Our reporter Whitney Bermes passed this link on to me this morning. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to talk for a few minutes about journalism ethics.
NBC Montana reporter helps locate missing rafter
Emily Adamson, a reporter at KECI in Missoula writes in a story that a rafter went missing after being swept away in the Bitterroot River on Tuesday night.
“…crews were getting ready to put in search and rescue boats, when I spotted the missing man walking along Highway 93 toward Lolo.”
She goes on:
“I called 911 and members of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office quickly showed up and confirmed it was the missing rafter”
Traditionally, journalists do not report on stories they are involved in. It is frowned upon in the “conflict of interest” sections of numerous journalism ethics guidelines, including SPJ’s and the ethics guidelines of the Radio Television Digital News Association:
Professional electronic journalists should present the news with integrity and decency, avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest, and respect the dignity and intelligence of the audience as well as the subjects of news.
When a reporter must report on something he or she was involved in personally, it’s a big deal. It should be discussed with editors before it ever sees the light of day. Consider the case of Claire Hoffman.
Back in 2006, Hoffman was working for the Los Angeles Times on a profile of Joe Francis, honcho of the “Girls Gone Wild” empire. After following Francis around for some time doing her reporting, Francis turned on Hoffman. One night, outside a club, Francis grabbed her, twisting her arms behind her back and pinning her against a car.
Hoffman became part of the story in a big way. She later talked with the American Journalism Review how she dealt with that:
I had already spent quite a lot of time with him and done quite a lot of reporting before the incident in the parking lot. I felt like I had a really good story. And then in the parking lot it was an absolute shock what happened … The next morning I called my editors and laid it all out for them and told them, “This is what happened, and I don’t know what to do. I hate the idea of letting go of this story, but obviously this will be seen as me being biased.” Originally it was going to be something that would run in the business section. After we talked about it, we decided it would be first-person. It was not originally a magazine piece. We also decided to put it right at the beginning and say, this is what happened, put that card on the table and not wait until the end.
Hoffman didn’t have a choice in becoming part of the story. Some reporters do have a choice, and it seems that more and more of them are choosing to report on stories they are involved in or become involved in the stories they are already reporting. One reason for this trend, writes Luther Turmelle is that journalists are constantly urged these days to develop personal brands — making themselves into minor celebrities with loyal fans. Becoming a part of the story can often make the reporter out to be a heroic figure — a style of reporting some have called “emo-journalism.”
As long a journalism remains a business driven by advertising, attracting the largest audience possible will always be a primary consideration for journalists. But at the same time, we can not forget that once reporters become part of a story, it changes forever and does not reflect reality.
Elsewhere on the SPJ network, the organization’s president Kevin Smith wrote in 2010, just after the Haiti earthquake, “SPJ cautions journalists to avoid making themselves part of the stories they are reporting. Even in crises, journalists have a responsibility to their audiences to gather news objectively and to report facts.”
There are numerous other examples and debacles to be found out there on the Internet. The point is this: I can see no compelling reason for Adamson writing this story herself. Even on a small search and rescue story like this one, Adamson should have handed the story off to another reporter. There were no extraordinary circumstances here, no reasons to violate the ethics that our profession is supposed to hold dear.
Even on the small stories, we can’t let be lax on our ethics or be lazy. It’s a slippery slope, and the public doesn’t deserve that.