When covering a story about parishioners protesting against their church being demolished, I was told by my editor to ask them to shout "save our church" for the camera. They did this and it brightened up the news package. It could be argued that this was unethical behaviour because it misled the public about the protest; as soon as I had gone, the shouting stopped. I did question my actions. However the desire to entertain the viewer, the opinion of my editor, the willingness of the protestors themselves and the low impact it would have on the public perception stopped me going against the decision.
This is a minor case but it shows how potential deception in television is an ever-present reality. The need for impartiality is heavily stressed in journalism codes of conduct. Ofcom states that television and radio programmes "must exclude all expressions of the views and opinions of the person providing the service on matters of political and industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy (unless that person is speaking in a legislative forum or in a court of law).
"11 To be impartial as a journalist is not as simple as it seems; merely editing requires some personal judgement. As a reporter, it is not that easy to completely remove yourself from a story. Journalist Gill Swain said simply, "don't get emotionally involved. "12 Yet detach yourself too far and your reporting will get labelled as forensic. 13 Sometimes the best journalism happens when you do engage emotionally and follow a story with passion.
If Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had not done that, the revelation of Watergate and eventual resignation of US President Richard Nixon in 1974 would have never come about. Personal interest and involvement can be a helpful motive in investigative journalism. A few years ago I wrote about my college boat club in a university magazine. I was told various stories about club money that had gone missing. As a member of that boat club, I felt obliged to find out what had happened and inform university students.
After publication the head of the boat club asked me to her office to explain myself. She was unable to deny any of the facts. If I had not had personal involvement in this story, the financial difficulties of the boat club would have not been revealed. Yet the actual writing of the story should be impartial and not convey the opinion of the journalist. The public should trust that you are giving them a fair and accurate report on a matter of importance to them. However, sometimes personal belief and gut instinct that go against codes and ethical manners can benefit the public.
During the time Senator Joseph McCarthy made charges that the United States government had been infiltrated by Soviet spies, American journalists had to abide by the strict codes of reporting without analysis or comment. They knew McCarthy's claims were false but the journalistic laws meant they were unable to investigate his statements and tell the public the truth. More recently, the Washington Post, New York Times and New Republic all apologised to their readers for not being sceptical when reporting White House claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Part of being a journalist is to face adversity and going against a law or code is sometimes the only way to tell the public the truth, but truth is what ultimately gains their trust and respect. Laws and codes are necessary to provide a benchmark for journalists to work from and maintain professionalism. Without them some journalists would lose sight of what fundamental principles they need to follow in order to behave responsibly. There are times when a journalist's own instinct and ethical manner will maintain respect and trust of the public better than the codes.
There are also instances when pressure, time and money prevent a journalist from maintaining those codes. Whatever the circumstances, the one rule that should be constant is that journalists are the eyes and ears of the public; their trust and respect should always take precedence.
Frost, Chris. Media Ethics And Self-Regulation. Pearson Education Limited, 2000. Harcup, Tony. The Ethical Journalist. Sage Publications Ltd, 2007. Keeble, Richard. Ethics For Journalists. Routledge, 2001.