Sunday, November 18th, 2018

Letter from the editor: Facing ethical dilemmas

Posted on October 30, 2018 in News
By USM Free Press

By: Julie Pike, Editor-in-Chief 

In the past week the topic of ethical dilemmas has come up in not only my work at the Free Press, but in my courses and in my research for the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP).

Whenever this topic comes up, it’s followed by a whole slew of questions, trying to figure out if something is ethical or not. What’s tricky with ethics is that there’s often no one answer.

Ethics are not rules, but are moral principles that often guide an individual’s behavior or actions. Having a code of ethics, which many organizations do, provides a set of standards to help guide individuals through tricky ethical situations.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has a code of ethics that is followed by many news organizations across the country, including us here at the Free Press. The code focuses on the four major roles of journalists: to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent.

I’ve found that first two areas, to seek truth and report it and to minimize harm, can be conflicting. What if you have uncovered something that should be reported to the public, but may cause harm or backlash to others?

Under the minimize harm section of the code of ethics, SPJ says that “ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

The seek truth and report it section of the code says that “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”

What’s hard to figure out is whether reporting the truth should take precedence to minimizing harm. While the SPJ lists seek truth and report it as the first point in the code of ethics, we don’t know if that was meant to imply that it is the most important point to follow.

I run into these issues when deciding what stories to cover at the Free Press. We as journalists have to ask ourselves these questions before moving forward with a story, to ensure that we are following this code of ethics.

It’s especially tricky for a newspaper that’s connected to a university. We are actively involved in our community and have great relationships with faculty, administration and students. We don’t want to do anything to hurt that, but we also have the responsibility to report the truth to our community.

The SPJ code of ethics also says that journalists should “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.”

I would approach this difficult decision case by case, weighing the outcomes of reporting the truth, with the harm it may cause, if any. The best option, if possible, is to find a way to balance those two. How can we go about reporting the truth while also minimizing harm?

The topic of ethical dilemmas also came up during my monthly meeting for UROP. In my research project I’m focusing on the independence of student newspapers at public universities in New England. I want to find out what level of independence these publications have when it comes to the content they publish, as most have a direct connection to their school. I’m doing this research to create a universal guideline for student newspapers to help them ensure that their paper will have full editorial independence, upholding the right to freedom of the press.

At this monthly meeting, each of the students involved in UROP were asked to consider what kind of ethical dilemmas they might face during their research.

In answering this question I was unsure of whether to follow the guidelines of the SPJ, as my research does relate to journalism. Otherwise, I would just have to use my own judgement when it comes to ethics. My main concern in this research project, if I followed SPJ’s code, is to minimize harm. On the one hand I want to help student publications become more independent from their university, but I also don’t want to create a bad relationship between a university and its student newspaper. These are outcomes I must consider as I move forward with my research, so I can work to figure out a good balance.

Ethics is often subjective, one person may approach a situation differently from another. The SPJ code exists to try and help journalists navigate those situations to the best of their ability.

I always mention how, as student journalists, we at the Free Press come across many different learning opportunities throughout our work, and facing ethical dilemmas is one of them. Through our experience, we can learn how to better handle those tough situations in the future and become a better judge of ethics.

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