Statement From [Former] SPJ Ethics Committee Chair Steve Geimann:
Radio and television stations learned again this week that the new technologies that have made our jobs easier, and provided almost instantaneous coverage of the news, also have made our jobs more complicated.
Cellular phones, lightweight cameras providing high resolution pictures and helicopters with aerial cameras made it extremely easy for Denver's TV stations to pounce on the developments at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. It also made it easy to forget that the job of journalists is to be accurate and balanced when covering stories, while minimizing potential harm to those involved in the story.
Wireless tools now used by almost 70 million Americans have made it easier to call in a story, or to reach people where news is happening. Smaller cameras have made it almost impossible for major stories to be without videos. But those tools, and our other technologies, must be used with care and good judgment.
Newsrooms, both broadcast and increasingly print, must exercise considerable caution during live coverage, or Internet coverage, of fast-moving events, such as hostage situations. Rushing to broadcast a breathless eyewitness onto the air during the event might put others lives in jeopardy, either the hostages or the authorities trying to defuse the difficult situation. Live interviews can encourage pranksters to influence coverage.
The pressures of live broadcast journalism, and even the demands of the new Internet, require professional journalists to ask a new series of questions before using raw material – video or audio or text – on the air. Will broadcasting or distributing the information, as it happens, add to the story at that moment, or does it endanger lives? Will the immediacy be lost by screening the call in advance, or delaying the actual broadcast for a few minutes?
Even the prolonged live coverage of some events may be less valuable than providing frequent and informative updates as new developments occur. If we provide continuous coverage just because we can, we risk turning that coverage from being informative to being a simple substitute for regularly scheduled TV programs.
The SPJ Code of Ethics encourages journalists to minimize harm by recognizing that our coverage can hurt, cause discomfort or be insensitive. During an event, we must remember to "show good task. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity." The Code also requires us to "use special sensitively when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects."
Professional journalists try to balance the demands for information and news against the effect on those we cover. Colorado can be used as a learning experience for all journalists.
[Former] Chair, Ethics Committee
Society of Professional Journalists