Firing of WSJ reporter reminder of need for more ethics training in student journalism

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal fired a reporter who violated the company’s policies by engaging in a business deal with a source he was assigned to cover. The reporter’s action constituted a conflict on interest, whereby he engaged in conduct that might compromise (or give the perception thereof) his ability to act as an independent source of information for his audience.

His greatest allegiance might not have been to the truth, but rather to making the subject of the story look good to enhance the business deal he allegedly entered into.

As a profession, we’ve chosen to adhere to certain standards and values to ensure our primary obligation is to seeking the truth in all instances, not to our own personal gain or biases. And sometimes, that’s tougher to do than it would seem. Journalists are human themselves. They have opinions, perspectives and beliefs that shape their view of the world, just like everyone else.

Yet, the ethical demands of the profession to independently seek the truth mandate they find ways to insulate themselves from allowing those biases to affect their job. This includes maintaining some distance from the sources they cover. Journalists–and the organizations that employ them–must grapple with tough questions like whether journalists should be involved in political activity or openly advocate for one side in a public conflict or controversy.

And how does this play out in scholastic journalism? In a school environment–a seeming microcosm of society–everyone is much closer, and roles tend to blend together. Students, for their own development, need to be involved in school life, clubs and sports. But how do we put up sufficient barriers to ensure stories are receiving proper coverage? Is it enough to insist that a member of a given club or sport not be assigned to cover those activities? Or are there additional considerations to make?

Ensuring that students understand conflicts of interest and how to avoid them is a paramount lesson for student journalists so they better understand the value of the truth. Any publication serious about developing its ethical fitness should understand what circumstances constitute conflicts of interest and invest the time in learning to avoid them.

As with all ethics training, it starts with a healthy dose of discussion to help students understand the gravity of this issue. Talk about case studies and stories that appear in the news. Use that dialogue to develop and refine a staff ethics policy so reporters know how to handle specific situations in which these issues might arise and also to drive discussion between editors and reporters.

Below are some resources to help drive the discussion:
Ethics code from NPR
Ethics code from RTDNA
Ethics code from SPJ
Case studies from the Center for Journalism Ethics (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Potential problem areas for conflicts of interest from NYU School of Journalism

 

 

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Altered yearbook photo sparks questions about truth in reporting

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Earlier this month, a New Jersey high school was in the headlines because several students reported that “pro-Donald Trump” logos on the shirts they wore when sitting for their school pictures were mysteriously absent from the photos printed in the yearbook.

The act raised quite a stir, and the yearbook faculty adviser was disciplined. According to news reports, students were not involved in editing the photos. The school will also issue re-printed books with the original photos. This story has highlighted a series of deep legal and ethical questions.

First, if the decision to alter the photos was made by school faculty, this is an overreach of authority and can constitute censorship. Faculty advisers (in this case, state actors) cannot arbitrarily stifle speech simply because they disagree with it, especially when students are engaging in speech that is deserving of the highest First Amendment protection (in this case, showing support for a candidate in an election). It should be noted that little to no reasoning has emerged publicly as to why the editing took place.

If it were made by students (though it doesn’t appear to be), then their decision-making power could be insulated from censorship concerns surrounding an abridgment of the students’ First Amendment rights. Students, as non-state actors, have wider latitude over editorial content.

But looking at this issue more broadly, it doesn’t matter who edited the photos or who made the decision to do so. This story raises ethical concerns that far outweigh the legal issues. First, no matter who made the decision, the most important question here is “What was their journalistic purpose?” Why would they choose to airbrush material from a photo?

Altering photos (i.e. altering the truth) is always of paramount concern. Changing the photos’ content changes the reality of the situation. The bottom line is that changing even small details like these in a photo creates a work of non-fiction, a paramount sin in the journalism world. Viewers trust that what they are seeing is the truth as it happened, not an interpretation that fits the photographer’s worldview.

Altered photos warp the sense of trust viewers place in what they are seeing. Yearbooks are a form of journalism. As such, they must operate under the principles of ethical decision making akin to all forms of journalism. Editing photos simply because one disagrees with a political statement is no more appropriate than removing cords or light fixtures to enhance the photo’s aesthetic appeal.