Ethics in writing: where is the line in the sand?
Isaac, a high school senior, was dying of leukemia. He wished, with all of his heart, to survive long enough to graduate. I learned about Isaac when my newspaper editor called me and said that I needed to be at the football field where his graduation ceremony was to take place. If Isaac was released from the hospital for the ceremony, I was to walk with him, up to the podium, as he got his diploma – and then talk to him as we strolled, capturing his thoughts.
I was taken aback by this assignment. Normally, I covered school board or city council meetings, or profiled someone local with an intriguing hobby. But, this? This didn’t feel right. “What,” I asked my editor, “if he doesn’t want me to?”
“Do it, anyhow,” she says. “This is an important local story.”
I was startled by the response, especially since my editor was a caring woman, but I nevertheless went to the high school field. I can’t say that I’m especially proud of that decision, but I didn’t debate with the editor any more than the question listed above. I was only working part time, so that I could spend time with my young children, and I needed the income from the newspaper. But, still. This just didn’t sit right.
When I arrived, the seniors were lined up in formation to receive their diplomas, a time that is normally awash with excitement. As I walked past them, though, I heard more than one of them ask another, “Do you see Isaac? Why isn’t he here yet? Do you think he’ll make it?” I could literally feel the tension, a feeling that was relieved only when I heard their voice start to buzz, and then swell, with these words: “Look. It’s Isaac! It’s Isaac! He made it.”
I turned to look at Isaac and, for the first time in my life, I understood what the phrase “deathly pale” really meant. He was bleached of color and, I realized, also blind, perhaps from his medications, perhaps from his disease. I now felt even worse about my assignment.
I stood by the sidelines while teachers and classmates alike greeted him – and then I approached him. I didn’t know what I was going to say but the words that I blurted out sounded something like this: “My name is Kelly and I’m a reporter. If you’d rather not say something that could be reported, don’t say it in front of me. My editor wants me to walk with you as you get your diploma. If you want me to, it would be a privilege. If you don’t, I’ll walk away right now.”
Isaac immediately responded that he’d love the chance to talk about his feelings and so I proceeded with working on the story, my ethical dilemma instantly dissolved. If he’d said no, though, I was prepared to head home and deal with the editor as best I could.
Yes. It’s always a rush to “get the story” but ethical considerations should always win out.
In the early days of search engine optimization (SEO), when content was largely promotional and/or didn’t need to be significantly in depth to make an impact, more journalistic pieces of writing weren’t often part of the mix of online content. But, in today’s world, top quality content is one key component of online success and that means relying upon longstanding journalism techniques.
Whether you specifically identify yourself as a journalist or not, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has created an excellent code of ethics that can help. The preamble reads as follows:
Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.
The four components of the code of journalistic ethics are:
- Seek truth and report it: Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
- Minimize harm: Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
- Act independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.
- Be accountable: Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
Each of these tenets has bullet points beneath it and each is worth a thoughtful read. My decision about Isaac would fall under two bullet points found under “minimize harm”:
- Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
- Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
This code of ethics was created in 1996 and a committee has recently formed to revise and update them. Find out more about the process and take a look at the revisions made as a first (not final) draft.
In this month’s issue of Quill, the official SPJ publication, President David Cuillier asked another journalist/scholar why he focused his life’s work on ethics. Patrick Lee Plaisance replied, “It’s all that matters.”
Cuillier was initially startled, but he then agreed, writing, “If the best journalists in the world lack credibility then they are nothing. All we have is our credibility. We aren’t granted ‘journalist’ status by earning a certain college degree or being issued a government license. We earn it by reporting responsibly.”
He suggests that each journalist also create his or her own creed of ethics, writing down important values.
Here are other codes of ethics for groups of writers, including an interesting discussion about whether or not ethical considerations are or should be different for writers who publish online, rather than in print.
What about you? Have you ever been in a situation where you felt uncomfortable, ethically speaking, about something you were supposed to write? How did you handle the situation?
If you create marketing copy for clients and also write journalistic copy, how do you make sure that the two don’t blur together inappropriately? What challenges have you faced in that task?