Monday, August 1, 2011

Newsroom ethics reveal our dedication

Part of me wishes everyone could have witnessed the ethical discussions that took place in my newsroom tonight.

I've written before about the incorrect notion that all for-profit news teams sensationalize to draw a larger audience. There's a very popular knee-jerk reaction when people see a news story they don't like that it's a result of journalistic negligence; the news team is willing to compromise their integrity if it'll bring in my revenue.

I criticized this idea in my TAM 9 presentation, and I said it ignores the principal-agent problem: Reporters don't get paid more if a story is popular, so why would they be willing to make a series of sacrifices for free?

The facts from tonight perfectly reflect what I was talking about.

I'm not going to include a link to the story. I have no desire to give this family's personal tragedy any more publicity, so I will just reveal the important facts.

A man took his own life in a very public and dramatic fashion. His father managed to get close enough to the scene to see the aftermath up close, and his anguish was very visible and public. Our photographer captured the moment perfectly in one of his photos. It looks like an award-winning photo; it's both moving and tells the story.

The issue for the news team was if its right to print the photo. Everything we captured took place outside and in front of a crowd. It was a public event. But the photo also crosses into a family's very personal tragedy. No one in the story is what's called a public figure, so they deserve a higher amount of privacy than a famous person would.

I was the reporter on the story, but the decision to use the photo belonged to the editor. The photographer and I pushed for the photo to be used, but the editor decided against printing it. The discussion was on telling the story and capturing the moment versus respecting a very private tragedy in someones life. We did talk about the paper's reputation, but at no point did profits ever come up.

Now compare tonight's events to the sensationalism claim. Everyone talked about producing an important story for our readers. I do not believe the editor is compensated directly on each paper sold, but I imagine the company judges his performance on sales. Yet he wanted to play it safe. The photographer and I are not judged on sales, yet we were the ones pushing the higher-risk strategy that could be criticized as sensationalism.

Everyone involved wanted to do their job right. This was a tough story to cover for a variety of reasons, and I respect the calls that were made. It also showed how seriously our team took the ethical matters here. All of this was behind the scenes - the readers will never know how much passion was behind the different perspectives. This was professionalism at its highest, and I wish more people were able to see it unfold.

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