Final Case Study: When Reporters Become Part of the Story

This ethical issue stemmed from an experience I personally had working as a reporter this semester. In one of my other classes, I was assigned to cover a community event for a video story and being interested in politics and in particular the election, I decided to follow the Harvard University Democrats as they held a canvassing/leafleting event one weekend to garner more attention for the four questions on this year’s Massachusetts ballot, particularly question 2 about charter schools. They were being joined by the organization “Save Our Public Schools” (No on Question 2). I already had a notion going in that I was going to try and downplay my role as a reporter and more so try to embed myself with the group, so that they would feel more comfortable being on camera and being filmed as they spread the word. This was why I elected not to bring a tripod for instance, because I knew a) it would restrict how much mobility the photographer and I would have when running around with the volunteers and b) it might scare away certain members from talking with me. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) however each person I asked to interview was decently open to talking on camera, with a mic and all. Only one person denied an interview and that was because she herself was a reporter for Harvard and had a strict policy against doing interviews for other schools. Some of the folks I interviewed also refused to give comments on certain questions, like who they were supporting in the presidential race because that information did not pertain to their current plan of advocacy on the ballot questions. Things were going fairly smoothly until the photographer and I asked to tag along with a member of Save Our Public Schools who was canvassing a Cambridge residential street (because it would provide great visuals). Canvassing involves an activist knocking on doors, having conversations with the residents on the issues, and in the event that the person is not there simply leaving a flier. The activist we followed, who I do not feel comfortable naming as such so I will simply call him Bob, had a list printed out of the names and addresses of the residents he was visiting along with their party registration and other pertinent information. We had already gotten a few quotes from him on camera and were tagging along behind, filming as he went up to doors and knocked and chatted with residents. About halfway through, Bob turned to me, handed me the list and told me to go knock on one apartment while he took another. I was completely taken back by this request, not having expected to be asked to canvass myself when I was in the role of a reporter. Along the way he had been telling us all about how he effectively canvassed and interacted with people, the codes they used to classify their interactions etc. and it occurred to me just then that he was giving us all this information with the apparent idea that he was training us to go out and canvass ourselves. I didn’t know what to say, and the photographer was similarly shocked – we must have had something akin to deer-in-headlights expressions because Bob assured us it would be easy, shoved the clipboard into my hands and then went down the street to his destination. So there I was, standing on someone’s property, trying to find their front door and internally panicking because I clearly could not do this as it would break my integrity as a passive observer of this story, but also wasn’t sure how to handle telling that to Bob who had been such a wonderful source and was giving us great material to work with. It ended up that we couldn’t even find the front door to the apartment and eventually he came back and took the clipboard when we said we weren’t able to find it. I told him then that we were on deadline and had to head back to Northeastern to start editing and the photographer and I exited quickly.

This experience really rattled me, because despite all the wealth of ethical knowledge I had already amassed in my previous work experience and in this class, I felt like in the heat of the moment I simply didn’t know how to handle the dilemma. Clearly the basic principles of reporting the truth and specifically getting the best scoop and access possible for this source were in direct tension with objectivity and remaining removed from the story. In this case, the principles of Golden Rule (treating the source with respect and wanting to befriend him) and deontology (following the general rules of ethical journalism) were clashing. If I didn’t go along with his proposition and knock on some doors, I was worried that it would sour the relationship with my source, and prevent me from collecting further b-roll from him. On the other hand, it’s an accepted rule that journalists should under only extremely rare circumstances actually insert themselves into the action and take part in the events they are covering (which is what I would presumably be doing by canvassing). It was by sheer luck that I was able to get out of the dilemma, but had the photographer and I been able to find the apartment, and the residents inside been home, chances are I might have in that moment decided to take a risk and just give them the information.

Looking at my personal ethics code, I can see that in particular rule #4 is highly applicable to this situation:

Objectivity is an ideal but rarely a possibility. Be fair, be honest, be balanced to an appropriate extent but understand that total neutrality is not always a good thing.

In this instance I was eschewing objectivity entirely, to the point where it almost compromised rule #1 part 1 which states:

Truthfulness/Honesty – This should be your first practice when it comes to reporting. Without truth, you cannot be successful in this line of work.

Would my reporting really be truthful and impartial if I had decided to partake in canvassing, or would that very act have inherently created a bias in my reporting? I would hold that it probably would not have affected my final product, but viewers of my story would also never know that I myself had dropped the hat of a reporter and actually become a symbolic member of “Save Our Public Schools” by helping their cause.

And it was certainly my audience who was the greatest stakeholder in this situation, as they stood to lose the most from my possible transgression. The audience most prominently consisted of my professor, but also included classmates and other persons who follow my class blog. None of them would know the lengths I took to get the footage they were watching, which seems to me that it would almost be like misinforming them or at the very least not being 100 percent transparent.

Examining Kovach and Rosenstiel’s 10 principles of journalism, I look to have violated the fourth tenet (“its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover”) in pursuit of the first tenet (“Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth”). Yet therein lies an interesting observation, because Kovach and Rosenstiel have chosen to put a journalist’s first obligation at finding the truth, and only after that do they consider the practice of independence. Would my choice to forgo independence in pursuit of the truth be condoned by their journalistic elements code? It’s certainly something to consider – is there a chance that what I did could be viewed as only partially unethical, but necessary for the story? We have talked a lot in class about various situations in which journalists have been forced to, or have elected to enter the situations which they were covering (war zones, stopping a suspect, saving a life). But obviously what I did does not really seem to hold with those cases, and I could fall into the trap of a false ethical dilemma whereby I believe that I am weighing the ethical values of truth and objectivity, but am really weighing a more non-ethical value of trying to get the best scoop for my class assignment and objectivity.

