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4: Ethics and the Law

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    "Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices—just recognize them."

    - Edward R. Murrow

    Let's say you hear a rumor that the cops came to your English teacher's house Saturday night when her friends were dancing to Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita" and shouting "Huh! Huh! Huh!" along with Bruce and Clarence and Bruce's totally hip wife Patty. These faculty members were rocking out. It was embarrassing, according to the kids in the dorm next door. So you go to the police station and sure enough there's an arrest record. Smart reporter that you are, you bring the document straight home to the newsroom. But how exactly should it be published? It might be a hoot to tell the world your English teacher had disturbed the peace by dancing badly to Springsteen, especially if the story was short with a cute first paragraph (heh, heh), but what if the story ran under the (accurate) headline: "English Teacher Arrested"? That would be truthful. Would it be fair?

    And here we slide into those philosophical issues we skated through in early sections of this book. Your editors from hell are accustomed to such questions. It is their job to assign newsworthy stories, place them under headlines that do them justice, position them in places that reflect their importance, and kill them—or "spike them" in newspaper lingo—when they don't merit publishing.

    Most young reporters are surprised to learn how often editors spike stories; most readers have absolutely no idea. But keeping unworthy stories out of the paper is exactly as important as getting worthy stories in.

    Obviously, the most important stories to keep OUT of the paper are those that break the laws of libel. You can learn some basic information about those laws in the next section of this book.

    The stories that get IN must be accurate, as you know (ad nauseum by now), and, what's more, they should be ethical. That is, in every way, they should be fair.

    How do you make a story "fair"? That's a great question, and it's not easy to answer. Ethical stories are complete, unbiased, and balanced. But these are complex requirements. If a scientist argues that global warming exists, for example, is it "balanced" to give equal space in the article to an industry executive, also a scientist, arguing the threat is overstated? Most journalists and scholars of ethical journalism would say no. If a formal conference is held among Holocaust deniers (as it was, in 2007, in Iran), is it "fair" to cover the conference? To report the speakers' remarks? Does a paper covering such speeches inadvertently endorse them? Or help disseminate them? Should the paper find historians to give a "balanced" view? How do you "balance" fabrications with historical fact? What, in this circumstance, is actually "fair"?

    These questions are so vexing even veteran journalists would be reading these questions through their fingers. Attempting to make the above stories "fair" can do more harm than good, if this means turning to sources who are themselves unethical, compromised, or biased. The term "balanced" isn't ideal either, since so often a story has only one intelligible side, or has far more than two. And while journalists must seek truth and report it, they must also minimize the harm that may come from their stories. This is especially important when covering what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls "wicked problems"—stories about problems so complex they can barely be described, much less solved. Furthermore, we are all human and therefore subject to our own skewed perceptions even when we're journalists. And it's not only wicked problems that are hard to cover. Ordinary, everyday stories pose all sorts of ethical dilemmas, too. How do you cover a story about a friend? When should you write up a story that is underway, when the publicity will alter its course? If a story might do harm as well as good, what is the obligation to run it? Difficult questions. So how do you answer them?

    Andrew Gully from the Boston Herald, has a little mantra he always told his reporters: "Be true to the story." That is, you shouldn't pledge that you'll be true to yourself when you report and write a story, nor that you'll be true to your sources, nor to your readers. Instead, the story itself has a life of its own. If you think about staying true to the story, you'll be off to a good start.

    After that, study the journalists' code of ethics, the five principles for reporting and writing, and the basics of libel law. You will find them in this chapter of the book.

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