Every newspaper is in possession of material that is both printable and unprintable-In an ethical sense. And the problems of deciding
what should and what should not be printed are a constant moral dilemma for the editor and the reporter. Not all news stories fit conveniently into a “print” or “do not print” category. In a moral or
. ethical sense, many fall somewhere in that gray area in between. In such cases, most newsmen have considerable difficulty in knowing not only what to say but how to say it and when
For example, one of the state’s top elected officials has been accused of accepting cash gifts and stock in a business firm apparently in exchange for his ability to influence the awarding of state contracts. As a reporter begins to investigate the case, he le~ that the elected official has a serious drinking problem and has, on numerous occasions, been unfaithful to his wife to the point of establishing a costly second home for one of his paramours. What has the latter to do with his obvious conflict of Interest-chis influence peddling? And should it be a part of the reporter’s story when it is finally-printed?
Without attempting to solve this particular problem (and it is not entirely imaginary), one can, recognize in it the moral difficulties involved in much news reporting. On the one hand is the public interest, and on the other are special private interests. Where these two are clearly conceived, the newspaper’s policy may influence its decisions and establish its course of action. However, where certain larger issues of ethics and policy are concerned, .newspapers frequently are influenced’ by public opinion. For example, whether newspapers should publish more, or less, crime news, whether they should lead or follow their public whether they should be more or .s free in their criticism of public men and ethical questions must be determined ultimately by public – opinion. Most newspapers attempt to be responsive to the opinion of their readers in these areas. While members of a news staff can and sometimes do influence a newspaper’s ethical or moral standards, the reporter’s principal concern should be his own professional code of ethics
Relation to Public The reporter cannot ignore the fact that the public welfare may be involved in much that he writes, His writing is addressed to the P\!bli~.~In.many cases, his writing is the only–or chief-source .that the public (individually or collectively) has for information ‘needed to solve its problems. This responsibility makes careless, slipshod, inaccurate or biased reporting inexcusable. One of the major criticisms of the press– one that often creates a credibility problem-Is that “the press is biased.” Often what is mistaken as bias on the part of the reader is careless, inaccurate reporting by the writer -. Of course, the reporter cannot be expected to be free of mistakes in judgment. He will face situations in which he must make decisions on what, and how, and when and how much of his information he should reveal. His own conscience must guide him. But if he has taken .’ the trouble to develop a sufficient background of information so that his thinking is thoroughly enlightened, he should be able to make sound and unbiased judgments when the public welfare is his objective
Relatio’;’ to Newspaper. Most newspapers are genuinely concerned about their reputation for fairness and accuracy. They want the respect of their readers and insist that the reporter perform his duty with truth and the public welfare as his objective. However, some publishers, in pursuit of a policy– frequently social and economic as well as political–may expect much more or much less than the plain unvarnished truth as the reporter sees it. In some instances, too, a change in ownership may cause a newspaper to reverse a policy, political or other. The choice for the reporter will be extremely difficult if he is instructed by his editor to twist the truth in a story. Three possible courses seem to be open to him. He ~ay refuse to alter his own principles and resign. He may accept the assignment and salvage his self-respect as best he can. Or he may attempt to work out with the employer an agreement for his own integrity and independence. There can be no doubt that the first and third choices are strictly ethical–and should be profitable in the long
run–in self-respect if not in money
Relations to News Sources. The reporter’s access to news sources is one of his chief professional assets. These sources must be carefully cultivated, and it is obvious that they must be honourably maintained and respected. On the other hand, a reporter must not become a “captive” of his sources and work as their personal spokesman. Sources often attempt to use their close relationship with a reporter to control the news in some fashion. On the basis of self-interest and professional interest, to say nothing of the basis of honour, the reporter cannot divulge secrets or betray confidences. Of course, if ordered to do so by a judge, he may face the dilemma of revealing a confidence or going to jail. Sometimes it is wise for a reporter not to accept some of these socalled confidences, for the same information may be obtainable from other sources. The intelligent reporter should have little difficulty in managing the ethics of this situation if he is continually aware of the problem. He should have a clear understanding with every person he’ deals with. When confronted with such common admonitions as “get this on the front page,” or “let me check your story,” he must explain that his editor, not he, must make these decisions. lIe can promise not to quote direct language and not to reveal where he obtained the information, but he should be very cautious, indeed, about promising not to use materials in any way. He should respect release dates. He should protect innocent persons from false inference, but he cannot promise to abandon his pursuit of news so long as that news is in the public interest. A reporter should be constantly aware of the fact that many of his sources, particularly in the area of politics, will be attempting to use him to their advantage in their efforts to colour the news.
Accurancy As a Protection. The best protection against bias in reporting is the indefatigable pursuit of fact and the careful checking of all facts. It has often been said that the three cardinal rules of journalism are accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. As long as the reporter presents the news as it actually occurs, without any ideological shading or emotional colouring, he is performing his duty professionally
Of course, this will not make the reporter or his newspaper immune to resentment or attack. A large proportion of the news will be injurious to someone or some cause (or will be thought so by the individuals involved). The more important the revelation, the more resistance there is, usually, to the reporting of it. (Certain technical problems of privileged and nonprivileged documents will be examined presently.) Every reporter should remember that in many cases-especially in the area of public affairs-even the most recalcitrant news source often is dependent upon the media for his public image. But a reporter should never use that as a lever in his relationship with news sources. In general, he should depend upon a sound reputation for accurate, professional reporting to overcome resistance, solve problems and open many doors to the sources of news
Importance of Authoritative News Sources. The careful use of authority in the news is an important meum of solving certain ethical problems for the reporter. It is unnecessary and usually unwise for the reporter to assume responsibility for the facts of his story. Occasionally he is an eyewitness. Frequently he is an interpreter. Always he is a reporter, however, and by attributing his materials to their proper sources he clearly reveals the bases for his story. Naturally he should know his sources well enough to know if they are trustworthy as well as authoritative, and he should use extreme caution-make every additional check possible on the information given-when he is dealing with an unfamiliar source. Even if he must conceal the individual whom he would like to quote, he can imply, if not the authority, at least the authenticity” of his data. (Some newspapers require reporters to verify information with two or more sources if the original source insists on remaining anonymous.) Despite precautions taken to cite authority and to confirm or verify the information with additional sources, the reporter must occasionally face the mate problem of libel.