Letter from the editor: ‘What a way to learn about journalistic integrity’

By Bethany Kyle—

Editor-in-Chief

“What a way to learn about journalistic integrity.”

Judge Jason Cashon described my experience with trial coverage perfectly with that one statement. The lessons learned from being a college reporter covering an international story stretch far beyond courtroom etiquette and legal jargon. From the first day of jury selections on, the Texan News Service staff has been tasked with ethical dilemmas.

It’s easy to talk about hypothetical situations in journalism classes. We can look at the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics and apply it situations we may or may not ever face, but it becomes more difficult when they become reality.

The first day of jury selections, three TNS reporters witnessed a potential juror being interviewed by a journalist at lunch. There was no question that the journalist and juror were breaking rules.

The simple solution at that point would have been for them to pretend they hadn’t seen the indiscretion. The situation did not directly involve them and it is not their job to police other journalists. However, the SPJ’s code of ethics says that journalists should “Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.”

It would have been easiest to turn a blind eye, but they instead decided to take what they had seen to the judge, for the simple sake of doing what they believed to be the right thing.

Later in the trial, when the crime scene and autopsy analysis were being discussed, pictures of the scene were shown. We had the photos taken of the screen by a reporter, and knew there were people who would want to see them. We also knew, however, that these men had loved ones who would not want them shared.

In the end we applied the code’s guideline of “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” We chose compassion for the families of those killed over the shock factor of the gruesome images.

New and unique scenarios have continued to come up as the trial has continued. We likely never would have thought them up in a classroom setting. Decisions often had to be made quickly and we learned to work well and think critically under pressure.

The most important lesson in ethics I learned from this trial is that when an issue arises I never need to make the call completely alone. My staff, advisors, and professors are always willing to take part in the discussions and help search for the clarity to make a decision. Even as I write this column, I am keeping the advice from SPJ’s Code of Ethics in mind: “Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”

There is no question that I have much more to learn about ethics in journalism, but it’s nice to know that I have a little more experience moving forward to the inevitable ethical dilemmas I will face in the future.

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