Ethics in Journalism

It’s been an odd way to end the year, for sure. Several stories seem to be cropping up about now that call into question the standards and practices of journalism and what ethical lines are drawn in the profession. The very first job of a journalist is to inform the public of the truth. Truth is not subjective. Truth is not a point of view. It is a series of facts that, when woven together, explain a scenario. This is one of the initial things every journalist is taught: You must be objective and you must report all sides.

Jake Tapper, who is one of the last heroes of mine in my chosen profession, openly admits that the folks in the media do have a leftward lean because their experiences match up more with that philosophy. They rarely, if ever, had a job centered around manual labor, have largely never shot a gun and, I would guess, spend a lot more time studying situations rather than being a part of them. It is simply who they are.

However, there is a huge difference between being left of center personally and inserting that into your reporting. It is the latter that leaves so many between the coasts flabbergasted at the way stories, particularly on the non-local level (for example, state and national stories), are reported. Politics is a field of theory and opinion with a little actual work making laws tossed in.

Over time, the media has begun to fail to distinguish personal beliefs and professional work. I know what they are taught – I was taught it, too. I post here and I am very politically outspoken on Twitter, but the only bias in my professional life has been toward presenting both sides of a story.

So when the New York Times posts a story 16 months after the Benghazi attacks that is praised as the “definitive” story on the subject, and holes begin to appear immediately, the journalist’s first thought should be “What could have gone wrong?”

Notice the wording there. “Talking to the attackers.” The initial reaction the journalist should be to ask “What about the American forces on the ground?” For anyone seeking answers, in fact, that should be the initial reaction. But, the New York Times does not present this to us. And their report was immediately refuted by the people in charge of national intelligence – a top Republican and a top Democrat.

What’s more, the New York Times story, while it is a very good story, adds nothing overall to the original narrative. And the claim that they had someone on the ground the whole time, while not new by their admission, has certainly been glossed over until now.

There also comes the question of, if a journalist was talking to the attackers and saw what was going on, does the journalist have an obligation to help their fellow U.S. citizens? It is a very speculative question because the Times will not reveal that particular source/journalist. If it were an American, however, am I supposed to believe that the same left-leaning media that accuses those on the right of not caring enough would simply let a fellow American die?

What are the ethics on that? Mike Wallace, former 60 Minutes correspondent, would argue that the journalist’s job is to not get involved. Report the story. Don’t become it. But, Mr. Wallace, at what cost? It would take a considerable amount of dehumanization (the same dehumanization that, again, the left would tell me I’ve had to “not care about the poor/black/children”) to not want to help in some way.

Does the media, when a story breaks, have an obligation to drop details or ignore general responsibilities when it comes to breaking or ongoing news? Erick brought up an interesting point today while filling in for Herman Cain that tied directly into this discussion. The media is going out of its way to tell the story of this little girl and her family. She has been declared “legally dead” by California law, and the hospital she is at wishes to cut off her life support, though her family does not support it. A judge just today has extended the deadline, allowing the family more time to come up with alternatives.

Like Erick, I am in no way faulting the family for going to the media to tell their story. However, it is important to note that the media is prosecuting this hospital, which is only doing its job and beyond that, we can only speculate – the family has not given the hospital permission to release details! We are once again getting only half of the story. And the media is eager to play the hero and tell this little girl’s story at the expense of a hospital’s reputation.

Again, ethically-speaking, the media has a responsibility to tell all sides to a story, and present facts. The writing from almost every major outlet, however, has essentially declared the family right and the hospital an attempted murderer without all the facts out there.

There is, on a lighter note, one last discussion to be had about ethics in journalism: Journalists should not dress up as priests and visit patient rooms.