Teaching the Agony of Ethical Dilemmas at DePaul

NBC 5 photo
Carol Marin in center of NBC 5 staff viewing the Laquan McDonald shooting video as it arrived before airing. (NBC 5 photo)

By Casey Bukro

“There is real agony to ethical dilemmas as we strive to be both competitive and excellent,” said Carol Marin, one of Chicago’s most respected journalists, as she launched DePaul University’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence.

Marin will be co-director of the new center with her longtime television producer, Don Moseley. Both recently won Peabody Awards for their coverage of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the third Peabody for Marin and the second for Moseley.

Marin and Moseley were among the speakers at a reception celebrating the launch. The new center is dedicated to turning students into investigative reporters who dig hard, but with compassion for those afflicted.

Journalists do not always recognize or honor that delicate balance. In her remarks, Marin cited the McDonald case as an example of how hard it was to strike that balance at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5.

“When the video of that night was finally released by the city under court order, we at NBC 5, from the president of the station all the way down to the working ranks of the newsroom, stood at the assignment desk together and watched it,” Marin said. “Saw the officer fire 16 shots. Saw an explosion of droplets fly out as the bullets hit. Saw Laquan McDonald spiral and fall to the ground.

“The pressure of being first to report is a real pressure,” she said. “But better to be late than be wrong.”

Marin described discussions about how much of that video should be shown, “given this was the first time his own family and friends would see it.” And given the station’s policy against showing someone dying on camera, and a standard of showing respect for the dead.

“Ultimately, we showed the officer, the shooting, not the highly graphic explosions of mist coming out of his body. And on reflection, later we also stopped short of showing him hit the ground, after Laquan McDonald’s uncle made a compelling case that they, the family, would time again witness his death.”

Were those decisions right? Marin said making the right ethical decisions can be agonizing in the heat of competition, while striving to excel.

Was NBC 5 late in airing the video while trying to make the right ethical decision?

“The short answer is no, we were not late in airing the video,” said Frank Whittaker, station manager and vice president of News for NBC 5 Chicago, in an email to AdviceLine. “The video was released at approximately 5:40 p.m. It was on our website almost immediately, and led our local 6 p.m. newscast (our network newscast airs from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.)

“Our journalist integrity is extremely important,” Whittaker continued, “and when it comes to sensitive issues (or in this case video), being accurate is of the utmost importance, too.” Whittaker noted that a photo showed reporters, producers and managers gathered at the assignment desk, watching the video as it was released, ready to decide what they would do.

“We quickly and collaboratively decided to air the full video, with the exception of a brief few seconds,” he said.

It showed that fast-acting journalists can and do decide complicated issues quickly when they know in advance where their ethical boundaries are.

Whittaker confirmed that it is a general policy at NBC 5 to avoid showing people getting killed on camera, out of respect for the dead and out of respect to viewers.

“The ethical debate in this case centered on deciding what was tasteful for our viewers versus the demand by many Chicagoans to learn what really happened that night on Pulaski Road. Video doesn’t lie. Any effort not to show the video, or delete portions of it, would be viewed as part of a continued cover-up. We showed the video, with a prior warning to our viewers and our website users.”

Robert Feder, a longtime Chicago media observer, said Chicago television stations aired the McDonald shooting video “as soon as they got their hands on it,” with some showing more restraint than others.

They showed the video “early and often,” he said, but he concluded it was “exemplary work all around.”

Carol Marin
Carol Marin announces opening of the Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence at DePaul University.  (Robert Feder photo)

Marin joined the DePaul faculty after leaving the Chicago Sun-Times, where she was a columnist for 11 years. She continues as political editor at WMAQ-Channel 5 and contributor to “Chicago Tonight” on public television WTTW-Channel 11.

The 2016 Peabody Award citation noted that WMAQ launched its probe into the McDonald investigation six months before a Chicago police officer was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting. Its investigation brought to light police procedural infractions, official disinformation and outright lies, and contributed to a police department shake-up.

In her Sun-Times farewell column, Marin called herself “a lucky news dame.”

As co-director of the new center, Marin said, “we plan to be a bridge for our students – mostly seniors and graduate students – from the classroom to the working newsrooms of this world. They will be assistant producers on stories we will broadcast.”

The plan also calls for expanding an existing intern program to help students find placements at newspapers, networks and websites, eventually leading to jobs.

The Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, DePaul’s president, welcomed the two journalists to the faculty and outlined his hopes for the new center in shaping the next generation of journalists and media professionals with the highest standards of ethics and quality.

In remarks at the reception, Rev. Holtschneider said: “I’ve worried for a long time that our students will enter our program seeing terrible journalism and accept that as how the profession operates. My hope is that our students will leave DePaul’s College of Communication knowing better.

“I want them to know that giving squabbling parties equal time is not the same as giving the public the truth. I want them to believe that it’s not enough to simply report assertions. Second and confirming sources are critical.

“I want them to spend a lifetime learning about the fields they are reporting. Substantive knowledge of a field matters. I hope they’ll spend their lives building credibility as well as sources. I pray they’ll become lifelong students of superb writing.”

It’s a gamble. Students these days will find themselves facing headwinds. DePaul is training students for an uncertain future in a retrenching industry that appears less driven by integrity and excellence. Finding jobs in journalism these days – print, broadcast and digital – is damned hard.

The Poynter Institute in 2015 reported that newspaper reporter was on a CareerCast.com list of endangered jobs. A Careeronestop report on the top 50 industries with declining employment listed newspaper publishers at fifth place, with employment expected to drop another 35 percent between 2014 and 2024.

The U.S. Labor Department tells a similar story. An occupational outlook for reporters, correspondents and broadcast news analysts shows the number of jobs in 2014 at 54,400. Between 2014 and 2024, the job outlook is expected to drop 9 percent by 4,800 jobs.

But life is hard. The best and the brightest usually succeed, and sometimes the luckiest.

Critics will carp that DePaul is preparing students for jobs that are not there or are vanishing. But when is the future predictable? It’s usually a mistake to assume the future will be what it is today. The smartest people in the world only 25 years ago failed to predict the life-changing rise of the Internet.

Every generation gets to create the future, guided by what they learn or invent. Journalism at its core has always been a gritty and messy business, with a fringe of idealism. Some journalism educators might see ethics as ephemeral, too hard to define and put into practice.

DePaul decided to accept that challenge and send forth ethical journalists into an uncertain future, not much different from seafarers who sailed into the unknown to seek their fortunes. It’s risky business. The meek sometimes don’t survive.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers,  submit a question.

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