A Reporter Discovers the Pain of Being Ethical

By Casey Bukro

It’s hard to be good and ethical. Sometimes it comes at a cost.

Amelia Pang, metro reporter for Epoch Times in New York, discovered this when she called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists in 2012 and asked a question that AdviceLine gets sometimes:

When calling a news source, is it necessary for reporter to admit to being a reporter? That is, not say that she is a reporter, unless asked?

It is a question that arises among young reporters, those learning the ropes or those who work for organizations without printed standards or spelled out ethical guidelines that can leave a reporter wondering what to do.

In Pang’s case, she called AdviceLine on advice from a colleague.

“I am doing an article about a controversial homeless shelter in New York City,” Pang told AdviceLine adviser Hugh Miller, an assistant professor of philosophy who teaches ethics at Loyola University Chicago.

“The shelter is located in a very rich area, therefore many residents have been quite unhappy about it. The shelter has received a lot of bad press since they opened last year, and now they are reluctant to talk to any media.”

The New York Post, for example, wrote about the controversy at the time over a 12-story structure built by the Bowery Residents Committee for the homeless in Chelsea, one of Manhattan’s swankiest neighborhoods.

As the Post reported it: the facility “will expertly deliver 200 homeless men with histories of mental illness, up to 32 people experiencing ‘chemical dependency crisis’ and up to 96 more assorted homeless men and women.”

Pang went on to tell Miller: “I have tried to contact the shelter a dozen times, but have not succeeded in getting a call back. My article is following up on how the shelter has been doing after opening for some time, and how the community has changed their view of the shelter.

“All I want to ask them are very basic questions about how their programs work, and how many people have moved on to permanent housing since they opened. Would it be unethical to call and not disclose that I am press? I do not have the intention of sensationalizing; in fact, my intention is to do the opposite of what other media have been doing. Are there legal issues involved if I talk to them without disclosing I am part of the press?”

Miller’s answer was short and direct: “Don’t. It would be unethical.”

Journalists, who routinely disclose the corruption and dishonesty of public officials and others, should not be dishonest. They must conduct themselves with the same high standards they expect of others.

In an exchange of emails, Pang said AdviceLine was helpful and that she followed our advice.

“Indeed I did,” she wrote. “It reassured me that I needed to be ethical even if it means getting a lesser story.”

Ah, that was the painful part for a reporter who wanted more details for a more complete story. She wanted to do what reporters must do, get the facts. But she was blocked by people who are afraid to talk to reporters. And she was trying to find a way around the roadblock, but ended up frustrated because she had to admit to being a reporter.

Author Harry Stein, in his 1982 book, “Ethics (and Other Liabilities): Trying to live right in an amoral world,” acknowledged the frustrations with trying to be good.

In a chapter titled “the curse of right and wrong,” Stein writes that those of us who try to abide by the principles of dignity and decency “invariably pay a price for our high-mindedness. This is a fact we find as endlessly baffling as it is painful.”

But for journalists, being high-minded is necessary. It leads to trust and credibility, both traits that are needed as American journalism struggles to rebuild itself in a digital world.

As for the Chelsea homeless shelter, Pang reports that “the community has learned to accept it.”

The Epoch Times, said Pang, is the first free press for China with a major presence in the U.S. “Our focus is on bringing uncensored news in and out of China. The English edition is more of a general newspaper though.”

The Epoch Times also is an example of the diversity in American journalism that did not exist years ago. It is an anti-communist, multilanguage, international media organization. Publishing since 2000, it is headquartered in New York City and communicates in 21 languages on the Internet. It has editions in English, Chinese and nine other languages in print. It is sold or distributed in 35 countries.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says: “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

It is an acknowledgment that sometimes nondisclosure might be necessary in extreme cases in the public interest. Routine stories such as the kind Pang was working on do not qualify for such extraordinary measures.

From a reporting standpoint, it should be said that there is more than one way to get information than a telephone. Pang could have gone to the homeless shelter and tried to interview officials or residents there. It would have been more difficult to ignore her that way. Skilled reporters often find they can discover just as much, or more,  from old-fashioned shoe leather reporting than from surreptitious methods.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters like Seymour Hersh are famous for their dogged determination in fact-finding, and sometimes that’s what it takes. Along the way he develops valuable and trusted contacts willing to give him information. Hersh won the 1970 Pulitzer for uncovering the My Lai massacre by U.S. Army troops in Vietnam.

But in fairness, superstars like Hersh might spend days, weeks, months and years covering a story. All reporters don’t have that luxury, and telephones can be used ethically in reporting.

Today, as In the past, many journeymen journalists toil at their desks, using telephones to cover multiple stories each day, meeting multiple deadlines.

Some things never change.

 

 

 

 

 

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