By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
Keeping control of an interview is one of a journalist’s basic jobs.
That might sound easy, but it can be difficult if the ground rules are not spelled out in advance so both the journalist and the person being interviewed know what to expect.
This was the key issue in a 2018 call to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists from a magazine editor in New Zealand.
Making ethical decisions in journalism can be difficult. That’s why the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, founded in 2001, exists. It serves as a sounding board for journalists who want to do the right thing, but are not always sure how to do that. Written reports are kept on every inquiry.
Audio recording and notes
“I conducted an interview with an individual who knew that an audio recording was being made, in addition to my note-taking,” said the editor. “I wrote up the article and gave him the opportunity fact-check it. He removed several key statements because he said that they could result in him losing his job. At no point did he say that I had misquoted him or taken his comments out of context, merely that the statements were controversial.
“The comments he made on tape are an accurate representation of his actual feelings, but I know for a fact that he tells different things to different people in order to ingratiate himself with them. Am I required to run his approved version of the article, or can I run my original? Am I permitted to let anyone else listen to the taped conversation? It’s a dilemma which is weighing pretty heavy on my mind, so I’d really appreciate any advice you can offer.”
The call-taker in this case was David Ozar, who taught ethics at Loyola University Chicago, and was professor of social and professional ethics in the Department of Philosophy.
“There are a bunch of professional ethical issues here,” Ozar wrote in an email to the editor. For starters, he suggested consulting the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, where “you might find a number of them referred to and advice offered.”
A mutual understanding
“My first thought is that it does not sound like you and the interviewees had a clear mutual understanding of what was going on. He clearly did not expect you to publish what you heard, but only what he accepted for publication. So the SPJ’s advice to ‘be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises you make’ is relevant. If you were to reveal his actual words without informing him, you would almost certainly be violating the unstated agreement he though you and he were making. So there is an ethical question whether the shortfall in the agreement was yours or his, and my instinct is that it was yours for not making your intentions clearer.
“So I think you need to inform him of the problem and get his OK to publish what he said rather than the redacted version he provided. If he fails to agree and you want to publish (or otherwise take that information beyond just you and him by showing it to someone else), the only exception to doing what he asks that I can think of is identified in this advice from SPJ: ‘Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.’ That is, you have to determine if acting surreptitiously (by publishing what he has not in confidence (said) to you and has not approved being published) involves information vital to the public, and ‘vital’ is a pretty strong criterion.
“And even if you do that, your report would need to say that you were publishing this against the will of the person being quoted. Those are my first thoughts, but obviously I don’t know any more about the situation than you left in your brief message online. I would be happy to chat more by email if I have missed anything important about the situation. Let me know if that is the case.”
The New Zealand editor responded by email, saying: “Thank you so much for replying to my query. I certainly appreciate your insights and the additional resources, and will be sure to bear these pointers in mind in the future. His ‘approved’ version of the content is the one which went to print. It felt like the morally appropriate thing to do.”
This case demonstrates the type of ethical issues confronting professional journalists, and what the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists does to help them.
From a journalist’s perspective, showing a story to a source before it is published carries risks. Before doing so, it would be wise to stress that you want to check facts, or the accuracy of specific descriptions or explanations. It is not an open invitation to rewrite the story as the source might have written it. Another way to do this would be to read back to the source a sentence or paragraph of the story that the journalist wants fact-checked. This keeps the focus on what you want fact-checked. Otherwise, when confronted with their own candid words, sources sometimes decide they want to put their own spin on the story to sound smarter, diplomatic, funnier or politically correct.
AdviceLine is a free service, staffed by four university professors who are experts in ethics. AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what to do, but engage them in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in the case, leading journalists to reach decisions based on best journalism ethics practices.
AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Our aim is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that:
*Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.
*Take account of the perspectives of all the parties involved in the situation.
*Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.
Put yourself in our shoes. What advice would you have given to the New Zealand editor? Was there a better way to answer her dilemma? You be the ethicist. What ethics resources would you cite to answer her query?
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.