By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
Journalists often become experts on the topics they cover, their in-depth knowledge and experience recognized.
For that reason, journalists are asked to testify on cases in court or at hearings. But should they?
That was the ethics dilemma faced by a journalist in New Mexico. A bill before the state legislature would redact from all public records the names of all victims of stalking and rape.
Request to testify
A lawyer opposing the proposed legislation asked a newspaper reporter to testify at a committee hearing, giving a journalist’s reasons for opposing it and for the sake of informing the public of such crimes.
“My question is whether I should do this and thereby become part of the news myself,” said the reporter, who called AdviceLine for guidance. Her editor said there was value in doing it, not only as a journalist but as an articulate woman since most of the victims of stalking and rape are women. It was not clear if her editor offered an opinion on testifying.
Before calling AdviceLine, the journalist examined the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, and concluded that passage of the proposed law might cause more harm than her becoming part of the story she was covering. Still, she wrestled with the dilemma and called AdviceLine.
“I asked her to clarify what harm passage of this legislation would cause,” said the AdviceLine advisor. She answered that, under such a law, it would be impossible for reporters to verify claims of rape or stalking. Correct reporting of such events, even if names are omitted, depends on verifying such claims. The result, she said, would be that the public would not have correct and verified information about the prevalence of such crimes, which is important for the public to know.
The journalist and the advisor also discussed the possibility that, when her testimony becomes news, her impartiality as a journalist might be questioned by the public and by the committee that heard her testimony. She might be seen as an advocate for one side rather than an impartial expert witness.
“I then asked whether she saw any alternatives to what the lawyer was proposing, other than refusing to testify,” said the AdviceLine advisor. One alternative would be to coach the lawyer on views that might be expressed by a journalist. Another possible alternative would be to testify as a representative of a journalism organization, not as an individual journalist expressing her personal opinions.
The journalist did not make a final decision while talking to the advisor, but favored acting as a member of a journalism organization. If that failed, she indicated, she would refuse to testify because of the hazards to her credibility.
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.