How ethical are you?

“A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.”

— William Blake

I know that’s harsh. We journalists tend to stick with our principles and ethical standards: telling the truth. But if telling the truth is so simple, why the heck do we have to read a piece of paper labeled “Code of Ethics?” Why do we have to remind ourselves that, not only do we have the responsibility to “seek truth and report it,” but also to “minimize harm,” “act independently” and “be accountable?”

Because it isn’t easy. Telling the truth is sometimes difficult. Just think of what you would tell your friends when they ask you to comment on their weights and you know they’ve packed on a couple pounds. Umm…tough question, right?

And if you think you’ve excelled in your ethical judgment, I challenge you to try this quiz. It’s a collection of ethics questions posed to the reporters and photographers of the Ventura County Edition of the Los Angeles Times. And after you’ve gone through the quiz, don’t forget to share your response with everybody. Because, trust me, no one thinks alike – we all have different ways of justifying our decisions.

1. An elderly man on Social Security earns extra money as a dog walker. While walking two poodles, he is robbed and the dogs are stolen. He begs us not to use his name, saying he is worried that the government will come after him for moonlighting and he is embarrassed. What do we do?

A. Write the story, using his name and every detail we can get. Names make news; the story would be weaker without a name and we have a legal right to identify him.

B. Write the story, but don’t identify him. There is no high moral purpose served by humiliating a senior citizen.

C. Don’t write it at all. A couple of stolen poodles aren’t worth it.

2. The Ventura River is flooding. A woman and baby are trapped inside a car. Our photographer is at the scene, along with a photographer from a rival paper. The choice is whether to stay out of the story and take pictures or forget the assignment and try to help save the woman and baby.

A. Try to save them and let the competing paper have the picture.

B. Just take pictures. Newspapers have to maintain their neutrality at all costs.

3. A source at the Point Mugu Navy base gives us documents stamped Top Secret about an investigation into a suspected espionage ring at the base. He tells us he stole the documents from the base commander’s office.

A. Write the story even though it is based on stolen documents and may jeopardize an ongoing national security investigation.

B. Hold off on a story, but push hard to get base officials to tell us what is going on. If they decline, we will have to sit on the story for both legal and ethical reasons.

C. Although we hate to reveal a source, we turn our source in to the FBI for stealing classified documents.

4. A 14-year-old boy wearing an “I Love Richard Nixon” hat has stolen a police car and we are at the scene as he is arrested. We have a dramatic picture of his arrest but must decide whether it is worth running in view of the fact that he is a minor and the notoriety could hurt his chances of turning his life around.

A. Don’t run the picture, because he is a minor.B. Run the picture anyway; it is a very good picture.

5. That same 14-year-old gets out of the stolen police car and is slapped hard in the face by a police officer. We have the photo of the event but it identifies the boy. What should we do?

A. Don’t print this picture either. Protecting a juvenile is too important, even though we now are also dealing with police brutality.

B. Print the photo, even though it reveals the boy’s identity.

C. Don’t run the photo, but turn our film over to authorities for use in a possible brutality prosecution.

Sadly, there are no right answers to these questions. But if you were to be in these situations, what would you do? Of course, these are just examples of ethical problems you might have to face in the future. If you want to see the rest of the questions (there are 12 total), go to the Los Angeles Times Website and explore more ethical dilemmas. Enjoy.

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2 responses to “How ethical are you?

  1. My answers: B,A,B,A,B

    You’re absolutely right about there being “no good answers”. Each one dances a fine line between thinking of the best interest of others, and finishing the story – giving the public deserved insight into the events that have transpired.

    These are predicaments that we as journalists have to prepare ourselves for. Ironically, there’s almost no way to prepare for such events until they are upon us, and then it becomes a question of using your best moral judgement, and letting the cards fall where they may.

  2. Quizzes like this definitely make me think. I wonder what sort of predicaments I’ll run into over the course of my journalistic career? Who will I upset and what will they do about it? I don’t want to be a pushover and take it easy on big mouth politicians or sanitize the news so it doesn’t offend anyone, but I know it’s also important to abide by the Code of Ethics. There’s a difference between being a good reporter and sensationalizing the news.

    I’ve often questioned whether I’d be willing to spend time in jail to protect a source. I know reporters like Judith Miller and Josh Wolf have done it and personally, I admire their guts and commitment. In situations like this, and in dilemmas like those above, I think Nate is right-
    there’s really no way to know how to handle the situation until it’s actually happening.

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