Code of Ethics in Journalism

Table of Content

In the professional field of journalism it is almost certain that a journalist will face some kind of ethical dilemma throughout his or her career. Delivering news to the public can be extremely difficult in that a reporter must convey a story in the most unbiased and considerate manner. Good journalists must be able to break down an ethical dilemma, assess the problem, and arrive at a moral solution. They must also realize that once they come to his or her conclusion of what they feel is the “right” thing to do that not everyone is going to be happy with the decision.

There is always going to be a party that is disgruntled by the choice made but it is up to the journalist to stick by his or her professional decision. It has been 13 years since the tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, but for those journalists who covered the horror of that day and the mourning that followed, the details are vivid. At 11:19 a. m. on April 20, 1999, two high school seniors sprayed Columbine high school with bullets that killed 12 students, a teacher, and brutally wounded 23 other students (Poynter).

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Shortly after, the gunmen Dylan Kleboid and Eric Harris killed themselves with the semi-automatic weapons. Almost immediately after noon, local television station KUSA Denver (NBC affiliate) satellite truck began a live video feed. Meanwhile back at the station, news director Patti Dennis was in charge for the day. News feed and phone calls over flowed the station. Soon all scheduled shows were removed so that the footage could go live continuously. Not only were community residents calling about the story, but national media were already demanding information for their own reports.

As video from the scene made it’s way into the station, Patti Dennis immediately saw the images of the wounded children on stretchers and instinctively reacted as a parent instead of a journalist. Dennis demanded there be no tight shots and that she did not want to see any faces. She felt that it was not appropriate and too many parents were bewildered and wondering what was happening. She thought that this would be compromising their privacy (Case II-D).

Throughout the early hours of the days of Columbine, Patti and other Denver news director Angie Kucharski led many discussions to talk through live coverage, values, and what should and should not be aired. They discussed with other affiliates in the Denver area to withhold reporting the names of the shooters for several hours until the identities were certain of the bodies. Dennis was very certain that is was important to constantly re-evaluate decisions based on new information. (Poynter) Even hours later as injured students were escaping from the school, calls continued to poor into the local stations.

The initial reports from the sheriffs department greatly exaggerated the number of dead. It was said that as many as 25 had died in the massacre, when it was only 12 (jornlism. org). This inaccurate information made its way to the national broadcasts. At the scene was another KUSA reporter who summed up the situation “Bleeding. Screaming. I needed to talk to some of the kids to see what they saw or heard. But you didn’t know how to approach them. I tried to be really sensitive and understanding. I meticulously approached the kids asking nicely. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?

Surprisingly most of them agreed ”(CASE II D). This journalist did a great job of just capturing what was actually happening instead of being a man with a camera. This great footage was heartfelt and sensitive that he thought would be aired later when the emotions weren’t as raw. Unfortunately the footage was being fed directly to the newsroom where CNN had full access to it. (journlism. org). Once CNN got a hand on the footage, local affiliates lost all control. Just the same day it aired nationally, which was not the intentions of Patti Dennis.

At one point ABC’s 20/20 aired the same footage of an obviously dazed student falling out of the second floor of the school building four times within twenty minutes (CASE II-D). This goes to show you that the local affiliates had a different plan for covering this massacre and airing it to the public than national news sources did. Actual journalist who covered these stories locally was affected much differently than those who covered it half way across the country in other newsrooms. It is important to recognize the impression that media makes on the public.

Although national news was airing graphic footage way earlier than they should have, Dennis still felt that “If the national media does something, that does not mean the hometown news organization should follow (pointer). Kucharski and Dennis both knew that they had no control over the national footage. They did know that they could help control local competition to pursue common goals. The directors took the unique step of dividing hospital checks and then sharing information with the other Denver news organizations. “If you can galvanize with the ocal media early enough, you can present a united front,” Kucharski said. Directors at the local KUSA Denver and other local affiliates had to take steps in order to make ethical decisions about what they aired. National newsrooms also took steps to decide what they would show and when they would air the footage. In this paper The Potter Box System Ralph B. Potter of Harvard created what is now known as the Potter Box system. This is a great way for journalists to form ideas and evaluate his or her beliefs and philosophies to come up with an ethical conclusion.

The first step in the Potter box is empirical definition, which’s primarily means to define the situation and state the facts. This is where the most obvious facts are indentified and observed about the ethical crisis. Next step is to identify the values of the decision maker. It is essential for the person with the dilemma to reflect on his or her personal values in order to make a truly ethical decision. Classifying ethical principles of philosophers with similar moral beliefs can help the decision makers relate to certain situations in order to create conclusion.

The final section of the Potter Box is loyalties. This is crucial for the journalist to reflect on what is truly important to them. It is important to know who will be affected by the decision you are making. The Potter Box is a useful tool in which it helps and individual organize his or her values, ethical views, and loyalties into a more systematic way to form a ethical decision. Empirical Definition The empirical definition is that Patti Dennis and Angie Kucharski, KUSA Denver news directors were in charge when word hit the newsroom about a massacre at Columbine high school.

