Conversations about ethics are unavoidable in any (reputable) journalism school or program. And for good reason. There are a lot of people who think of journalists as being deceptive — and often for good reason, as well. Having had hundreds of years of journalists go before us, we can learn from the intentional and unintentional blunders of other reporters.
David Simpson, adviser to Georgia Perimeter College’s newspaper, facilitated a discussion he has done many times before at newsrooms in both professional and university settings. He raised questions about the role of the reporter and the interviewee, and how readers are affected by these interactions.
Should ethics policies at our school newspapers allow us to misrepresent ourselves? Should reporters always rush to immediately identify themselves when they are covering events? Since journalism is much more of an art than a science, there are no simple answers to these questions. Situations vary. Kaiser said if a newspaper does include a requirement for its journalists to always immediately identify themselves in every situation, the paper might want to rethink that policy.
Simpson also touched on the issue of sources’ requests. This spans from requests to protect the overall image of the individual or his or her organization, to interviewee’s offers to read over stories before publishing. He mentioned the importance of keeping your distance as a journalist, and not entertaining most of these requests— even if a particular institution (in our cases, a school) is providing funding for the newspaper.
When handling sources going on and off the record, Simpson also said it was best for publications not to have a restrictive policy about dealing with these types of interviews. Sometimes what is on and off the record, if the type of conversation isn’t distinguished, isn’t clear. And sometimes, depending on the information being told to the reporter (who may or may not be considered a reporter by the source at that moment), it is important enough to print. In situations like this, where the reporter decides to use the unsuspecting source’s information (maybe from a casual conversation), Simpson told the crowd that the journalist still must let the source know his or her information is being used. “You can’t bushwhack them,” he said.