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Back when I had no ethics

March 7th, 2004 · No Comments

And no grammar either…

Tonight while cooking dinner I caught the end of NPR’s All Things Considered program. On Sunday nights New York Times ethicist Randy Cohen shows up to answer a listener’s ethical dilemma. One night I heard a woman ask whether she could take home apples that had fallen and gotten bruised for free instead of paying for them at the farm. I’ve gone apple picking – although I’ve never tried to pocket the damaged goods – so I could imagine that one.

But tonight’s piece intrigued me more:

NPR’s John Ydstie and New York Times ethicist Randy Cohen discuss the dilemma of a listener identified as “Bob from Michigan,” a radio journalist who wants to know if it’s ethical for him to get involved in politics.

Debate ensued. The ethicist, Randy Cohen, believed that journalists should not report on activities in which they participate. He went so far to say, I think, that a political reporter should not participate in politics at all. If one wishes to also be politically active then one should instead become a sports reporter or meteorologist.

This dilemma I could imagine because I’ve done it. I’ve reported on a political activity in which I participated.

I had a brief career in journalism in college. Writing for the newspaper was something I had always wanted to do in high school but never was able to do it. So soon as I got to college, I went to sign up for the paper. I also signed up for a number of political organizations too. I was a busy woman.

I got the story because I was planning to participate in it. I told my boss at the paper: did you know that so-and-so are planning a protest? I offered to cover it. I’m not sure whether I mentioned that I was also planning to participate. I don’t think I knew I was doing anything wrong. I thought I was doing something good by providing coverage of the activity.

So I got the story, despite it being only my second assignment. It was a nice piece, front page, large photos, including a good interview I enjoyed doing with the main organizer. I didn’t end up participating in the protest that much, as I remember. I mostly watched, scribbling on my notepad. But I was admittedly sympathetic to the cause. I was a member of the group and also a member of the media.

I was so sympathetic – and so untrained – that I didn’t get an opinion from the other side. Oops. Big oops. When I got back to the newspaper office that night, my supervisor asked me if I had called and tried to talk to the party which had been affected by the protest. I hadn’t thought of it. By then it was too late.

So I guess I didn’t have any ethics as a journalist. I hadn’t had any training. I don’t think I tried to pass myself off as experienced. I simply showed up at the paper, wanting to write. My first assignment had been to write about the bookstore remodel. Not too much debate there. No opposing side to interview. When I mentioned the protest and wanting to cover it, I don’t think anyone questioned me or scrutinized my politics. It’s my fault I did what I did. I’ll take the blame for being biased. I messed up the story. I do wish someone had helped train and teach me, before I made a big mistake. Maybe even taken me off and put someone else on it.

As I’ve been thinking about this tonight though, I’ve been wondering why this separation is considered ethical for journalists. Is it possible to be impartial? I certainly hope that the reporters who cover politics also vote. I hope they have political opinion, at least enough to make decisions in the election, to check the boxes on the ballot. Isn’t complete impartiality impossible?

The ethicist did say that a last resort might be to mention one’s own political beliefs when commenting: “I’m for Kucinich but this rally today was for Fred..”

What I’m wondering is what blogging does with this ethical dilemma. Should bloggers try to be impartial? Or would it be better to read a variety of perspectives from bloggers who have stated their beliefs? Which creates true transparency? Which is better?

Of course there are plenty of sites to read on this topic. Tonight I skimmed through a few: Microcontent News’ Blogging Code of Ethics , Cyberjournalist.net’s Bloggers Code of Ethics and Rebecca Blood’s Weblog Ethics . I’m not about to make any grand declarations about journalism and blogging yet but recently I have been thinking more about being a “citizen journalist”. And thinking about my own experiences years ago when I was a reporter for the paper.

Perhaps back then, with my one-sided story and obvious bias, I might have been better off blogging….

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