Monday, May 16, 2005


In Which I Say the E Word...

For some reason the topic of ethics in journalism is fresh on my mind today, the past few days, the past week. No, I really don't know why.

But I'm not here to lecture about it--this ain't Somewhere On The Soapbox. In fact, I remember how godawful boring my ethics professor was back when I was in J-school. Jesus, I'd have given money for him to shut up (but of course that would have been unethical). Truth to tell, all that ethics class needed were some real-world scenarios. Bring in some alums, have them talk about their greatest temptation or their worst mistake on the job. We'd be bound to get into some ethical stuff.

At the very least, the professor could have given us some theoretical exercises, a little bit of "What Would You Do?"

Which is what I decided to do here today.

In 15+ years of print journalism, I've found myself wandering into all manner of interesting ethical quagmires. Offers of really expensive stuff in exchange for good press? Honestly, scarily, it happens so often, I barely even notice anymore. Insider tips on pharmaceutical and tech stocks about to go through the roof? Yeah, once or twice (indeed, there's a certain stock that I still check every day just to make myself crazy). I've written elsewhere about my early struggles with the truth, and it's a struggle that's still ongoing, every time I look at a quote and decide whether to change it to something grammatically correct, or leave it and let the poor mumbler sound like a shnook.

We're not going to talk about any of that stuff. Today's ethical dilemma is this:

Let's say you work for a Really Big Magazine. A magazine that has an editor who is a real stickler for integrity and telling the truth, always a good thing, but which always means more work (as anything worth doing does). For example, she insists on reported leads for lifestyle and issue-oriented stories. That means if you're doing a story on date-rape, she doesn't want a lead that begins "The last thing Jane (not her real name) remembers was someone handing her a beer..." Nor does she want the second-person theoretical lead: "So you're out with a blind date and he hands you a beer. In seconds, the room is spinning..." This is not Choose Your Own Adventure Magazine. She wants Jane--real name and all--on the record. Anything else is considered lazy reporting and an outright fiction, and she has fired people for it.

So, with that in mind, there you are, just about to close an issue when a call comes to you. It is from a woman--let's call her Lois--who was interviewed for a story on which you have already performed a final edit and are within an hour or two of sending to the printer. Lois was quoted in the story--indeed, she is the opening anecdote of the piece--and she's distraught. She wants to be taken out of the story. She wants her quotes stricken from the piece.

Just to make it interesting, let's say the story is about a sensitive topic. Lives are not at stake here, but some people might find it a somewhat embarrassing or controversial subject. Perhaps it has a sexual component, or speaks to a very private health issue.

To clarify: Lois is not claiming foul play. It's not that she was misquoted. Indeed, she talked to the writer completely on the record, and signed off on her quotes when your researcher called her to fact-check those quotes. Unfortunately, in the days since that final fact-check call (and this is why so many magazines do NOT fact-check), Lois has thought about a different--but not entirely unrelated--fact: that in a short while her name and her story will be at the very top of this article on this sensitive subject and millions of readers--including Lois' parents and her kids' teachers--will read this story. It's stage fright and cold feet wrapped up with that dream about coming to school naked. She's had all weekend to catastrophize and so she feels pretty convinced that this story will also be read by her boss and coworkers.

In short, Lois is calling in the firm conviction that this story will ruin her life. And she wants out. There is no arguing with her. There is no placating her.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the phone, your mind is making the mental calculations for the hyperspace jump that will take your ship well clear of the black hole known as Story Gone To Hell. But you're up against a serious brick wall: You're less than an hour from shipping your issue to the printer. There is absolutely NOT enough time to find a new source, to report a new anecdote to put on top of this story.

No, there is no substitute, no extra, emergency story you have lying in a drawer against this moment. Your deus has left the machina. It's this story or blank pages.

For the purposes of this exercise, you can also assume that there are no other sources within the story whose anecdotes or quotes can be re-edited and made into a lead. The story's writer, having been rendered comatose in a freak golfing accident the week before, is likewise no help, in case you were thinking of ringing him up and asking if he happened to have any outtakes from the story.

No, you're on your own.

The story needs a lead. If you choose to take out Lois' material, you have to replace it with something, and your only option at this point is to construct one of those theoretical leads we talked about earlier. Or use the story of Jane (not her real name) because the writer's notes (which he sent in before the freak golfing accident) DO happen to have plenty of info and anecdotes from people who didn't want to be identified. Improbable, I grant you. But just go with me on this.

Because, remember, it really doesn't matter if you write a theoretical lead or use an anonymous one. You work for a magazine where it has been made clear to you that employing either device in a story is tantamount to printing a falsehood. It is, if you'll recall, a fireable offense. Because, in the words of your boss, it would be fiction, and you would be lying to your readers.

