe reaction to the bearer of bad news – but that would have been an unwelcome way to phrase it in this discussion. “Don’t blame the messenger” if you don’t like the message, one member of the visitation team said.
2. The SPJ Code of Ethics advises journalists to act independently by avoiding “conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Simply stated: Journalists should report the story, not become a part ot it.
The students wrestled with this, attempting to balance their obligation as a reporter with their humanistic desire to help the refugee. In each campus discussion, they said the reporter shouldn’t give the refugee anything during the interview. However, after the camera was turned off, many said they would give the man water or food or clothing.
3. Students understood the conflict of interest involved in coaching the sheriff, either as a paid or unpaid consultant. A visitation team member said the sheriff should seek professional advice from a former or retired journalist because “there are a lot of ex-TV reporters and anchors out there.”
4. The visitation team explained two points before asking the students for their opinions: 1. News organizations must be profitable and that means healthy advertising revenue. 2. The ad department often can provide good story tips to the newsroom.
The students saw the value in both policies. Some liked the firewall idea while others understood the business aspect. This led to a discussion about infotainment programming and the growth of native advertising. The SPJ Code of Ethics states: “Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage. Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.”
5. The consensus of opinion among the students was that the reporter should be fired. It was explained by visitation team members that the reporter shouldn’t have mentioned his girlfriend to the businessman. He could have encouraged his girlfriend afterward to apply for the PR job, with everyone – the businessman, the girlfriend and the reporter – agreeing that, if she was hired, the relationship wouldn’t create favorable news coverage for the company. But they acknowledged that such an arrangement would be problematic. “This would have all kinds of potential headaches – for everyone involved,” one editor said. “A city of any size has lots of PR jobs. The young woman could seek a job with the school district, city government or the county or a college. Anything that isn’t on the reporter’s business beat.”
What did the editor do? After receiving the phone call, the editor called the reporter into his office and closed the door. He asked the reporter if he lobbied the businessman to hire his girlfriend. The reporter admitted he did because they needed two incomes to pay their living expenses. After explaining why his actions hurt the newspaper’s credibility, the editor fired the reporter and told him to remove his personal belongings from his desk. His final paycheck was mailed to him.
6. The SPJ Code of Ethics states: “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.” One member of the visitation team answered in Internet terms: “Google makes it easy to plagiarize. Google also makes it easy to discover where you stole the original content.” The editor fired the intern, whom he described as “a rising star” before her mistake “because if she didn’t learn then why it was wrong, she would likely continue to plagiarize other peoples’ work.”
7. According to the SPJ Code of Ethics, journalists should “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment.” That sounds simple enough but this was awkward. As people in the newsroom watched, the editor thanked the woman and started to explain why he couldn’t accept the cookies. Would the woman understand the reason? Would she be embarrassed? After a few seconds, he thanked her and took the tray of cookies to the employee break room. However, clinging to the remaining shred of his ethical beliefs, he didn’t eat any of the cookies.