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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox



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Thursday, June 6, 2013
Ethics Toolbox

Lack of coverage can be justifiable — and ethical

By Kevin Z. Smith

At the risk of losing my lifetime membership in the Journalism Club of America, I think it’s important to say that not every story needs the news media’s attention. Sometimes, no matter how tempting, we need to take a pass — for ethical reasons.

We may already accept this premise based on the way we discard press releases into deleted email folders, but I’m not addressing those “pitches” for coverage. I’m talking about events that unfold before us as “staged” or breaking news. Specifically, those that are sensationalistic.

We should step back and reflect on this kind of coverage for two reasons. First, the public has repeatedly indicated that it has lost its taste for tired, old sensationalistic news lines. Second, SPJ’s Code of Ethics supports the principle that stories should carry the full weight of ethical considerations before they make light.

Case in point: Covering the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church or any group that employs outrageous methods to get media and public attention.

(Editor’s note: In its First Amendment advocacy role, SPJ did join an amicus brief defending Westboro in the Supreme Court case Snyder v. Phelps, which threatened to limit free speech and press rights.)

Why can’t news outlets turn their backs on Westboro’s protests when practically everyone finds the behavior repulsive? Their antics have worn tired and have offended almost every corner of society. So why does the press need to rush to provide coverage of the sensationalistic actions of these kinds of groups? Is it because it’s an easy “grab” story? Is it because it’s certain to generate viewers or readership? Because it’s recording “history”?

In the Code of Ethics, we see journalists are implored to:

• Seek truth and report it.

• Be honest, fair and courageous in gathering and reporting the news.

• Support the open exchange of ideas, even views they find repugnant.

So, sounds like it’s a cinch. Westboro protests funerals with outlandish claims about God hating gays, and we’re there with recorders or cameras rolling. Then we show the awaiting public and let society decide whether the congregation’s methods are offensive. That’s a sound, reasoned principle based on our First Amendment responsibilities.

Before we sign off on that assignment sheet, let’s look at the Code more closely. Because it’s under “minimize harm” that we see a more ethical intention start to develop.

• Show compassion to those affected by adverse news coverage.

• Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.

• Show good taste, avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

• Recognize that gathering news and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort.

When you take the first portion of the Code and apply it singularly to this case, you establish a strong foundation for coverage. You are honoring your obligation to truth and fairness and informing the citizenry. If you look at the Code from the myopic perspective using just the second section, you can make a compelling argument for never covering such protests. There is just too much unneeded harm inflicted.

The Code can be enigmatic if you use it like a restaurant menu, if you are inclined to select only those portions that allow you to confirm your already predisposed notions of journalistic duties. “My duty is to always seek the truth and report it.”

But, that doesn’t allow you to appreciate its full value. The Code best serves journalists when you look at all of its parts, because that’s what gives it its greatest sum. The Code will work at its best when people agree to sit down and have a reasoned discussion that gives full consideration to all journalistic responsibilities. Carefully weighing the role of telling the truth against that of minimizing harm will help you reach a more reflective and ethical decision regarding coverage. You can develop a new set of rationales. Such as:

• Does the need to tell the story again exceed the harm it might do to the community?

• Is there something new to the story that warrants the public's attention?

• If I tell the story, can I minimize the harm it does? If I choose not to tell the story, can I justify not fulfilling my duty to report news?

• Can/should the story be told without images?

• Does reaction to a sensationalistic story add balance? Does is create discourse? Or does it just provide an excuse to repeat an old story? Is the reaction predictable?

• What is your honest motivation for covering such an event? Can you explain it to the public, and if the public says it wants no more coverage, will you honor that?

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