Printing The Unprintable: A Question Of Ethics

Everyone has his or her own moral compass that points in a particular direction. It’s called into play whenever an ethical dilemma arises and we’re forced to decide either to stay on the right side of the moral fence – or cross over into the dark zone. In our normal lives, it’s hard to say how often that happens. But, in the world of journalism, it’s always an ongoing issue.

Several weeks ago, a university student who’s enrolled in a Masters of Journalism program interviewed me for an assignment he was working on. Specifically, I was asked to discuss an ethical dilemma I’ve had – and how I dealt with it. The more I thought about trying to pinpoint one specific incident, the more I realized that almost every single news story I work on contains at least one ethical quandary. That’s shocking to me.

As a reporter, I learn plenty of things that never make it into the stories I write – for a variety of reasons. The most common example is when a person tells me something “off the record.” Ethically, as soon as someone invokes those three words, nothing can be reported. But, as I explained to the student, when does that privilege end? Generally, those “off the record” comments are a sidebar to the main story. Therefore, once the interviewee finishes those comments, we should be back “on the record.”

However, how do you know when that actually happens? You can interrupt the person and say, “Are we back on the record now?” or you can make your own decision. I believe most reporters do the latter – but if you’re not 100% certain, you risk having the person confront you later angrily, saying, “I thought that was supposed to be off the record.”

Further to that point, what happens if you learn something “off the record” and use that information to try and get others to open up? Technically – and ethically – that’s forbidden territory. It’s like your best friend telling you a secret and making you swear not to tell anyone else. Most people’s moral compasses tell them not to do it – but some people don’t seem to have any problem breaking that confidence. I suspect many reporters do the same thing, although it wouldn’t be something I’d be comfortable with.

What about offhand remarks people make that they never expect to be quoted on? Unlike television where you’ve got a camera stuck in your face and tend to be more guarded in what you say, newspaper reporting is often more like having a conversation with someone. In many situations, people will reveal certain confidential information or make an off-the-cuff remark, perhaps one that is inflammatory, sarcastic, racist or in some way compromising, but without telling you it’s “off the record.”

How do you decide whether you should use the comment or not? I find journalists for larger newspapers often worry less about this dilemma than a small town reporter like me. They really don’t care much whether they embarrass someone they hardly know or make it so that person won’t talk to the media again. In the case of this newspaper, we interview the same people over and over again. We work and live in the communities we serve, so if we decide to “burn” someone, humiliate them or take their comments out of context, we likely won’t be able to continue doing our jobs effectively.

Does this mean we bury stories or don’t cover them accurately? I hope not. Instead, I think we find creative ways to get around the issue and tell the story in a fair and balanced way, without singling out a particular person and making them look bad. Most of the people we interview still trust us. They see us on the street regularly, so they assume we’re going to treat them fairly. If we don’t, we’re taking a huge gamble – and we better be prepared to suffer the consequences.

The question of ethics has so many facets, it’s impossible to cover them all. Our main goals as reporters should always be to cover stories fairly, accurately, and without bias. However, that’s rarely as easy as it sounds. Often, we’re just not able to get both sides to talk to us, especially if it involves the government or large corporations, both of who either don’t return calls or give you only the information they want you to have and avoid your other questions. So, we’re left trying to do a balanced story when all we have is one side. Are we ethically bound to try digging up information to counterbalance the story?

In the end, it all comes back to that moral compass. If you have a strong ethical guidance system that forces you to stay on the side of good at all times, that’s wonderful. However, it’s also probably not realistic. As a reporter, you can’t always write positively about all the issues and events you cover. You wouldn’t last long in this often-cynical business.

On the flipside, if your compass doesn’t work at all, you won’t last long either. Journalism doesn’t often rank very high on lists of the “Most Trusted Professions,” and we don’t do ourselves any favours when we start crossing questionable ethical lines. Moral dilemmas will always be a daily part of our jobs. The decisions we make reflect not only who we are, but how much we value our readers. In my case, I hope I’ll continue to make the morally correct decision whenever I’m forced to choose. As a loyal reader, you deserve nothing less.


One comment on “Printing The Unprintable: A Question Of Ethics

  1. Danny Bailey says:

    Off the record…. ” Very true…

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