A look at journalism ethics

By on November 17, 2004

Two weeks ago, I attended the annual Associated Collegiate Press Convention in Nashville, Tenn., along with three of my colleagues at The Chronicle and students from other media organizations on campus.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended was one entitled, “Covering a Crisis: When is it News and When is it Over the Line?” It was conducted by Patricia Ferrier, a professor of communications at the University of Southern Indiana. The session was designed to focus on how to decide whether or not to print or show information about campus crime, a student’s death, a crisis, or controversy. Not only does this apply to campus newspapers, of course, but to the real world, as well.

Here’s an example: In 1993, Ferrier was working as the city editor of The Leaf-Chronicle – a daily newspaper in Clarksville, Tenn. Late one night, she approved a decision to run front-page photos the next day of a local soldier who had been taken hostage in Mogadishu along with a much larger one of an unidentified soldier being dragged through the streets there.

The backlash from the local community against the second photo especially was immediate and immense. Many readers were outraged that the newspaper would print such a large, gory photo right on the front page. Angry phone messages quickly filled Ferrier’s voice-mail, and the newspaper’s email server crashed under the weight of the nasty emails.

Some of the more loony readers threatened to bomb the newspaper staff’s cars, which led to police escorting staff to their cars at the end of the day.

After hearing this story, I knew that this subject of journalistic ethics needed some attention because it can obviously get to be a very personal and touchy subject. A lot of people don’t understand the very difficult decisions such as this that journalists and editors must make every day, keeping in mind their commitment to news but balancing that against the wishes of the audience. Staying with the Mogadishu example, there are two ways of approaching it.

Yes, the photo should run, because it’s news and it involves something that happened to local people. However, as was pointed out during the session, it might be a good idea to first check with the families and possibly include an explanation to that effect with the pictures. An explanation of the decision-making process that goes into any decision usually quells some of the reader outrage.

On the other hand, many people feel that a story can still be reported just as well without gruesome pictures accompanying it. This faction would likely not have run the photo even if the soldiers’ families had approved of it

There are broader journalistic considerations to take into account. Primarily, journalists are supposed to report the news as fairly as possible. If that means running a picture that might offend some people, I would tend to come down on the side in favor of running it. A good point made by a fellow student at the conference was this: Are people who object to controversial photos angry at the gore or angry at the truth?

A good example illustrating this point was the May beheading in Iraq of American contractor Nicholas Berg by Islamic terrorists. The animals who carried out this despicable act taped their work, but no major American media outlet printed pictures or showed the tape. I believe that was a case of running away from what was (and still is, in some cases) going on in Iraq. However, if the pictures were to be shown, there would need to have been warnings flying everywhere to give people ample time to change the channel or look somewhere else.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy offers a similar circumstance. To be blunt, his head was blown off. The videotape of that is constantly depicted in movies and on the news. There isn’t a similar level of outrage.

The point of all this is there’s a fine line between reporting and offending (going too far), but no journalist really knows what it is because it’s different for everyone, and readers also have differing opinions. Ferrier’s session brought this ethics issue to light for me, and it was just one of the things I took out of my time in Nashville.


About A. J. Atchue