Ethical challenges hit all of us

At some point in our careers, we likely will be faced with ethical or moral dilemmas. And in journalism, the first obligation is to the truth.

If someone were to ask me to define my job as a reporter, I would say it is to ?report.? Even though that sounds like a simple answer, it isn?t necessarily easy to do. So much in journalism is left to interpretation.

Let me explain.

One of my first ethical dilemmas happened more than 20 years ago when I was a young editor. The information came to me in the form of a letter to the editor, and it involved a man who was running for a school board position.

The letter-writer said she thought the public had a right to know about this man?s propensity to violence as it related to his own children. She asked if parents really wanted him making decisions about children.

It sounds cut and dry, but here?s where my dilemma surfaced. The letter was written by one of the man?s children?a daughter, who was then an adult.

In addition, the letter arrived on Friday and would be published on Monday, the night before the election. This would give the ?accused? no time for a rebuttal.

I struggled with what to do because I didn?t know the daughter or what her motives were. Maybe she was abused or maybe she felt scorned for whatever reason and wanted to get even with him.

Either way, the letter could change the outcome of the election. Being inexperienced, I contacted a few other people for advice. Sometimes the answer to a question like this is not simple.

I know what I ultimately did with this 20 years ago, but what would you do?

Once I had a few more years under my belt, I ?thought? I was getting more confident about what to do in certain situations, but that belief crumbled after the following ethical dilemma.

While I was still editor, our sports reporter was excited to learn a new superintendent had been hired in one of the small towns we covered. It was local news and a big deal for the 250 people living in the town.

After the story was published, the owner of the newspaper walked in and told us this same superintendent had been fired for scalping tickets. The ethical dilemma for me was whether this needed to be brought to the attention of the general public.

What concerned me is that the school board had already approved him for the position and knew about the incident.

Another factor was that this person already had paid for his crime with a fine and community service.

I chose not to publish the story, but my decision was vetoed by the owner, who said the story was newsworthy. I felt the story was irresponsible and hurt the integrity of the newspaper.

The end result of running was that this small town was furious with the newspaper for what it considered an attack on this person?s privacy. After all, a school board member said, the superintendent had paid his debt and wondered why we would be so cruel.

Again, if you were facing this kind of predicament, which way would you go?

One last example.

While at my former job, I received a call from a young woman who said she was being sexually harassed by an employee at the area community college. She wanted the newspaper to report on this abuse. She said she didn?t mind giving us her name and was more than willing to talk about the details.

As a reporter, I realize we have a responsibility to report news that can hurt individuals. However, I was also concerned about the person reporting the abuse. She had a right to her privacy and one way to protect it was for her to first go before the college board of trustees.

She said she hadn?t done that yet. I told her if she did that first, and no satisfactory action was taken, she should get back with us. Apparently the board was able to work the problem out because we didn?t hear back from her.

If you were in the same situation, what would you do?

According to the Society of Professional Journalists, ?the duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.?

I believe everyone at the Free Press strives to be accurate, responsible and impartial. It is why I am proud to be a part of this team.

As for the first scenario, I did publish the letter. But, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn?t do it so close to an election. Everyone should have a chance to respond?particularly to such serious allegations.

Did printing the letter make any difference? I?m not sure, but the man did end up winning a seat on the school board.