By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
‘Tis the season for – among other things – generosity.
Appeals come from charities, emergency services, environment and animal welfare groups – like The Salvation Army, the Sierra Club, the Anti-Cruelty Society or Meals on Wheels, just to name a few among hundreds.
But should journalists contribute to them, especially if they write about such organizations? The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics warns journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”
A photojournalist contacted AdviceLine, saying “when I started as a freelance photojournalist for a major metro daily 30 years ago, it was drilled into my head by an editor that we can’t support any causes.” She quoted the editor, who said: “If a Girl Scout comes to your door with a fundraiser, you can’t give them any money.”
“I stayed true to this for 30 years,” said the photojournalist. “I don’t sign any petitions, I don’t opinionate on Facebook, I don’t give any money to any organizations or fundraisers.”
But she’s having some doubts after refusing to give one of her photos to a city animal shelter for a public information campaign warning people against locking pets in hot cars. “I’m not sure I did the right thing,” she said, especially since animal welfare advocates were “totally put off” by her refusal.
Can generosity be unethical? David Ozar, the AdviceLine ethics expert who took the query, admits he pondered the question for several days before contacting the photojournalist. Even ethics experts agonize over ethics.
“I can easily imagine an editor, especially 30 years ago, simplifying the ethics of conflicts of interest in the way he or she did back then,” said Ozar, acknowledging what the SPJ ethics code says. “But I have been teaching that this way of stating how to respond ethically when interests conflict is mistaken because it oversimplifies things far too much.
“The problem is that everyone has conflicting interests all the time and simply saying ‘avoid them’ is not helpful. Anyone who works for pay or even pro bono but gets credit for it somehow (or just satisfaction) has an interest in the pay/credit/satisfaction as well as in doing the work according to relevant standards. We could not function if that were not true. So the idea of ‘simply avoiding’ is not helpful.
“The real ethical question is to ask whether the ‘other interests’ are likely to outweigh (or are already doing so) the interests of the people we as professionals are supposed to be serving, which in journalism is our audience (readers, viewers, etc.). Is the ‘other interest’ likely to cause us to not serve them as well as we ought? For example, the reporter holds back facts that are really important to the readers/viewers because they will reflect badly on the reporter’s brother-in-law or, worse yet, is the ‘other interest’ those whom we as professionals serve” and might be harmed?
Ozar also suggests transparency allows journalists to support good causes by telling readers and viewers of a decision to support a cause, warning them “to be cautious about our professional judgments in such situations.”
“Buying Girl Scout cookies is, in my view, a very simple case in which, at most, transparency would be fully adequate ethically,” but relevant “only if you were reporting on the Girl Scouts.”
Ozar agrees journalists must avoid the appearance of impropriety, since “journalism is in the integrity business and things that might make reporters or their organizations or the journalism profession look biased, unfair, half-hearted about the truth, etc., are certainly things that need careful examination.”
Ozar does not stop there. Other questions for consideration are: What are readers/viewers likely to think about the matter? How likely are they to think negatively? And which readers/viewers are likely to think that way?
The public needs to know if journalists are acting without integrity, which is more important than the simple act of buying Girl Scout cookies.
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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