Bad Ethics Advice

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Can a journalist go too far in trying to be ethical?

“Following the ethical rules I’ve believed in for decades are now making it almost impossible for me to do my job,” said a freelance photojournalist, who appealed to AdviceLine for guidance.

When she began her journalism career 30 years ago at a major metropolitan newspaper, “it was drilled into my head by an editor that we can’t support any causes.” As an example, the editor said, “If a Girl Scout comes to your door with a fundraiser, you can’t give them any money.”

As a result, said the photojournalist, “I stayed true to this for 30 years. I don’t sign any petitions. I don’t opinionate on Facebook, I don’t give money to any organizations or fundraisers.”

The photojournalist now runs an independent news site, where she takes a lot of photos for animal welfare stories. When organizations ask for permission to use one of her animal images in public relations campaigns, she refuses, “because ethically I believe I can’t accept their money.”

As a result, “my little news site makes no money.”

Conflict of interest

This is a case of conflict of interest, a very subtle issue that requires careful thinking, rather than a slogan.

The AdviceLine advisor said: “I pondered all this for several days, deciding whether to tell her she had been given and lived for 30-plus years with bad — because severely over-simplified — advice about conflicts of interest.”

It all comes back to that advice about Girl Scouts and cookies. The advisor could easily imagine an editor 30 years ago simplifying the ethics of conflicts of interest. Even with several revisions, the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”

“But I have been teaching that this way of stating how to respond ethically when interests conflict is mistaken because it oversimplifies things far too much. The problem is that everyone has conflicting interest all the time and simply saying ‘avoid them’ is not helpful. Anyone who works for pay or even pro bono but gets credit for it somehow, or just satisfaction, has an interest in the pay/credit/satisfaction as well as in doing the work according to relevant standards. We could not function if that were not true. So the idea of ‘simply avoiding’ is not helpful.

Real question

“The real question is to ask whether the ‘other interests’ are likely to outweigh, or are already doing so, the interests of the people we as professionals are supposed to be serving, which in journalism is our audience (readers, listeners and viewers). Is the ‘other interest’ likely to cause us to not serve them as well as we ought. For example, the reporter holds back facts that are really important to the readers and viewers because they will reflect badly on the reporter’s brother-in-law.” Or worse, is serving the “other interest” likely to harm those whom we as professionals serve?

“So, I fear you have been motivated by your editor back then to forego many situations in which you could very ethically have supported good causes.”

Buying Girl Scout cookies could be relevant if a reporter is reporting on the Girl Scouts.

See the editor

“If one’s reporting does not touch on something one has, as we all normally do, some interest in, then the chance of misleading the readers and viewers is, I think, almost non-existent. And when one is assigned a task that one does have a significant “other” interest in, ordinarily the resolution is to talk to the editor to see if someone else who does not have that interest can do the task.”

Yes, journalism is in the integrity business, and journalists should think about what readers and viewers will think about their actions.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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