This article focuses on the important and complex issue of ethics, one of the cornerstones of good journalism.
The pillars of journalism (accuracy, fairness, and objectivity) are among the major ethical considerations for those who work in the news industry. Additionally, there are ongoing debates over bias, objectivity, favoritism, and a number of other ethical issues.
A grounding in ethics is essential to those in news, as journalists are confronted with choices about stories, interviews, sound bytes, rundowns, shot angles, editing, and a host of other potential hazards on a daily basis. This article does not provide individual case studies. The daily newscast is rife with ethical challenges; thus there is never a shortage of exemplars. Instead, this article details the ethical dilemmas that appear frequently among broadcast journalists. We begin with the basic need to get the story right.
Accuracy means writing and reporting in a manner that is as objective and fair as possible, despite any personal feeling, belief, or attitude on the subject. Taking responsibility means the following: (1) looking at all the issues, not just the easy or popular ones; (2) examining controversies and producing special reports throughout the year, not just during the sweeps rating periods; (3) covering important stories that don't always offer good pictures; (4) writing and reporting with care, understanding, and compassion; and (5) dealing with people in a professional and civil manner.
Many news directors require reporters to double-source and even triple-source stories before they air. This "The most critical guidelines for ethics are the simplest: strive for accuracy, be fair, and produce the story as neutrally as possible." means every piece of information must be confirmed by at least two or three independent sources.
Some inaccuracy will always creep into newswriting and reporting because people write and report news. People make mistakes. If errors occur, the reaction is to correct the mistakes immediately.
Accuracy is an ethical journalistic concern, but when information in a story is inaccurate because of bias or carelessness, it can also become a legal issue-libel.
Although it should not be the motivating factor for insisting on accuracy, there is always the threat of libel facing those journalists who through carelessness, ignorance, or malice make inaccurate statements in their reports that reflect on the character or reputation of an individual or group. Libel laws differ from state to state, but essentially writers or reporters can be sued for libel if anything they write or report (1) exposes an individual or group to public scorn, hatred, ridicule, or contempt; (2) causes harm to someone in their occupation or profession; or (3) causes someone to be shunned or avoided.
Reporters must also remember that it is not necessary to have actually used a person's name to be sued for libel. If the audience knows to whom a reporter is referring, even without the name, the reporter could be sued for libel if the comments harm the person's reputation.
Although libel traditionally refers to printed material and slander to spoken words, the distinction between the two terms has little meaning for broadcast reporters. Recognizing that broadcast material is usually scripted, many state laws regard any defamatory statements on radio and television as subject to libel laws. Remember also that using the word alleged before a potentially libelous word does not make it any less libelous.
How far should reporters go to get a story? If reporters have a strong suspicion that someone in government is a crook, don't they have the right to do what ever it takes to report the story to the public? Some journalists say they do. Other news people believe that if they bend the rules too much, they become suspect and may be viewed no differently from the people they are investigating. Each reporter must decide the ethical merits involved in certain investigative practices.
Some of the controversial information-gathering techniques employed by investigative reporters include impersonation, misrepresentation, and infiltration. Should journalists use such techniques to get a story? Consider the following scenarios:
• Is it right for a reporter to pretend to be a nurse so that she can get inside a nursing home to investigate charges that residents are being mistreated?
• Is it proper for a journalist to tell a college football coach that he wants to do a story about training when he's really checking on reports of drug abuse and gambling?
• Is it permissible for a reporter to pose as a pregnant woman thinking about having an abortion in order to find out what kind of material a right-to-life organization is providing at its information center?
• Is it ethical for journalists to take jobs in a supermarket and then spy on the operations to try to show improper food handling?
All of these incidents actually occurred, and they represent only a few examples of the controversial methods used on a routine basis. Are they ethical?
REENACTMENTS AND STAGING
Considerable debate has been generated over the use of reenactments of events to tell a news story. Most news directors frown on the technique, but some see nothing wrong with them as long as they are clearly designated as such with a supertitle plainly stating "This is a reenactment."
The most important ethical consideration in the use of reenactments is that they should not confuse the audience about what they are looking at. Viewers should be able to determine quickly which scenes are actual and which are reenactments. Some news directors believe reenactments have no place in news. As one news director puts it, "Let the tabloid newspeople do the reenactment. "
Another serious ethical concern is staging, the faking of video or sound or any other aspect of a story. Staging can and should be a cause for dismissal. Ironically, some reporters see little harm in staging if the staging is accurate. "What's wrong," one reporter asks, "if you round up protesters at an abortion clinic who may be out to lunch and get them shouting again? That's what they would be doing after lunch, anyway."