Both were responsible for making the decision of what footage to air locally that day. The main goals of the directors were to weave compelling stories without offending the community sensibilities. “ Once you start the ball rolling, you can stop the ball,” said Dennis. “Everything should go through a filter before decisions are made. ” (POYNTER). The main issue was that the live satellite news feed was bringing in the gruesome footage of the shooting and Dennis was trying to keep from airing the faces of the wounded students. The same may not be said or national television affiliates. National broadcasters were focused on getting the facts out to the public as quickly and precisely as possible. They are less worried about the particular footage being shown and instead just focused on getting the best story. Identifying Values Dennis and Kucharski were able to identify many values in the process of this ethical dilemma. A main value they highly considered is family. They took consideration for the parents to be informed but not at the sake of the family’s privacy. Both directors also valued their community’s values and tastes.

As Dennis stated “Remember that as the hometown news organization, when the news is over, you still have to live there. ”(cite). Another standard that the news directors valued greatly was the safety of the victims, making sure no information was distributed to the public about the victim until the identity was clear. Lastly, Kucharski and Dennis value their news crew and company. They wanted to make sure that the newsroom’s responsibility was to understand the context, significance and outcome of the event before broadcasting it.

Once again, in comparison, the national market had other values at hand. National affiliates have the values of their jobs. Every news station is trying to report the best story of this tragedy. Many times the larger markets may be exploiting the tragedy for higher ratings. They value immediacy more than accuracy. Their values may not be as emotionally connected as those working at the local KUSA Denver station. To them, this is a big story and it is important to get the information out as quickly as possible regardless of who is at stake. Ethical Principles

After identifying the values of the Local news directors and the National affiliates, the decision maker may look at different philosophical principles created by philosophers to help form a conclusion. It is important to not forget about you moral principles when applying them to the philosophical views. By finding a comparison of your personal moralistic views to the philosopher, it makes the decision making process a little less troubling. These philosophies can clarify what several philosophers would have done if put into the same situation.

One philosophical principle that I consider to be relative to Patti Dennis and Angie Kucharski’s situation is Carol Gilligan’s “Care Perspective. ” According to this philosophy, women are more prone to an interchange of ideas to examine details and find alternatives (Glover 2012). Women do not think in black and white primarily like men do. Women are more likely to take more into perspective and put themselves in the position of the dilemma. They predominately use more emotion when trying to make a decision. This was definitely the case with Patti Dennis as she saw the injured bodies from the shooting being carried away on stretchers.

At this moment she stated, “ I reacted as a parent, not a journalist ” (CASE II-D). She was immediately able to put her duties as a journalist aside and relate to the people as a mother that she is. To make the decision she did, to not televise all of the gruesome shots of the injured students she stood up for what she believed in. She went against society and had a good reason for it. This action falls under Emile Durkheim and “Scientific Naturalism. ” Collective rules are usually right but it is the individual’s responsibility to intervene when society seems unjust or unethical.

The morality of an action must be based on the benefits to society and the degree to which we have a reason for our attempts to change society’s rules (Glover 2012). Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” says to “Act on that maxim which you will too become a universal law. ” He also speaks of two kinds of duties; strict duties and meritorious duties. Strict duties are the common; don’t murder, don’t break promises, don’t lie. Meritorious duties are to aid others, develop you own talents, and show gratitude in order to improve society (Glover 2012).

Dennis and Kucharski demonstrated meritorious duties. Kant felt that it is the initial act that is important. They were dedicated to protecting the victims and their families. This may not be what was expected from many. They are expected to report the story as clearly and truthfully as possible giving people as much information as possible. Dennis and Kucharski chose to do the right thing. According to Kant “character might incline us to act other than morally, but we can still do that right thing from a sense of duty” (Glover12).

The socratic method was a crucial tool to help the news directors come to a common understanding and final decision. According to the Socratic method it is up to the individual to reach the conclusions offered by discussion. Not with the mass of humanity but within the “intellectual elites” (Glover 2012). In the case of these two Denver television stations, the filters of what footage that would be televised were from the gut as well as from outside sources they referred to as “rabbis. ” (Poynter) These “rabbis” were knowledgeable people, not usually involved in the story.

They were just someone in whom you can bounce certain issues off of. Kucharski called several, “intellectual elites” to aid in decisions. Some of these people were SWAT team members, psychologists, parent organizations, and even the doctor of on of the Columbine children killed (Poynter). Kucharski also spoke with police who could advise them on what on-air coverage could or could not prove harmful to students. Choosing loyalties Loyalties are the specific group of people that the decision maker most considers when concluding an ethical dilemma.

When looking back on the values and philosophies that were used to help dissect the ethical dilemma, there is usually a pattern. Many of the values coincide with the philosophical principles, which can make it easy to distinguish what the decision maker’s loyalties may be. Local and national affiliates had different loyalties when it came to airing footage from the 1999 Columbine shooting. The local affiliates were directly loyal to the community of Denver, Colorado, whereas the national news loyalties went towards the general public itself.

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Code of Ethics in Journalism. (2017, Jan 30). Retrieved from

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