Journeyman Journalist, 1979: Ethical issues

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Eight Mile Brook roars after a rainy summer and early fall at Southford Falls in Southbury, Connecticut, October 1, 2023. By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

About this series: I revisited my journals from my first year as a freelance writer and found they told a story of their own. In this series I get the rare opportunity to give myself and other writers career advice with nearly 50 years of hindsight. Enjoy!

Sometimes new journalists (and even more experienced ones) get so caught up in daily life that they don’t notice ethical questions when they arise. Take this day. Please.

Another helluva Monday. Actually not too bad, but long, as usual. Tonight one encouraging thing happened — Dick Allen apparently thought of inviting me to work on the citizen’s advisory group for the Lake Morey program — and two discouraging things were reported — a story I had hedged on was outdated by the suspect’s suicide, and that I had injured the paper’s credibility in the eyes of a friend because I had expressed reluctance to interview [my landlord’s family] on the state denial of their nursing home license. Bummer. But a good page more than made up for it.

Journal, Volume III
1 October 1979 (Retrospective)

All right, class, what questionable practices in journalistic ethics does this short paragraph raise? Anyone?

Let’s take them one by one.

  1. Should a reporter serve on a public board he covers? The answer is no. As flattering as it was for a Fairlee selectman to invite me to serve, it never would have worked. For one thing, I wasn’t a resident of that town. More troubling, though: By serving on the panel and reporting on it, I’d essentially be acting as their public relations adviser rather than an independent and honest journalist. Most honest newsrooms don’t permit this kind of conflict of interest. Many don’t permit public service at all in their coverage area.
  2. Should a reporter postpone an investigative story? “Hedging” on reporting doesn’t serve the reader. It simply postpones the inevitable. It will have to be dealt with sooner or later, and later may be too late. Which brings us to …
  3. How do you report on the suicide of a suspect? I don’t have the details of the case, but if you report a criminal investigation at all, you’ll have to report that the suspect committed suicide. (Today the preferred term is “died by suicide.”) Many local newspapers do not report on suicides at all out of respect for the family. Most suicides are no more newsworthy than a death by natural causes, unless they were somehow public or otherwise newsworthy — like being a suspect in a criminal case.
  4. How do you report on someone with whom you have a business relationship? The answer is you don’t. You get someone else to cover the story. Granted, we were short-staffed (as all newspapers today are). But you don’t ignore news like a health care business failing to get its license.

Full disclosure: Although I don’t have clips of the suicide investigation story, I do know I covered it. The next day’s entry said that I “got the suicide story pretty well after some roundabout checking” and confirmed it with a friend who was reporting for the local radio station.

Putting on my budding writer hat, I noted that I mailed copies of the Bedell Bridge coverage, along with an informal query letter on that and the puppeteer’s forgotten art, to Yankee Magazine.

That could bring me to some awkward ethics, too: like in 1. above, I’d be pretending to be an independent reporter while doing business with the puppeteer. That kind of relationship rarely ends well.

Someday you’ll thank me. Howard, it was not a citizen’s advisory group. It was citizens advisory group. Plural, not possessive.

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