Two topics I’ve had in the back of my mind are worth pulling out now. Both are timely for the end of the year.
First, though, a look back.
The Ethics Committee hears from people inside and outside journalism throughout the year.
Some merely vent, usually about a publication or journalist they see as biased. They wonder if we can investigate. I tell them it’s beyond the committee’s mission and means.
Other questions are intriguing and provocative, and spark interesting discussions by e-mail among committee members.
Here is a sample of unusual inquiries within the past year; maybe they’ll get you talking, too.
• A newspaper editor told a public relations representative that the paper wouldn’t publish press releases from groups that charge for services, including nonprofit organizations, unless they advertise in the paper. Is that proper?
• Should a TV news reporter be chastised for not using a wind guard on the microphone while covering a hurricane, creating louder-sounding wind? The supposition was that the move was intentional to ratchet up fear of and interest in the severe weather.
• What are the ethical considerations of withholding a source’s name within a news organization? An editor asked a reporter for the source’s name but might have been inclined to pass the name to someone in government who probably shouldn’t know.
• Is it necessary to get the consent of parents for a feature photo of children in a public area?
• Is it fair for a newspaper, in its campaign coverage, to report on police calls about the public disturbances allegedly caused by a candidate who has a mental illness?
• While covering an event for a publication as a freelancer, what notes or material can be used to sell a piece on the same event to a second publication?
• Are observations made while working at a home for the elderly and disabled fair game when writing a piece later on? Do the families of the deceased have to give permission for the observer to write about them?
• Can a reporter attend a seminar and later write a story about it without telling the organizers he’s a journalist?
• Should journalists, though the Freedom of Information process, file for copies of public-information requests made by reporters they’re competing against?
Now, back to December.
A few years ago, I covered an annual event in which Santa Claus rode through the neighborhood of a local town on the back of a fire truck.
I watched for a little while to get color for my story. I also hustled up to the truck at one point to get the name of the man in the Santa suit.
Later, in the newsroom, some of us debated how we should cover Santa. Should he be presented in print simply as “Santa Claus”? Would it shatter any young children’s beliefs if we added the name of the portrayer?
I was on the other side of the debate. I said that the person playing Santa often is part of the story; it’s not the newspaper’s job to perpetuate a myth if it means getting in the way of the truth.
Then again, how significant of a “truth” is the portrayer’s name?
This was hardly a new issue, but we probably had never talked about the protocol.
Asked for a ruling, the executive editor at the time decided we would name the Santa portrayer only if the context made it clear that he really wasn’t Santa — for example, he was on a motorcycle, which happens a lot in our area but isn’t part of the Santa legend.
The fire truck ride, my editor said, was a time when children wouldn’t expect to think Santa really was aboard.
I prefer a more uniform approach. We should never push the make-believe with our readers, which means also not starting stories about emergency drills as if the disaster scenarios really happened.
A few months ago, I got an e-mail from Terry Cecil, the president and CEO of the International Sponsor Council, who complained that journalists and news organizations frequently omit sponsors’ names when writing about NCAA football bowl games.
I’ve covered many events in which sponsors might get a brief mention, or might not, depending on their significance to the event and the space I have to write my story.
But, for bowl games, it’s different. The sponsor’s name might be part of the name of the game.
The official logo says FedEx Orange Bowl, but even the NCAA shortens the name to Orange Bowl.
l verified that at www.ncaafootball.com (click on “Bowls”) — where I looked at the list and checked it twice.