In June, weekly newspaper editors from around the world visited The Mountain Eagle in Kentucky, a paper known for its plucky pursuit of truth in coal-mining territory. I heard Editor Ben Gish recall a police officer intentionally burning down the newspaper office many years ago.
At the intersection of technology and journalism, there’s a debate about fairness, privacy and punishment. Because of the Internet, news about arrests of people in many of our local communities is permanently and easily available online. Some people object that stories or cop-log briefs about arrests pop up during Google searches, years after the cases were resolved and the offenders tried to move on.
I love connections. A friend and I regularly trade “Six Degrees” stories about who we just met and how they fit into some other facet of our lives, through channels we wouldn’t have predicted. Professionally, though, I’m leery of having ties to people, places or events in my community.
The New York Times is accustomed to controversy and criticism for its high-profile journalistic decisions. Recently, in a peculiar turn of events, the newspaper was targeted for saying and doing nothing. As best as I could tell, the Times was not to blame for the frenzied rumors swirling around the capitol in Albany, N.Y.
When the SPJ Ethics Committee started a blog, and we wanted a catchy name, I suggested “Canon Fodder.” Others on the committee correctly rejected that idea. The double meaning didn’t work. We didn’t want anyone confusing the rules governing other professions with the principles guiding journalism.
Jeremiah Charles Overbaugh met the woman he’d marry while inspecting chickens at a hatchery. As a single parent, Marlene Plant got her driver’s license when she was in her 40s and later beat cancer. Ann Mary Roberts had six best friends: her dogs Quigley, Sadie and Shamrock and her cats Hootie, Miss Kitty and Sweetie Man.
The photo ran on the front page, above the fold. Several government officials were lined up; one smiled and held oversized scissors, about to cut a ribbon. President Barack Obama, also grinning, was tucked into the group. One of my co-workers saw the front page and the picture in a vending box, briefly frozen by our competitor’s prominent scoop.
I’m stuck on the word “friend.” Friends get together to see movies, talk about their families, maybe swap secrets. The people we cover should not be our friends. If they are, we shouldn’t cover them. Sixteen years ago, my closest friend, Melissa Hale-Spencer, with whom I worked at a weekly newspaper in upstate New York, wrote a piece that stuck with me.
I remember a writing coach mocking what a typical reporter might consider a successful morning. If the reporter came to work and the telephone message light wasn’t on — no angry callers — the story he wrote the day before must have been a success.
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.
“When your sources are wrong, then you are wrong.” Judith Miller used that phrase to defend her off-the-mark reporting with The New York Times on weapons of mass destruction. It wasn’t her fault, said Miller, who became a symbol for a press that, in retrospect, didn’t press hard enough for answers as the U.S.
So many calls to the SPJ Ethics Hotline are questions on deadline, and we’re always happy to help. Then came a request from Ohio, where Stephanie Calondis Geiger of the Columbus Council on World Affairs was teaching journalism to 60 teenagers.
August 1st, 2008 • Quill Archives
Ethics: Fundamentals should still apply, even in digital age
These days I’m several ounces heavier as I travel to my reporting assignments. That’s because of the Flip video camera in my breast pocket. It’s a little bigger than a credit card. Its stature in my newsroom, though, is large. After a gradual start about a year ago, video has become part of our daily routine.
It’s the shortest line of guidance in the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Never plagiarize.” There’s no need to say more, one of my editors has said, referring to my newsroom’s similarly concise ethics code. Journalists should know plagiarism is a cardinal sin.
“Fatal leap takes a life that excelled” The headline covered a story about a 17-year-old track and field star who killed himself by leaping off a highway bridge. The story conveyed grief, uncertainty and the horror of motorists trying to persuade the boy not to jump.
A few months ago, Christine Tatum, SPJ’s president at the time, wrote a column about examples of questionable journalism ethics (www.spj.org/rrr.asp?ref=77&t=ethics). Her column was based on a running list that, at her suggestion, she and I kept throughout the year. Producing a top 10 list of ethical misdeeds would have been tricky, and probably unfair, so the examples instead illustrate categories of problems: political activism, overly cozy journalist/source relationships, plagiarism and others.
For years, I carried a list in my wallet of great journalism movies, courtesy of one of my college professors. It was wonderfully helpful whenever I needed a recommendation at the video store. The list is gone, but my affection for films about the news business, and how they let us examine and enjoy our craft from afar, is ingrained.
On a summer trip to Maine, I took in the standard (lobster, shopping at an outlet store) and the unusual (a Federal Communications Commission hearing), which shows you how warped my sense of vacation is. The FCC public hearing on “localism” was a coincidence: I noticed a public service announcement in the Portland Press Herald two days before the hearing.
Last year, I covered a community’s frantic search for a 7-year-old girl who slipped out of her home and wandered away. Scores of volunteers and police officers, along with tracking dogs and a police helicopter, looked everywhere. After several hours, a neighbor discovered the girl in his home when he walked inside.
We in journalism need to listen more often to voices such as Roberta Roper’s. She and her husband, Vincent, didn’t seek to become news figures. It happened, though, when their 22-year-old daughter, Stephanie, was raped, tortured and murdered in 1982. Every day, devastated families are thrust into the news because of tragedies.
For journalists, the opportunities for freebies are plentiful and tempting. Hors d’oeuvres are within reach at catered functions. A source wants to break the ice by buying us a drink. That new book on sale? Go ahead and take one, the author says; share it with your colleagues.
My first live encounter with the SPJ Ethics Committee turned into a test of ethics. I joined SPJ in 2002, but, living 70 miles from the closest active chapter, it took me a while to make much of a connection. On a whim, with a sense of exploration, I went to the national convention in Tampa in 2003.