By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
A pandemic makes journalism ethics more important.
The truth is more important than ever as rumors and false information swirl.
That’s where making ethical decisions comes into play. It’s hard to do it alone. That’s why the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists exists. Call 866-DILEMMA or go to ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org. It’s a free service, staffed by four university professors who teach ethics.
AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what they should do. Instead, these trained advisors engage them in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in the case, leading journalists to reach decisions based on best journalism ethics practices. AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Our aim is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that:
*Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.
*Take account of the perspectives of all the parties involved in the situation.
*Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.
What sorts of issues come to AdviceLine? Nearly half of the ethical questions presented to AdviceLine concern conflicts of interest. The SPJ code of ethics tells journalists to “act independently,” but it is often difficult to know, when you are in the middle of a complicated situation, what is more compromising of journalistic independence and what is not.
So here’s a test, an ethics quiz, based on cases that came to AdviceLine. Journalists sheltering in place during the pandemic might welcome a chance to take an ethics break. You be the judge. What advice would you have given in these cases? On what would your advice be based? Put yourself in our shoes.
Case one: The news editor of a major metropolitan daily says the newspaper published a story about a woman who got into a conflict with security guards for riding topless on public transit. Her name ranks at the top of a Google hit list, and she wants her name removed from the story because it’s difficult to find a job.
Meanwhile, a California editor is getting requests to remove old stories from the paper’s website archives, or block them from Google’s search engine. The requests include a person who became divorced, a person convicted of a felony five years ago and a beauty shop that wants the name of a former beautician removed from an old story about the shop. Is there anything unethical about papers keeping electronic archives, or is there an ethical requirement to honor these requests?
Case two: The publisher of a countywide newspaper is a member of a local United Way board of directors. In an emergency meeting, the new United Way executive director revealed that the previous executive director failed to file the federal IRS forms for not-for-profits, resulting in a $20,000 fine, which could climb higher if the organization’s new executive director fails to file the forms within six weeks.
The publisher wanted to know if it would be unethical to refrain from reporting the United Way problems until the situation was fixed. The national United Way fund drive was under way at the time, and the local group feared donors would be less generous if they learned of the tax problems before it was fixed.
AdviceLine regularly gets calls asking if it is a conflict of interest for editors or publishers to join local civic groups or chambers of commerce.
Case three: Journalism sometimes is described as a sexy job, but there are limits. AdviceLine got a call from a California editor who said one of his reporters was having an affair with the mayor.
A Massachusetts reporter asked how soon she should tell her editor about a growing relationship with an attorney she met while covering court cases. And a Washington, D.C. editor proposed a rule forbidding his staff from dating any person who is a news source, or might become a news source. A reporter complained that would mean reporters could not date anyone, since anyone might become news. Is a rule against dating news sources going too far in the cause of ethics, or is it simply recognition that journalism requires higher standards? Or should journalists have a chance at romance like everyone else?
AdviceLine has gotten a number of calls on romance issues. It’s a hot topic. So in the interest of professional ethics, I’ll let the cat out of the bag on this one. AdviceLine advisors have answered this problem by saying journalists who are romantically involved with news sources could not be trusted to be impartial and neutral toward those news sources. Their partiality might harm the credibility of the newspaper or broadcasting company they work for. In one of the cases, an AdviceLine advisor said journalists should be forbidden to date sources, or if that is not possible, they should be removed from covering that source.
Do you agree? What’s your take on this one?
Case four: A group of environmental activists in the Phoenix area was setting fire to unoccupied houses under construction in a development near or on a nature preserve.
The activists sent a letter to a small newspaper offering to meet a reporter for an interview to explain the reasons for burning the houses. The editors pondered whether to give the letter to police, inform the police of the interview so the activists could be arrested, go ahead with an interview as requested and publish the story that explains the activists’ motives or do the interviews and publish all personal information gained from the activists and let police take it from there?
That’s a sample of what AdviceLine handles. It’s interesting work. Never dull.
Our mission is not only to help individual journalists reach informed ethical decisions, but to contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism – and to be an influential force in that effort.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.
Visit the Ethics AdviceLine blog for more.