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Toeing the Line

Posted At: April 22, 2013 2:35 p.m.
by Jessica Ruffin

A young blonde woman stares off in another direction, her clothes torn and her skin covered in gashes. Her surroundings reflect chaos and tragedy, the ground overtaken by puddles of blood and debris.  This picture from the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon has become “iconic,” according to the New York Daily News, and has appeared in papers all across the nation.

However, before publishing that picture, the Boston Globe photographer who shot it had to consider the following: Is it ethical?

In this case, the picture was deemed ethical and there was not a controversy surrounding it. But what about the other pictures from that day? Were they deemed unethical and not published? Or were they published and met with public outrage? Alabama Assistant Professor of Journalism Dr. Chris Roberts believes those are crucial questions journalists must think about when such situations arise.

The difficult ethical issues in journalism and other areas of communication are not black and white. According to Roberts, the controversial issues are an entirely different color.

“When we think about ethics and if we should or should not do something, we’re thinking about a technicolor gray,” Roberts said.

Roberts said that issues that are “black and white,” such as plagiarism, are the easy ethical decisions for communicators. Journalists know that taking the words of others and claiming them as their own is wrong. However, the ethical dilemmas that journalists struggle with go far beyond right and wrong.

The social impact

Social media has grown drastically in its usage over the past several years and has transformed into a source for breaking news. Roberts said that the increasing prevalence of social media has sometimes allowed ethics to battle with breaking a story as quickly as possible.

“The question becomes, do we start reporting a rumor that we’re not quite sure we’ve got nailed down?” Roberts said. “The biggest fundamental change in your lifetime and my lifetime as a journalist is from [the news] coming out once a day – when we could make our decisions and live with them – to having a deadline every minute.”

Because communicators primarily use Facebook and Twitter to break news to the public, this use has created a public expectation of up-to-the-minute news. People constantly want to know what is going on, especially in the midst of a tragedy or major event, and Roberts said it has led journalists to work much faster.

“When I was a newspaper guy, I would go to a meeting at 10 in the morning and the paper wouldn’t publish until the next afternoon – literally 24 hours after the meeting started,” Roberts said. “Now, reporters are at that meeting and they’re sending blog updates and sending tweets as it is live.

“And what that means is that you’ve got to make some decisions on the front end about what you’re going to do and not do because you don’t have nearly as much time to make decisions.”

The hastening of decision-making in order to “break a story” first can lead to inaccurate information, which may cause rumors to spread. However, sometimes it is necessary to take a risk in the publication of certain information. Sue Hale, who serves as the media consultant for Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, said that sometimes the news media are forced to report findings that they’re not certain are 100 percent accurate.

“In the Boston marathon bombing that happened yesterday, there were numbers all over the place,” Hale said. “People were rushing to get online and on T.V. as quickly as they could. So obviously, even the law enforcement people didn’t have accurate numbers.”

Hale went on to explain that although publishing any available information in a crisis situation is important, journalists still need to be wary. On April 17, several major news outlets reported that police had arrested a suspect in the Boston bombings. This statement turned out to be false, causing an uproar on social media.

“We’ve always had a competitive spirit [as journalists],” Hale said. “But the key to me is not letting that be ahead of what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Making an ethical decision

Journalists do have a duty to report facts that the public has a right to know as accurately as possible – however, where is the line of being a good journalist and being unethical? Roberts is not sure.

He cites Doing Ethics in Media, a textbook co-written by himself and Jay Black, as a explanation of how communicators can make an ethical decision.

“What we try to do is help you try to work your way through the process of figuring out what the real ethical issue is,” said Roberts.

He also said that the book describes a method called “the W’s and H list,” which includes the following six questions that communicators should ask themselves when faced with an ethical dilemma:

• What’s your problem?
• Why not follow the rules?
• Who wins, who loses?
• Who’s whispering in your ear?
• How’s your decision going to look?

The third question, “Who wins, who loses?” is one of the primary questions that PR practitioners should ask themselves, according to Roberts. It deals with loyalty and to whom the communicator is loyal in his practices.

“If you’re a public relations practitioner, you say you’re loyal to your client, but when it boils down to gravy, are you really loyal to the person who’s paying your bill or are you loyal to the public?” Roberts asked.

Journalists may also struggle with this question when considering whether or not to publish information of public importance that has been labeled as “off-the-record.” Do they publish the information that they feel the public has a right to know and “burn” their source? Or do they remain loyal to their source and keep the information to themselves?

A Transparent Field 

One of the other questions that Roberts answers in his book is “What’s it worth?”. Roberts said that this question focuses primarily on values and what the communicator’s highest priorities are.

“You think about all the things that are important to you in life and you determine which of those matters when you shuffle it down, because ultimately what matters to us determines how we act,” Roberts said. “If I know how you’re spending your time and I can see your checkbook, I can tell you what’s important to you in life.”

For Hale, integrity and honesty are values that she considers to be the most important for a journalist.

“I used to say that people either have integrity or they don’t.” Hale said. “To me, that means you’re either ethical or you’re not.”

Remembering one’s values in the field of communication is crucial because if a journalist makes a mistake, the world knows about it.

“We are in a business where everybody’s looking at what we do,” Roberts said. “Everybody wants to come over the hill and shoot the wounded when it’s over, talking about whether or not we did the right thing. And there are not many lines of work where that happens.”


  1. Post comment

    A very good read. I was just having a conversation with a friend yesterday about these exact ethical issues that journalists face during times of tragedy. This 24-hour news cycle that we have now is sort of a double edge sword. On one hand, it helped because everyone could load their videos and pictures onto the web and instantly FBI and police could sort through it for evidence, but on the other hand they have 24 hours of material to come up with. This can lead to them just spouting off any information they have received, whether its a rumor or not. There is only so much these reporters and journalists can talk about and when they have to report live and fill up so much space, unethical decisions are bound to happen.


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