Journalism 101

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field producer: Behind-the-scenes television reporter who often does much of the field work for a network’s on-camera correspondents. News Reporting & Writing (Eighth Edition) by the Missouri Group. Copyright 2005. Reproduced by permission of Bedford/St. Martins.

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7 differences between laws and ethics

Laws say what we should do. Ethics suggest what we could do, helping us explore the options. Then we decide what to do. The goal in asking ethical questions before stories are published is to carefully consider the implications and consequences of a journalist's choices.

Ethics can be helpful in reporting sensitive or controversial issues. A staff working its way through a list of questions to make reasonable, ethical decisions can provoke many valuable comments, discussions and considerations.

Common ethical problems student journalists face:

  1. Conflict of interest: Examples include interviewing friends; only interviewing one grade or those with a specific point of view; covering clubs and teams that you are a member of, "getting even" with those who might have wronged you; doing anything that might compromise objectivity in the reporting of the truth.
  2. Plagiarism: Claiming others' work as one's own, essentially stealing from them. Students must credit other people's materials and ideas, including those published in newspapers, magazines and books. This includes "borrowing" or downloading visuals from the Internet to use without permission with stories.
  3. Anonymous/unnamed sources: Although reporters sometimes use anonymous sources, most news organizations have strict guidelines about when to use them. A reporter has to determine the information's value and whether is it possible to get it any other way. The reporter and editor also have to determine whether it is wise to protect the source from harm from being an identified source. A comment about the cafeteria's food should not be permitted to remain anonymous, for example. But a revelation about suffering childhood sexual abuse may be.
  4. Offending or distasteful content: Although it's sometimes impossible to publish a story without offending or displeasing someone, journalists must strive to keep the communications open and accessible to a wide range of views without stooping to gratuitous offense. While some use of "dirty" language might be necessary, journalists have to decide if there is another way to present the information or if the presentation will be so offensive it will preclude readers from getting the information. There is almost always a higher road to take.
  5. Invasion of privacy: While this is often a legal issue, it is also an ethical one. Reporters and editors must consider the consequences of publishing the outstanding news value photo or naming someone in an article.
  6. Bias: Human beings cannot be purely objective. The mere selection of one story over another raises the issue of value judgments. Those who create content must attempt to be as fair, impartial and transparent to the public as is possible. Every issue has more than one side, and all sides should be represented as much as possible.
  7. Commitment to accuracy: Little undermines integrity and credibility of news reports more than carelessness, errors or, in rare circumstances, deceit or not being transparent about how/why a story was done. Holding back a story until it is ready is better than publishing inaccurate information. The rush to be first – whether digital, online or in print – is no justification for not checking and double-checking data, information and sources.

Adapted from The Principal's Guide to Scholastic Journalism, by the Quill and Scroll Society.