Reporters and public agree on ethics

Responses to the May 19 ethics quiz trickled in from Daily readers and flooded in from the Daily newsroom. The comments provide myriad opinions about news gathering and the news media, indicating that although reporters and readers might ultimately make different choices, the processes by which they reach their decisions are mindful of more than simply getting the story. This is not to say that readers and reporters always agree. There were some striking differences between responses. For example, readers were much more likely to choose one option unanimously, while reporters never chose unanimously.
Another of the interesting differences between readers and Daily staff was an apparent eagerness on the part of journalists to write, often voluminously, about their decision-making process. The inquisitive journalists also wanted more information on each hypothetical situation and were reluctant to choose options without knowing all the facts — a good instinct for reporters.
Some reader responses were particularly revealing as well. One reader supplemented her choices with her thoughts about the news media, including her dismay at seeing more and more personal opinions creeping into news stories and the passing off of gossip as news.
Presented below are the completely unscientific results of the ethics quiz and some comments from people who expanded on the original choices.
When should a reporter get involved?
A reporter is doing a major story on drug-addicted mothers and their children. While gathering information, the reporter meets one child who is suffering terrible neglect at the hands of a mother overwhelmed by her need for drugs. The reporter fears the child is in danger. The story will not be published for several weeks.
Your options:
A. Inform child welfare authorities immediately.
B. Tell no one until you publish the story in a few weeks.
C. Publish a smaller story about the neglect case immediately.
Readers unanimously chose option A. Approximately half of the Daily staff members chose A as well, with the remainder split evenly between B, C and their own solutions.
Several journalists expressed their thoughts on the presumed conflict between being a good journalist and being a good person. One respondent who chose A wrote, “It’s one thing to ask a reporter covering a relief mission to not participate in the mission’s relief efforts. It is another to ask a reporter’s silence when lives are in danger. A reporter who witnesses a crash ought to call 911 first, her editor second.”

Asking for trouble?
A young man is savagely beaten with a baseball bat after a party. Five fellow high school students are arrested. Police portray the beating as a vicious, random attack by a group of young men who are known as bullies.
A reporter interviews other students at the high school about the victim and the suspects. More than 20 students confirm that the suspects are known as bullies and have hurt other students in past. The reporter explains to the students that there could be ramifications to having their names published with their comments, but some say they are willing to be quoted by name. You, the editor, believe the reporter has fairly explained the situation to the young people, but you wonder if their comments won’t make them targets for the bullies or their friends. Everyone involved is either 16 or 17 years old.
Your options:
A. Quote the students by name.
B. Leave out the names but use the comments.
C. Quote the police, but don’t use the students’ comments at all.
Readers were again unanimous, choosing option B. A slight majority of the Daily staff chose A, with B coming in a close second. Considering that Daily policy is to avoid anonymous sources whenever possible, this result was not surprising. But some reporters grappled with this scenario. One wrote, “The teens are not yet adults, so are not responsible decision makers. A reporter is an adult, so it would be irresponsible to print the names and put the children in danger.”

Identification of suspects
A house near campus is the target of a police raid. Police find stolen goods, drugs and weapons at the scene, and take two people into custody.
You have a reporter and photographer on the scene and can get the story in the next morning’s edition if you push the deadline back. Your photographer brings you two photos, one which is a somewhat blurred shot of the house surrounded by police cars. The other photo is of the two suspects, their faces in full view, being escorted to police cars. By deadline the police have still not filed formal charges against the two, but they tell you they expect to soon.
Your options:
A. Publish the story, including the names of the suspects and publish the photo showing their faces.
B. Publish the story without using the suspects’ names, but publish the photo of the suspects.
C. Publish the story without using the suspects’ names and use the photo of the house.
Readers and Daily staff generally agreed that the ethical choice was C. One reader, however, based her decision on the fear that publishing the suspects’ identities might endanger prosecution.

A question of taste
A college newspaper runs an advice column to which readers write with questions about sex. The author writes a column on a specific sexual practice, using graphic language that describes the sex act. As editor, you think the column is informative but worry that it might offend some readers.
Your options:
A. Run the column as written. It is factually accurate and the language, while graphic, is not titillating.
B. Tell the columnist to rewrite it, using more euphemistic language.
C. Tell the columnist to write about a different, less explicit topic.
Most readers chose A, and one explained his decision by citing the college audience and the lack of prurient intent. He added, “If some readers are offended, there is a possibility that a really fruitful discussion could develop.”
Two readers said they would print the column as written, but thought a warning at the beginning might be a good idea.
Daily staff members chose A overwhelmingly, although one newsroom respondent disagreed, writing that a college newspaper should stay away from the Penthouse Forum format.
Most responses from the newsroom were similar to the one that read, “A newspaper reports the facts. We, as journalists, do not beat around the bush or sugarcoat difficult topics. The same goes for columnists — especially those who educate.”

The answers provided by readers show journalists that their audience truly does care about the decisions made at the Daily. Readers, on the other hand, should be pleased to know that young reporters take great care in making decisions that affect the lives of others.
I hope this exercise was as thought-provoking for readers as it seemed to be for the Daily newsroom. Thanks to all the newsroom staff and Daily readers who participated, and I urge you to continue the discussions which may have been sparked by the quiz.

Melodie Bahan’s column appears on alternate Mondays. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.