Journalists weigh many issues in reporting process
by Kendra Richards
The Multicultural Center at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) was defaced with swastikas. Throughout the next couple of days, more swastikas appeared on white boards and walls around campus. A student finally came forward saying the he drew one on a dry-erase white board. The St. Cloud Times got the information and began writing a story on it. Before they ran it, though, the police decided that the student was protected under free speech because the image was erasable and did not deface property—the student was never arrested, jailed or charged. The Times now had a decision to make: Should they publish the student's name in the article?
This is a great example of an ethical dilemma that journalists face every day. Deciding whether or not to run a picture, use a source's name, or mention something derogatory that somebody said are all situations that newsrooms have dealt with. Stearns Morrison Enterprise is a small-town weekly newspaper with only eight staff members, but they have proven that even the smallest publications run into situations that require ethical consideration.
“One time at an Albany-area school board meeting, one of the parents criticized a teacher's coaching style in a derogatory way,�? said Mike Kosik, editor of the Enterprise. “The teacher was not there to defend himself, but the information was relevant and of public concern.�?
Kosik said that when the information is not relevant or necessary to the story, he will never run it. In this case, though, it was essential to what he was covering, and he had to make a decision.
“I just mentioned in the story that some parents had concerns about the teacher's coaching techniques—it was very brief,�? said Kosik.
Richard Raeker, general manager of the Enterprise, said that in most ethical situations like this, the Enterprise leans toward protecting the person's reputation.
“When somebody says something extremely negative about someone in the community, we look at it from a libel aspect and it has to be justified and backed up with facts before we will run it,�? said Raeker. “We always try to be as fair as possible.�?
Kosik agreed and pointed out that the small-town environment could be the reason for this.
“It may be different in a small town, though,�? said Kosik. “Editors at the St. Cloud Times probably make decisions that I would never make, and it probably needs to be taken a little more seriously there.�?
And Kosik was right—the Times does face different decisions because they run more hard-hitting stories; the St. Cloud State vandalism story is a prime example. But what decision did they come to, and how did they come to it?
“We are not in the habit of naming those not charged with a crime, so we didn't run it,�? said John Bodette, executive editor of the St. Cloud Times. “There was also some concern for the student's safety.�?
Bodette said that the Times takes ethics very seriously, and even have “ethical time outs�? where everything stops and the staff thoroughly discuss the issue so they can be as reasonable as possible.
“It enables us to keep ethics at the top of our minds,�? said Bodette. “It's also a good checks and balance so we are aware of what's going on and we don't avoid or skirt ethical issues.�?
Ethical decisions are perhaps taken more seriously in larger newsrooms, but that doesn't mean the Enterprise has it easy. Raeker brought up another common and important issue that, arguably, comes up more in small towns than large ones: conflict of interest.
“There is always conflict of interest in small towns,�? said Raeker. “We try to point it out and address it head-on before the story gets started.�?
Raker said that in such a small town, everybody knows everybody, and reporters are constantly forced to interview sources that they know.
“We don't disallow them to do the story, because most stories would never get done,�? Raeker said. “We just make sure to address the issue, and are careful that the reporter is fairly getting both sides of the story.�?
Raeker went on to discuss a related issue of bringing personal bias into a story.
“Everybody has their own beliefs and values when going into a story,�? said Raeker. “Sometimes you have a Democrat covering a Republican debate, and you just have to deal with that.�?
Raker said that they treat it much like they do conflict of interest issues—they take great care in the story, making sure to get both sides and prevent anything personal from getting in the way as much as they can.
On these topics, the Times takes a little bit of a different approach again: They tend to prevent it from ever coming up in the first place.
“We need to know what boards reporters are on and what they are involved in before we assign them anything,�? said Bodette. “Reporters need to disclose to the editor any conflicts they have and try to avoid them. If a reporter is concerned about conflict of interest or bias, we encourage them to talk to editors about it, but it doesn't happen very often.�?
Bodette said that their staff members know to remove themselves from a story ahead of time if they are involved with it or know there could be bias, and with this system they do a pretty good job with getting all sides of every story and being fair.
Although Kosik was right in saying that the Times faces different, and often more serious, situations, they seem to share the same basic principles.
“My favorite line in our code of ethics is the last one, which says 'always try to do the right thing,'�? said Bodette. “I would say that is my guiding principle as executive editor. It is important to do our job well, but it is equally, if not more, important to do it right.�?
All newsrooms deal with ethical decisions daily—even the smallest newsrooms. Although each situation is often considered in different ways and in different degrees, it's the decisions the editors make that matter. For, as Tony Burman, Editor in Chief of CBC News, once said:
“Every news organization has only its credibility and reputation to rely on.�?