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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox



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Monday, February 6, 2012
Ethics Toolbox

Minimizing harm takes careful consideration

By Kevin Z. Smith

A former student of mine, now working for a metro paper, called recently to ask about the ethics of reporting suicides. A businessman had jumped from a high-rise apartment onto a bustling street below, leaving behind a grieving wife and three daughters. The family asked the editors to take the story off its website to protect his teenage girls from the harsh reality. The paper respectfully declined.

Another story, another case of doing harm.

Hardly a day passes that journalism doesn’t reveal the tragedies of life to its audiences. In fact, it’s the primary news du jour no matter where you live. Fires, deaths, crimes and natural disasters will trump charitable donations, pet features or the garden-variety government meeting every time.

But few journalists relish reporting on tragic events, and few carrying press badges are adept at dealing with the situation. In my many years in the profession I’ve never met a journalist who wanted to be the one to call or visit a grieving family to ask for comments or the obligatory photograph. Count me among the many who did, reluctantly.

For much of my early career I muddled through this unpleasant portion of my job. I covered my share of drownings, murders, criminal trials, car accidents, arson fires and industrial accidents, and I always conducted myself as a professional — polite and apologetic. And, like most journalists, I thought that served my paper and the victims well.

Then in 1993 my outlook changed. I’ll never forget the day my mother called to say there had been an accident in a local coal mine and that my older brother Larry was being airlifted to a regional hospital. I was the first there. And, because others were overwhelmed with grief, I stayed until the end to identify his body, sign for his belongings and thank the hospital staff for their efforts to save his life. The hardest part was calling my parents to tell them their son had died.

I knew this would become a major news story, so I agreed to handle the press inquiries. I needed to do something, and I knew best how to do it. The media family in northern West Virginia is small, and having my peers and colleagues working on the story softened the blow. The reporter at my paper was especially sympathetic. What we had taken for granted as just another part of the job now hit home, and that resonated with many of us. In hindsight it also started me thinking about how I handled tragedy and if I was doing the best job I could to minimize the harm of my reporting.

One of the four pillars of SPJ’s Code of Ethics is “Minimize Harm.” The Code says that “ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.” The Code goes on to say that journalists should “show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage,” and special sensitivity needs to be shown when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects — inexperienced sources like those who are confronted by the media following a tragedy.

“Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief” and “Recognize that gathering and reporting information many cause harm or discomfort,” the Code reads.

I want to build on that last sentence, because I believe when journalists recognize and admit they are causing harm, it helps establish a proper mindset that leads to the development of a more compassionate and effective method of dealing with victims.

Recognize foremost that you are an intruder into a very private and painful moment in someone’s life. Don’t lose sight of that fact. When you are intruding you need to properly compensate with remorse and sensitivity. Part of that means you ask for permission to be there and speak to them and, nowadays, to use images and content from social media and Internet sources.

Asking permission empowers victims during a time when they feel helpless, and it creates a sense of respect. They don’t owe you anything, but they can give you everything. Abandon the “I have a right,” “I want” or “I need” mentality. Rights and needs don’t play well when you are looking for cooperation.

Don’t feign sympathy to gain leverage. It’s cheap, and people see through that as well. Understand that people process grief differently and move along an emotional scale at a different pace.

That said, avoid interviewing people who are overwhelmed with grief. It’s sensationalistic, and it isn’t minimizing harm. Instead, seek permission from someone who can offer insight and advance the story beyond an emotional video clip.

Mostly, remember that your coverage of any tragedy will remain a part of the victims’ memories long after you move on to other stories. Let them remember you for minimizing harm.

For more information on covering tragedies, see SPJ’s “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media,” call the Ethics Hotline at 317-927-8000 ext. 208, or email ethics@spj.org.

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