No Shortage of Ethical Issues Around Here

Posted on January 20, 2013


When our school director asked me to teach Media Law and Ethics this semester, I thought, “That could be interesting.” I had taken the media law course twice–as an undergraduate at Temple University and as a graduate student at Ohio State, and as a journalist for more than 20 years, I had faced my fair share of ethical conundrums, and had learned from each one of them.

One of the class goals was to present for them a weekly Ethical Challenge, whereby they would be faced with an ethical issues from the real world, and have to talk out what thy would do and why they would do it. I had a whole list put together of potential topics–Stephen Glass style fabrication to the News of the World phone hacking to accepting gifts in the newsroom to taking nude princess pictures.

What I did not count on was the explosion of ethical challenges–some would say screw ups–that would confront us seemingly every day from the news itself.

  • Sandy Hook’s quantity and quality of misinformation. Check.
  • Publishing names and addresses of gun permit holders. Got it.
  • Running a cover shot of a man seconds away from being killed by a subway. Got that one, too.
  • The ongoing saga of Manti Te’o and the why-the-hell-didn’t-Sports Illustrated-realize-that-not-being-able-to-find-a-single-person-who-had-met-his-“girlfriend”-is-a-huge-problem conundrum that shows confirming your reporting is just as important as the reporting itself. That was a good one.

The semester is not even a month old, and the news media has been the gift that keeps on giving.

Ethics are funny things, as they change through time and space and situations. What was unacceptable 20, 30, 40  years ago may be common place today. And the reasons why journalists do what they do–even under the best of circumstances or with the best of intentions is sometimes hard for non-reporters to digest.

My class is a mix of journalism and non-journalism majors, and I can tell the non-reporters among them waver between fascination and disgust with the issues we have discussed.

05_082054--480x180Last week’s discussion of R. Umar Abbasi Post photo centered around if–and when–an ethical collapse occurred:

  1. Was it with the shooting of the image?
  2. Was it when Abbasi sold it to the Post?
  3. Was it the Post buying it?
  4. Was it the Post running the photo at all?
  5. Was it putting it on the cover with the headline, “Doomed.”

Many of the non-journalists said the photo should not have been taken. Save the man or spend those precious seconds it took to frame and take that image trying to save him.

And I’m not sure what they thought of me when I shared with them that when I was in Hawaii on my honeymoon and a naked man jumped off a building about 20 feet away from us, landing with slick and sickening thud that silenced that October night, my first move was to grab my camera and take a photo. That’s what journalists do–we record the news.

Admittedly, there was nothing I could do to save him, but putting that viewfinder up to my eye was as much an involuntary action as breathing.

The journalism majors were thinking along those lines. They felt the ethics didn’t break down until the photo hit the Post cover. There was, for just about everyone I overheard discussing it our class groups, no excuse for running that image that publicly and with that headline.

I hope they remember their convictions, and the logic they use for justifying those convictions, when they are on deadline or faced with declining circulation numbers, or simply trying to give the public they serve what it needs and what it wants.

There is no telling what ethical scenarios the next 13 weeks will bring. I only hope the reporters, editors and publishing our future fodder for ethical discussion are as thoughtful in their deliberations as my students.

If you want to learn more about Media Law and Ethics at The Ohio State University, please check us out at iTunes U and on Facebook.


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