Ethically speaking, this can be a tough job
Remember those old movies where submarines find themselves navigating through an underwater minefield, sometimes relying on skill to avoid what would be a sure death and other times surviving near misses on luck alone?
That’s what it feels like sometimes in the world of journalism as we try to make the right ethical choices. It seems almost every day we are discussing the right way to cover a story or whether some event should even be reported. Sometimes these issues are discussed at length, other times reporters and editors have to rely on gut instincts and past experience.
I remember once at a previous newspaper I was called to a meeting in the county manager’s office. When I arrived, it felt sort of like I had walked into a trap. The manager, the chairman of the county commission and the chairman of the economic development council were in attendance.
The county was negotiating with a company that wanted to open a toxic waste dump in a rural area, a project that would have brought good-paying jobs to one of the poorest counties in eastern North Carolina. The county manager was telling us — meaning the local newspaper — about the project because we needed to keep it under wraps for a few months or, he feared, other counties would make a better offer to the company, or fear among the “not in my backyard” crowd would derail everything.
My publisher had been tipped off about the project by nearby landowners who had talked to the surveyors and others who were doing due diligence at the site. I told the county manager we already knew about the project, so if we reported the story it would not be based on information he provided.
Needless to say, they went ballistic a few days later — after hours of internal discussions at the newspaper — when I said we were going to publish the story. He didn’t believe we had already heard about the project, or at least that’s what he said. I told him that by our estimation, the rights of nearby landowners and other taxpayers to know what might happen in their backyard outweighed the desire for secrecy.
The manager was right. We published the story and public protests against the project snowballed in just a few days. It moved elsewhere, the jobs never materialized, and the newspaper’s relationship with the county was never the same while I remained editor.
Ethically, this seemed a clear case of the public’s right to know outweighing the county’s desire for jobs and economic development. Today, though, that county remains among the state’s poorest.
And so the question of ethics remain. By the time this column appears in today’s paper, I will have participated in a forum at the Diana Wortham Theater about the media and ethics. The event — “Building Trust in an Age of Mistrust” — was sponsored by Blue Ridge Public Radio, and it included National Public Radio editors and representatives from several Western North Carolina media sources.
It’s a topic that’s crucial for me, The Smoky Mountain News, and anyone in the media. It’s key to our survival. Never has the credibility of those of us who call ourselves journalists been under attack like we are today. The landscape has changed so fast that everyone purportedly reporting the news — from rogue, partisan or money-making websites to 150-year-old community newspapers that rely on long-standing journalistic principles — are often lumped into the same “media” category.
We try very hard to be truthful, be fair and impartial, to be accountable for our mistakes, to be independent, and to serve the public and not corporate, business or political interests. And we also try to minimize harm and treat sources and members of the public as deserving of respect.