By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
The Indiana host and producer of a radio show was half-way through recording an interview with a man who photographs abandoned buildings when the photographer said he did not want to be identified in the interview.
The interview had been going on for eight minutes; the photographer knew he was being recorded for radio. He described how he trespasses with the intent of supporting historical preservation.
This posed a dilemma for the radio host, a common dilemma when people being interviewed suddenly get cold feet or did not understand the ground rules for most interviews, which usually means being identified.
The radio host called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, seeking advice on whether to air the interview with the photographer identified, not identified or simply ditching the entire interview.
AdviceLine advisor David Craig started by emphasizing the importance of telling the truth, and relevance of principles spelled out in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.
The radio producer explained that the photographer is one of many people involved in a broader issue in Evansville, Indiana, related to the decay of old buildings, historic preservation and new development.
“Related to minimizing harm,” said the advisor, “she said a lot of police listen to the program and she would feel terrible to put this man in jail (for trespassing) when he is trying to do what he sees as good in the community.
“As for accountability and transparency, she was concerned about letting him be anonymous because of the credibility questions this might create with listeners if they were not transparent about his identity.”
Craig pointed to a model of ethical decision-making in which one question is whether there is an alternative course of action that won’t raise ethical issues. Given that the photographer’s actions connect with broader issues in the community and he is not the only one working for historic preservation and community development, the advisor and the radio producer agreed that a broader story on the topic could be developed, possibly with multiple identified sources instead of airing this story based on a single anonymous person or with identification.
To this discussion could be added the importance of stating the ground rules for an interview at the beginning, including identifying the person being interviewed. If there is any disagreement about this, it should be discussed before the interview starts.
In the Evansville case, it was clear that many people were involved in the preservation campaign. The radio producer could decide whether to proceed with an interview on an anonymous basis if that person was important to the story, or to skip it and find others to interview who would agree to be identified.
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.
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