Week 1 – Ethics Questions

1. Should reporters tell interviewees all the ways the interview may be used?

Sometimes it is difficult to tell an interviewee exactly how an interview will be used because sometimes the journalist conducting the interview will not even be completely sure. A journalist may inform the interviewee that the interview will be used in a particular way, but when the reporter listens back to the recording or reflects on their notes they may discover new, original content that they hadn’t anticipated before. Therefore, they may then decide to use this information in a completely different way as the new content they have discovered is more newsworthy. Whether the interviewee wanted this content to be the focus of the publication or not, it is sometimes difficult for reporters to know how the interview will be used until they have actually thoroughly reflected on it.

The public interest is an extremely important factor when attempting to answer this question. For example, interviewing someone who is refusing to give too much away may give the journalist a dilemma as to how to retrieve any newsworthy information. It may be the case that the reporter has to deceive the interviewee in order to gain their confidence so that they will then reveal more information. However, behaviour of this kind is only acceptable in the correct circumstances. If a reporter used deception to simply uncover basic information about an individual’s private life, this would understandably be morally and ethically questionable. According to Chris Frost (2010), “it would be an abuse of trust to trick an interviewee into revelations they had not intended – unless the story is important.” In addition to this, John Wilson (1996) claims the good of the public comes before the good of journalism, suggesting that the interests of the interviewee should come first.

According to ethical codes, a reporter should be honest and fair and inform the interviewee how the interview may be used. However, a journalist also has a duty to the public to report the truth and uncover deception and if that means not telling an interviewee exactly how the interview will be used then sometimes that has to be accepted.

References

Frost, C., 2010. Reporting for journalists. Second edition. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Wilson, J., 1996. Understanding journalism: A guide to issues. London: Routledge.

2. How should we handle the biases of sources and avoid skewing the range of viewpoints?

One of the most difficult tasks for journalists is differentiating between facts on a subject and personal opinion. In order to handle the biases of sources, reporters and media organisations must carry out thorough research before publishing any material, and any potential bias included in an article must be counteracted by the opposite opinion in order to create a balanced story.

Dennis M. Wilkins (2001) argues that “evidence consists of information from sources whose reliability often is dependent solely on their availability. That information may be verified, but only in the sense of obtaining independent verification that what the first source said is correct, not necessarily that it is true or valid.” What is being suggested here is that the information a journalist is given may not actually be correct and that you always have to be aware that what you are being told may be biased towards a particular issue. In order to make sure an article or publication has equal balance you must always retrieve facts and statistics from official sources.

In recent times research has indicated that biased sources lose all objectivity of the publications that they are included in, which suggests that a balanced story and the verification of sources is important to the reader. It has also been argued that some media outlets don’t even check the bias of their sources, which may indicate that reporters are sometimes happy to damage the objectivity of their story for the impact of the facts and the false information included in it.

However, Matt Carlson (2011) argues that reporters are not blind to the motivations of their sources. He suggests that reporters hold a varying level of trust in what their sources tell them and believes that all journalists want to be able to hold an objective view towards issues. This seems to suggest that media organisations want to prioritise giving their audiences the official facts instead of a prejudiced account from an interviewee. Carlson believes that a good journalist would be able to tell the difference between the truth and an exaggerated story. Having said this, it is still up to the individual reporter to decide whether they want to balance out the source with an opposing opinion or leave it as it is, because sometimes the story will be stronger from a single viewpoint in order to target a particular audience. However, even if the publication is biased in any way, it is still crucial to make sure that the information being provided is correct.

References

Franklin, B. and Carlson, M., 2011. Journalists, Sources, and Credibility: New Perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Skinner, D., Gasher, M. and Compton, J., 2001. Putting theory to practice: A critical approach to journalism studies. California: Sage.

3. What do fairness and balance mean in the journalistic context?

In journalism fairness means exploring all sides of an issue and reporting the findings accurately. Reporters covering a story must remember that there are usually two sides to most issues and that these differing viewpoints should both be represented. Although the journalist who is writing the story may have strong opinions about the particular subject, they must make sure that the people they interview have opposing views and that their finished article conveys both arguments in a neutral language. Norman Isaacs (1975) reiterated this attitude, expressing how absolute fairness is a journalist’s responsibility to the public.

It is essential for journalists to think carefully about the language and tone they use when writing an article because otherwise it is easy to give an inaccurate and unfair representation of the facts. The main job of a reporter is to inform the public debate, not manipulate it. In terms of fairness, a journalist should have no motivation other than presenting sourced and verified information.

Although fairness and balance seem fairly similar, balance means fair representation where each side gets exactly the same amount of space on the page. If there is a voice of dissent or assent, they deserve to be represented equally. However, balancing a story takes time and careful consideration. For example, views and opinions from people who are poorly informed on a topic doesn’t serve to inform anyone. A journalist’s responsibility also involves interviewing people who are knowledgeable in the field that they are investigating and who can legitimately discuss the issues at hand.

However, many journalism students are not taught well enough about applying fairness and balance in their articles, according to Fishman (1980) and Tuchman (1978). “Students are taught a way of seeing and presenting the world without fully understanding the reasons why they are employing a particular method or the impact that the tools they utilize have on the depictions they render.” This suggests that students often allow the facts to shape an entire article without necessarily thinking about the impact they could have in terms of potentially creating a one-sided argument.

References

Isaacs, N., 1975. Journalism’s Ethics: 1975-2000. Social Responsibility: Journalism, Law, Medicine [online], 1, 7-21.

Skinner, D., Gasher, M. and Compton, J., 2001. Putting theory to practice: A critical approach to journalism studies. California: Sage.

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