One of the best ways to think about an ethical issue is to consider whether there are more than just two answers to any given problem (the highly sought after ‘third option’). Sure I could have just said no to Bob, or in my case I could have decided to play along until an escape came. But would there be a possible third solution that could have protected my relationship with the source and also kept myself removed from the story? I don’t hold that there necessarily is, apart from simply not agreeing to go on the canvass at all, which would have cost me several good soundbytes and minutes of b-roll. Perhaps I could have pawned off the clipboard to the photographer, since she was technically not a part of the reporting team or a student in that class, but that would have been unfair to her.

The biggest problem with my dilemma is that I really did not engage in a critical thinking process, after which I would most likely have come to the conclusion not to agree to canvass. When weighing the notion of getting a better scoop and being compassionate towards my source, with my duty-based adherence to objectivity and truthful reporting on behalf of my audience, it seems clear that the risks outweighed the benefits and the correct decision ethically should have been to be upfront with Bob, tell him I was a reporter and could not help him canvass anymore, and then deal with any repercussions that arose. I would like to think that if I had been straight with him about my position, he would still have been happy to let me film because generally activists love to get their message out to the public, but I cannot say for sure that would be the case.

In that moment I was not able to methodically think through my decision and simply went with a gut reaction. From this situation I have learned a great deal about myself as a reporter and real life ethical issues. It is a cautionary tale for the future to always think proactively and in-depth about how the decisions you make can affect the integrity of your reporting.

Thoughts on Professor Dan Kennedy’s in-class residency

During the few weeks of this semester that our class got to spend with Professor Kennedy, we were exposed to a multitude of different ethical discussions and dilemmas, not the least of which was the 2016 presidential election. We discussed such interesting topics as social media and Facebook’s controversial news feed algorithms, relationships with public relations representatives and what is considered on and off the record and the ethical considerations of native advertising/sponsored content. But I wanted to focus on one particular topic to start that we discussed one day in class which was that of what exactly is considered newsworthy and what deserves to be published by major news organizations, versus what is not considered fit for publication.

Professor Kennedy explained one particular case about a rather salacious article that the now defunct Gawker magazine had written about a sex tape celebrity wrestler Hulk Hogan had made with Heather Clem (wife of a man that Professor Kennedy assured us was truly called ‘Bubba the Love Sponge’ legally) that they had received. By publishing the sex tape, Hogan alleged that the publication had constituted a major invasion of privacy, and set about suing Gawker Media for damages. He eventually won the lawsuit, but it was not without the backing of billionaire co-founder of PayPal Peter Thiel, who already had a bone to pick as it were with Gawker for publicly outing him as gay in their publication back in 2007. We discussed as a class the following ethical considerations:

  • Did the public have a right to see Hogan’s sex tape, or did he have valid grounds to sue for invasion of privacy?
  • Was Peter Thiel’s backing of the Gawker suit ethical since he did have a contentious relationship with the publication already?
  • Was this story even really newsworthy, or a matter of public concern?

It raised a lot of interesting points, because we seemed to be divided as a class on the third question in particular of whether Hogan’s celebrity status made his sex tape a matter of public concern, or whether it really did not make a difference to the public. We were also conflicted about Thiel’s involvement in the suit – I was ready to condemn his financial backing as pure vengeance, but Professor Kennedy aptly pointed out that what if Thiel had been financing another cause which was significantly more noble than protecting a celebrity wrestler? Was it simply the topic of the suit, or the plaintiff, that caused the media to so readily condemn Thiel for simply paying off the judicial process? After all, Kennedy noted that Gawker was not a saint in this situation – they have printed some pretty scandalous and sometimes downright deplorable articles in the past, and many more people than just Thiel had a right to be angry with Nick Denton’s publication.

Another intriguing and very current topic that we discussed in class one day was the Huntington News’ article about a student who had recently filed a lawsuit against the college for mishandling her sexual assault case. We discussed in-depth particularly the paper’s decision to not print the name of the accused rapist, who is still currently a student at this school. I initially leaned more towards the notion that printing his name, which was a matter of public record in the court documents, would be ethically sound and would help provide some support to the victim who alleged that she had received no justice from BPD, Northeastern University, OSCCR or anyone else thus far. But as we talked more about it, many students made very valid points about the fact that this student had never been charged by the police, had never gone to court or been on trial, and we would simply be taking the victim’s testimony as sole proof that he was the attacker. The paper did reach out to him for comment, which he declined to do but did request that his name not be printed – and the victim too did not demand that the paper print his name. To have printed his name with no concrete police evidence to support that he was involved in the attack would ruin his reputation and most likely his professional life going forward, and what if it was later discovered that he had nothing to do with the attack? As one student pointed out, he was not even involved in the current lawsuit the victim was filing. Here clearly the journalistic principles of compassion and truthful reporting were in tension with each other, and we felt as a class that the paper’s decision to lean more towards compassion was correct. I would now say that I agree with the line of thinking that the paper embraced in choosing to keep him unnamed, especially in light of the recent Rolling Stone lawsuit, because as we have seen it can prove dangerous to rely solely on the victim’s account without fact checking with other sources (discipline of verification).