A Beginner’s Mistake

By Casey Bukro

A certain kind of ethics trap awaits many journalists, if they have not blundered into it already in their careers.

It starts with somebody warning the media in advance that he will do something life-threatening, and inviting coverage of the event.

Sometimes the media responds by saying, “let’s see if he does it,” without giving it further thought.

The Global Times reported such as case, in which a South Korean man jumped off a bridge after announcing the day before that he planned to do that. A South Korean TV station sent a crew to the scene, according to the Global Times, and recorded the man’s leap. As of recent reports, his body had not been recovered.

Then, as often happens, journalists are asked why they did not try to stop the man. Failure to do so is punishable by up to 10 years in jail, under South Korean law. Reporters said they arrived at the scene too late to stop the man, and that they had earlier reported the man’s threat to police.

Sometimes reporters will say they do not want to interfere with a story. Sometimes they say they had no reason to believe the man would carry out his threat. Sometimes they want the drama to play out so they can get a story, although they might never admit that.

But when the worst happens, attention turns to the conduct of the media and the logical question — why didn’t they try to prevent harm?

As a result, journalists are seen as heartless and cruel. And they are left with trying to explain what they did or did not do. Anyone caught in this kind of dilemma knows how it feels to be caught in a sudden inquisition. It’s a mistake you don’t make twice.

About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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