We have a great post by SPJ member Abigail Hofrichter about accountability and ethical questions brought up recently in journalism.
Before we get too far into our new year, I thought I’d look back on some interesting conflicts in journalism that will hopefully help pave the way for 2013. The later months of 2012 were buzzing with issues regarding freedom of press.
The Leveson Inquiry in Britain lead to talks about regulating media. It began after reporters at the News of the World were found to be hacking phones of private citizens and celebrities to obtain their voicemails. The paper folded soon after the scandal. The first part of the Inquiry’s ruling calls for the press to create a regulatory body to maintain industry standards; however this body should be comprised mostly of people not associated with the media. Many journalists expressed dissatisfaction with the Inquiry, claiming not only will it hamper Britain’s independence but it would also be ineffective. Even the New York Times had something to say; an editorial in late November expressed their dissatisfaction with the ruling in the case. The author notes that “press independence is as essential a bulwark of political liberty in Britain as it is everywhere.” Many feel the government intrusion is wrong and the British press should be free to function like the American press.
Press freedom and issues of privacy were called to the forefront of many American debates after the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy. Television journalists and media crews swept onto school grounds on the day of the shooting, pointing cameras at children and interviewing them without their parents present. Many Americans were outraged, repulsed by the apparent insensitivity. Some believed it crass to ask children to recount the incident. However, it forces the question: Would it be better to deliver a story that lacks the facts and details that were available? Outlets such as NBC and CNN were hounded for interviewing students, but would they have been hounded just the same if they had opted not to? It is a difficult decision to make as a journalist whose job is to obtain the facts. There is no book of rules that explains how to handle every situation, when to ask questions, who to ask them from, or the consequences for doing so.
Whether it is a perceived ethical code or government regulation in question, other increasingly difficult questions also come to light. Is it possible to regulate press in the digital era? When Twitter, Facebook, and blogging are so instantaneous and accessible, does the responsibility of the press change? How? When one looks at the Leveson situation, more press regulation seems like a dangerous line that could easily cross into censorship. Ultimately it is up to the audience to decide what medium they trust and whether blog post A or blog post B is true, but as journalists it is our responsibility to provide the facts in a responsible manner. In a situation like Sandy Hook, anyone could go ask a student what happened with video camera in hand, and without a reputation to uphold, it would probably be much easier to avoid the consequences. Would we rather sensitive situations be handled by respected professionals who are held to an ethical code of conduct by their peers and employers or by “citizen journalists” with less of a stake in the outcome?
For more information on the above cases, check out: