Ethics in Journalism

Before reading in class a section called “ethics”, I thought the only ethics in journalism was informing the public of the truth. I also understood that if I revealed the truth then I can not be held liable, unless of course if I swear to secrecy with a source. Then I would give the information, but without the sources name. In my first journalism class at SUNY Albany I was shown a picture from the Oklahoma City bombing. This picture is when I realized, wow, journalism is not supposed to be nice and “cherry-coated”. Reporting the news is supposed to be honest, truthful, and most of all it must strive to portray the most accurate vivid view of the story.

The most memorable picture of the Oklahoma City bombing. An infant who died due to the explosion. Photo courtesy of olbroad.files.wordpress.com.

The most memorable picture of the Oklahoma City bombing. An infant who died due to the explosion. Photo courtesy of olbroad.files.wordpress.com.

The mother of this young infant that died when a daycare was blown up (among other buisness) said that she was happy that the photo was in the public eye. She felt that her daughter would be remembered and also that the Oklahoma City bombing will never be forgotten. It revealed to me, after  finding out how the mother felt, that the truth is what makes the story.

It is not that you should try and offend the reader, but if the news you are writing about is disturbing, there is not much that you can do. The world is filled with as much bad as there is good, and things will happen that are wrong, it is your job as a journalist to give justice to those harmed in the story and write their story.

In the reading for my journalism class, journalist, author, and writing coach Roy Peter Clark said:

“Never put something in your story that hasn’t checked out. The new media climate makes this exceedingly difficult. News cycles that used to change daily now change by the minute or even second. Cable news runs twenty-four hours a day, while more and more stories have been broken on the Internet in the middle of the night. The imperative to keep news up to second grows stronger and stronger. Time frenzy is the enemy of clear judgement. Taking time allows for the fact-checking and proportional coverage.”

Revealing the truth is what makes you a good journalist; think of it as the key to success. It will help you gain respect from others whether it is sources, readers, viewers, or your place of work. It also helps you feel respect for yourself.

Clark explains that getting the story out first is a necessary stress, do not let it stress you out. Focus on the best way to paint the picture of what really happened, and you find this out by spending “time” REALLY trying to find out the truth. It is better to get a true story out a little late then a false story out instantly. Clark puts the portraying of the truth beautifully:

“The stories that we create correspond to what exists in the world. The words between the quotation marks correspond to what was spoken. The shoes in the photo were the ones worn by the man when the photo was taken, not added later.”

If you think that your story is not good enough to print then maybe you need to do more research. The conclusion that you draw from a story not being “good” should not be “Oh I will just make up some quotes and exciting elements to add to the story.” There is always a story that no one else has written or discovered, it is just your job to reveal it.

A Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson won for her compelling story titled “The Manful LIfe of Nicholas, 10”. To obtain the information from this story she had to spend time with him on a daily basis. Wilkerson was  really trying to put herself in Nicholas’ “shoes.” While working with a child, it is very important to really understand them. She did this by simply speaking and understanding Nicholas and his actions. She was very careful in her understanding of this young boy because most 10 year-olds will tell you anything that you would like to hear.

Isabel Wilkerson. Photo courtesy of www.journalism.emory.edu.
Isabel Wilkerson. Photo courtesy of http://www.journalism.emory.edu.

Wilkerson explains that it is difficult to make the interviewee feel comfortable just because you are a “journalist,” so it is important to help them feel comfortable. She says, “We must learn the subtle rules and hierarchy of the world we have stepped into, adjusting ourselves to it and finding a place in it by responding in natural and human ways,” overall, just act helpful, concerned, attentive, and reasonable when around the subjects being interviewed. Put yourself in their shoes, and be open to them.

It is not that in every story you have to try to help the subject in your story, it is that you need to portray the truth. Knowledge is power and getting knowledge out to your readers is your main target. Wilkerson also says, “It is not our primary job to help the people in our stories, but there is nothing wrong with showing our humanity and lending a hand where apropriate.”
It is very difficult to obtain consent from your subjects because they could potentially have their name out in the public’s eye, which could cause embarassment. The best way to get consent, which is very important, is to tell them flat out how the story may effect them publicly. If they agree then you are off to a good start, if not then try to find another source or another story within the story. Tracy Kidder, a journalist and Pulitzer-prize winner, said he tells his subjects “I can’t pay you for this (information). This has to be something you’re doing of your own free will.”
Honesty is the most important idea that you need to convey when writing as a journalist. Remember that to be a good journalist it takes an honest journalist, and with this in mind you will succeed. It is very important to get to know who you are writing about so do research until you feel that you can not find anything else that would make your story more honest.
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