The last blog entry I published concerned the conflict which journalists sometimes have to face – when to be a journalist, and when to not be.
The blog sparked a debate among some readers and I am pleased to report on some of the issues that came out of this discussion.
But first, some clarification is in order. The point of the blog was not to chastise current students for choosing to act in a certain way during this recent Victoria George Pazzano incident. This situation is, indeed, different then an event with another class of students, some time ago, involving a knife-carrying teen walking through the halls of the campus, and the apathy shown by some of those students to covering breaking news right under their noses.
What I wanted the blog to explain was that I understood the conflict. And I tried to show how I did what they did, when I was in a similar situation to the Victoria George Pazzano event (when I was working at CBC Halifax –covering the murder of a woman who turned out to be my friend’s sister.)
During that incident in the 1980s, I decided to remove myself from covering the story anymore, despite my ties to the family. I knew I could not be objective. I chose friendship over journalism, and I too decided their privacy was worth more then me getting a scoop. I let someone else cover the story.
I was never intending to do any reporting about the Victoria George Pazzano story myself using our ties to her family and Centennial College; i.e. interview our student who is her sister, for my own professional purposes.
The blog was simply to point out that it's a tough call sometimes, and the public needs to understand this struggle between wanting to answer the professional requirements of a journalist's training and balancing that with good taste and someone's privacy. That it's a struggle sometimes for a journalist NOT to tell a story, when we are trained to always try our best to tell the story, because that is our calling and our public trust.
Years ago, when a close relative was doing a big legal contract in New Brunswick, and told me about it, and I was working for CBC in New Brunswick at the time, it would have been a big scoop for me to report it. Hundreds of new jobs were about to be announced in a depressed community. But this person’s career could have been destroyed if I reported it (same last names, d-uh).
I realized that, and promised this person I would keep the tip private, and I never reported it. It wasn't worth ruining this person's life/or my relationship with this person.
This is still true. Few stories ever are, except health hazards, nuclear war, and perhaps imminent destruction or terrorism. But those are rare events in a journalist's life.
Did I want to report it with every fibre of my soul? Yes! It was killing me. But it wasn't worth it, so after some thought, I chose to stay silent.
Did my journalism students now do right by not reporting and exploiting their friendship with Victoria George’s sister? Of course. Did their instincts as journalists make them WANT to write about the story? I hope so.
And as a teacher, I hope this serves as a talking point in an ethics lesson. If someone has an "in" with a newsmaker, but is too close to this newsmaker to feel comfortable/ethical being the journalist, what are the steps that can be taken as an alternative?
1) Wait and do it later?
2) Get someone not related or involved to do the story?
3) Not do the story?
Feedback, as always, is welcome.
Labels: cbc halifax, Centennial College, journalism ethics, victoria george pazzano