Now, those astute among you are saying, "Well, on the record is on the record. She should have thought of that before she talked to the writer. Screw her. She can't just change her mind." And there, most journalists would say you are on solid ground legally and, yes, even ethically.

So, let's take this one step further. Let's assume that Lois' conviction is correct: Her appearance in this story really WILL ruin her life. Not kill her, just make her life an embarrassing hell, make her kids the object of scorn and derision. You're no idiot. You know the reach of this magazine, the power of media to influence. If you let it happen, you will have to live with the knowledge that you could have changed things for the better...but didn't. Don't just brush this off. Live with that idea for a moment.

Or you could change things with, almost literally, the stroke of a pen.

But to do it, you'd have write something that your boss would consider "lying to your readers." And it will probably get your fired.

What would you do? And how would you justify it?

No right or wrong answers here, folks. I'd just like to know.

And NO, I don't think I will tell you what I did (what? you thought this was totally theoretical?), because I can rationalize anything and it'll just end up being self-serving.

What would YOU do?

I would change the story, hope that if I did get fired my talents would allow me to find lucrative employment elsewhere. Not because it would ruin Lois' life so much, she is an adult and could most likely handle the fallout, but because of what it would do to her children, who would be the innocent victims. Growing up in this day and age is tough enough without giving people ammunition that hurts. (Dying to know what you did.)
"Do I risk getting fired?" isn't an ethicalquestion as such—it's a Cover-Your-Ass question. There's only real ethical question here—"Do I protect my source?"—and only one right answer.

Change the story, shoehorn in a graf on why you've done so, and let the chips fall where they may. Do the right thing and take the bullet.

Easy for me to say.
"Names were changed to protect the innocent........."? Also, involve the boss - let her shoulder some of the decision making. A CYA move but don't we always have to CYA?
Bottom line: I would talk to the boss.

If she's as ethical as you say, I would hope she would be understanding if a witness backs out at the eleventh hour.

It's this kind of thing that makes me not want to be a journalist. Who knows, maybe Lois' life would actually improve from the article. She might find much-needed support from her community. She might realize that her story is helping others to understand their own, or educating them so they can perhaps avoid her predicament. And it will, of course, help them understand hers. It really couldn't be all bad. She went on the record and she verified her quotes, so she must have understood this at one time. Her cold feet, as adament as they are, may not be a true indication of the real consequences.

In the case of, say, exposing a slum lord who has gone on the record with a self-incriminating quote and is now retracting it, to not print it would be doing injustice to his tenants. But who gets harmed by not hearing Lois' story? Maybe no one. Or maybe thousands of women in the same position.

It's a tough call, and I don't know what I would do. I guess I would change her name, and live with the fury of my boss -- although Lois might actually benefit from having her name attached to the story. But for the readers, her name matters not -- the story is what is important. Her name (and perhaps her photo?) make it a stronger one, but the story would be powerful nonetheless.

Does "E Word" stand for "eeeck" or "edit"?
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
(Had to erase the previous one due to annoying grammatical error. Erp!)

For me, it's sort of hard to say without knowing all the real details. But I'd lean heavily towards changing it to "Jane Doe (not her real name)".

Mainly because:
1) I believe that only editors have a "you're lying if you don't give the real name" problem. Readers don't care. They won't even remember it 3 hours later, unless they already know her. This is especially true in a "lifestyle" story, which, geez Louise, is not exactly the same as war reporting.
2) It protects your really big magazine against lawsuits from a highly disgruntled Lois. (Not to mention a Lois gone postal.)
I don't remember seeing any flying CDs on I-80, but maybe that is because I was too busy playing frisbee with my own. Was the Tracker you passed black with a tan roof, by any chance?

As for the paper, I, for one, am not afraid to reveal its identity: The Santa Fe Reporter. But then again, as a lowly intern, I have the liberty of doing so.
Lois is an adult, spoke on the record and was cogniscant thereof at all times. Actions have consequences and she needs to take responsibility for hers. Life does not have a reset button and "mulligans" are for golfers who cheat.
You are an educated, caring man, albeit a sneaky one (the back of his car?) I am sure you will make the right choice what ever it is. Me? Perhaps asking the head honcho if I could put something like “the names and places may have been changed to protect the innocent…”
change the name, explain why and when she asked you to, risk getting fired and then write a story about why you got fired

but, then agin that's easy for me to say, though I hope I would in that situation
I would change Lois' name, but not include the "(not her real name)" qualifier. And then hope that my boss doesn't check with the writer to see if that actually is her name. That will get the magazine printed on time and save Lois her embarrassment.

However, I assume that the boss is a very thorough person and will check out the facts, so it won't be that easy. When she finds out what I did, I'll tell her the whole story. If she fires me, I will not be sad to not be working under a person who couldn't understand why I did what I did.

Ethics is what you can do and still look at yourself in the mirror.
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