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Ethical issues surface daily for journalists

by Brittney Silewski

The Echo Press in Alexandria, Minn., is a small weekly newspaper with a circulation of just around 9,000. Al Edenloff, the editor at the paper, says that there are different situations that come up all of the time that need his utmost attention.

“Just about every week, we encounter something new,�? he said.

He is referring to situations that have ethical concerns. Like most Minnesota newspapers, whether they are small circulation or large, The Echo Press deals with ethics all of the time. Whether it is deciding to censor Web site comments on articles or using anonymous sources, several newspapers around the state are dealing with the same types of situations.

The most recent incident that Edenloff had to confront was over Internet comments. A man was arrested and charged with having marijuana in his vehicle. After they released the article online, people started anonymously commenting on it. The paper had allowed everyone to be able to comment on whatever they liked.

“They [the people] started going after his wife, his family, and even his kids,�? said Edenloff.

He thinks that in situations like this, people in the newsroom just need to ask themselves bigger questions.

“How far do we let people go,�? he said. “Where do we draw the line?�?

They decided to stop allowing comments on this particular story, and removed the bad ones that were already made. After this incident, a new rule was set up as well: to not allow comments on criminal cases until after they have gone to court.

So how do they decide this? The truth is there isn’t a set way to deal with ethical situations in any news room. Edenloff said it is always a case by case situation, and it is mostly different in different newsrooms.

“The bottom line is we always try to examine them from different viewpoints,�? he said. “We call in the whole editorial board.�?

This board consists of several different people. They try to get a different perspective on whatever may raise ethical concerns. They get the newspaper’s perspective, the reader’s perspective, the community’s perspective, and most importantly the victim’s perspective.

For example, when they started their segments on suicide coverage, reporters were sent to support groups to talk to people to get their feelings on covering such a touchy subject. They wanted to make sure that they get that perspective in their as well.

“We go beyond the office walls so we can be as well-rounded as possible,�? he said.

This is just one way that a newsroom handles ethical situations as they arise. There is no one right or wrong way to do so either.

Besides The Echo Press, other similar-sized news publications have experienced such ethical dilemmas in their everyday reporting as well.

The Bemidji Pioneer Press is a daily newspaper with a circulation of around 10,000. Molly Miron is an editor and writer at the paper who has dealt with several ethical issues, especially ones that involve the request of using anonymous sources.

“Generally we don’t use anonymous sources,�? she said.

In recent years the idea of using anonymous sources and anonymous publication has become more and more questionable. With the advent of the Internet and computers almost anyone can publish material and be named a journalist.

So if practically everyone can become a journalist, then it follows that it will be harder to trust every person who writes or publishes something.

In a recent article in The Modern Language Review titled, “The Ethics of Anonymity,�? author Mark Robson looks at the use of anonymous authors and anonymous information.

He says that “the practice of anonymous publication remains a tantalizing anomaly that allows certain presuppositions about the status not only of texts but also of historical periods and literary movements to be questioned.�?

These are things that journalists are trying to straighten out.

“But there are sensitive cases [for using anonymous sources],�? Miron said.

She refers to a recent situation where she was working on an article with a homeless man who was living under a bridge. He didn’t want to be named in the paper and Miron decided that this was one of the cases that would be OK, as long as she knew the name of the man.

“I just let the reader know that the man didn’t want to be named,�? Miron said.

She said that this way it will show the reader that it’s not something that she just made up. This will show that there is merit to what is being reported.

“If they don’t tell me their name I won’t use the anonymous source,�? she said. “How will I know if they’re telling me the truth?�?

This does goes back to how much the reader trusts the writer. A person may trust themselves but, earning everyone else’s trust is even harder.

Miron has worked at this daily for many years, and thinks that her readers trust her.

At another small-town daily with a circulation of around 5,000, Pippi Mayfield knows what it is like to work with anonymous sources. The community writer at the Detroit Lakes Tribune thinks that it is important to print a name whenever possible.

“Anyone could make up an anonymous source,�? she said.

Most good journalists understand the dangers of running anonymous sources. There have been so many recent run-ins with ethical situations, especially after the many journalists that have been caught fabricating much of their works.

One includes a journalist from the New York Times named Jayson Blair who fabricated and plagiarized more than half of his articles. The esteemed newspaper lost some of its credibility, and it was a low point in their long history.

LuAnn Hurd-Lof is the editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise, a small-town daily, with a circulation of almost 6,000. She says that she has gone as far as to not even let editorials come in anonymous.

“We have had a policy for a very long time, that we just don’t do anonymous sources,�? she said.

She decided that people need to be held accountable for putting their words out there and that if they weren’t going to, they didn’t need to be put in the paper.

Many newspapers and other similar publications have taken ethical concerns more seriously in recent years. Most good journalists know how important it is to be loyal to their readers. With many reporters making up facts and other vital information it is no wonder that people are starting to distrust the news that they read.

In the near future it is going to be even more important for newsrooms to set up an ethical standard for situations. They need to keep these in check so that readers don’t doubt the information that they are reading, they need to trust journalists once again.