It is not the same, and reporters who think that way pose a serious threat to their news organizations. Many other kinds of staging go on all too often. All of them are unethical. Here are a few examples:
• A reporter misses a news conference, so he asks the news maker to repeat a few of the remarks he made and pretends the sound bytes actually came from the news conference.
• A news crew goes to a park to film some children playing on swings and seesaws, but there are none there. A cameraperson is sent to find some children.
• A reporter doing a story about drugs on campus needs some video to support the story so he asks a student he knows to "set up" a group smoking marijuana in a dorm room.
• A documentary unit doing a story on crime asks police officers in a patrol car to make a few passes by the camera with the sirens blasting. Harmless deceptions?
Perhaps. But where does staging end? If reporters are willing to set up a marijuana party, is there anything that they would feel uncomfortable about staging?
INFLATING THE NEWS
Reporters must attempt to keep a news story in perspective. Otherwise, it is easy to give the audience the wrong impression about what is actually happening. As mentioned earlier, a reporter should never stage video by rounding up demonstrators who were on a lunch break; however, let's assume that when the reporter showed up, the protest was in full swing. Did the presence of the camera have an effect on the demonstration? Did the shouting suddenly get louder? If the camera did have an effect on the crowd, which would not be unusual, the audience might get the wrong impression. In such a case, it might be appropriate for the reporter to make a statement like the following:
"Actually, the turnout for the demonstration was smaller than was predicted ... and our camera seemed to encourage some in the crowd to whip it up just a bit more than when we first arrived."
It is also important for the cameraperson to show accurately what was going on at the scene. If there were only a half-dozen demonstrators, the audience might, again, get the wrong impression if the camera shot used was a dose-up, when a wide shot would have revealed that the group was small.
INVASION OF PRIVACY
Privacy is defined generally as "the right to be let alone." That concept has become increasingly more difficult with the development of a variety of electronic devices, particularly the computer. For broadcast journalists, micro phones, tape recorders, cameras, and telephoto lenses have been wonderful additions to the practice of collecting news. But they also have caused their share of troubles when it comes to privacy.
The Constitution does not say anything about the right of privacy, at least by name; however, several amendments to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence's demand for the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" make it clear that the founding fathers were concerned with privacy. Also, the Supreme Court for more than 40 years has recognized privacy as a constitutional right.
From a media perspective, the right to privacy often conflicts with the First Amendment, freedom of the press, or the people's right to know. For example, the courts have found that it is not an invasion of privacy in most cases to take photographs or to use film and video cameras in a public place; however, the use of these same devices to get pictures in private places can, and often does, get broadcast journalists in trouble.
Videotaping in a public place also can be a problem for broadcast journalists. A CBS-owned station, WCBS-TV in New York was sued after a camera crew and reporter entered a famous restaurant, Le Mistral, unannounced and began filming the interior of the restaurant and its customers. The film was for a series the reporter was doing on restaurant health code violations. The restaurant won its suit against CBS for invasion of privacy and trespass.
The end result? Broadcast journalists can photograph in public places, but if their behavior becomes overly intrusive, they also can find themselves in court.
Accusations of improprieties when covering the news are ongoing. It is not uncommon for the motives of journalists to be questioned, their political leanings to come under scrutiny, and even the phrasing of their questions to be dissected. For reporters, the best response is to maintain a code of ethics by politely declining gifts and favors, evaluating their own work with a critical eye, and accepting criticism professionally.
Likewise, the use of certain undercover devices by reporters, such as hidden microphones and cameras, raises ethical questions that must be resolved by each news person or news manager. Their use also has legal implications because, in some states, it is forbidden. Certainly, the argument used by many journalists that you "do what you have to do" to catch someone breaking the law or deceiving the public seems reasonable on the surface. However, many reporters believe that they must stay within the law or they stoop to the level of those they are investigating.
The most critical guidelines for ethics are the simplest: strive for accuracy, be fair, and produce the story as neutrally as possible. By following these basic guidelines, the day-to-day process of reporting the news will have a solid ethical foundation.
©2010 Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved. "Broadcast News, Writing, Reporting, and Producing, Fifth Ed." by Ted White and Frank Barnas. For more information on this title and other similar books, please visit elsevierdirect.com.