The Toronto Star, still looking for some holiday filler, has produced a journalism ethics quiz which it invites readers to answer on its website. (via J-Source)
The Gazette did something similar a while back.
Editors deal on a regular basis with tough ethical decisions, and must choose between publishing something or holding it back. The Star gives some examples, at least some of which were based on actual events which were published in the paper and got complaints.
Most are unfortunately a bit too easy to answer for me.
As holiday filler for this blog a public service, here are my answers to the quiz and the explanations for them:
1. A Toronto woman is struck by a bus and dragged beneath its wheels to her death. Some witnesses on the scene told your reporter that the woman was decapitated. Do you publish this fact in the article and headline?
Yes, but only if you can verify this from the official police report.
No, why publish such graphic details that will further distress the woman’s family?
My answer: Yes, but only if you can verify this from the official police report.
I’d leave it out of the headline, though, and I certainly wouldn’t make it a major part of the article. But there’s no reason to hide the information.
2. The Canadian Press reports that a 77-year-old man is dead after a tombstone presumably fell on him while he worked on his parent’s grave. Do you publish this headline: “Couple’s devoted son victim of grave misfortune.”?
Yes, it’s a clever play on words.
No, it’s insensitive here.
My answer: Yes.
Normally you want to play it straight with stories about deaths. You certainly don’t want to sound like you’re having fun with a headline at some dead person’s expense. But the pun here is benign enough that I’d let it through.
3. A mother calls the Star seeking to talk to a reporter about “death threats” at an Oakville high school. She says her son told her that graffiti on a washroom wall indicated that “teachers will be gunned down.” and the “shooting would make Columbine look like a joke.” The call comes near deadline and the reporter can’t reach police or school officials to verify the mother’s report. Do you publish this story or hold it for further reporting?
Yes, publish. A death threat in a high school is news and the mother’s call is evidence that the community is already talking about this.
No, hold it. A newspaper must verify facts, not report rumours.
My answer: No, hold it.
It’s most likely a hoax. Call the police instead and have them negotiate. There’s no way that publishing this information is going to save lives, but it’s very likely it would cause unnecessary panic.
4. A photo in the Sports section captures interim Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher surrounded by three young women as he makes the draw for a horse race. Do you publish this photo caption: “It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. Interim Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher is flanked by a trio of fillies yesterday as he makes the draw for Woodbine Oaks”?
Yes, it’s a humorous cutline.
No, what year is this, 1962?
My answer: No.
I learned long ago that comparing young ladies to horses gets you into trouble.
5. Your photographer covering the Olympics captures a shot of kayaker Adam van Koeverden bent over with the dry heaves after his eighth place finish in a race he was favoured for a medal. Do you publish this photo?
Yes, it’s a dramatic, gripping photo that captures an Olympian’s despair.
No, it’s mean-spirited and offensive.
My answer: Yes.
I wouldn’t make it the main photo, but I’d publish it. It happened on a world stage. It’s embarrassing, but no more so than coming in eighth place out of nine in a race you were expected to win.
6. A Reuters photographer captures this photo of Hillary Clinton in March on the campaign trail during the height of her race against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. Do you publish this on the front of the World section?
Yes, it aptly illustrates the headline, “It’s do or die for Clinton”
No, it’s a highly unflattering photo that’s unfair to this candidate.
My answer: Yes, if you have nothing better.
Looking through wire photos, you see pretty quickly that photographers love to take these kinds of shots of Hillary Clinton (or their editors like to send them out). I have nothing against publishing a photo (candidates who worry about looking unflattering in the press shouldn’t be candidates for high office), but it’s not very good.
7. A judge rules against banning the media from naming several women who are to testify in the sexual exploitation trial of a former NHL agent. The women, between the ages of 24 and 28, were teenagers at the time of the alleged sexual incidents involving former hockey players and have told the court that publishing their names would humiliate them. The names of the hockey players are banned from publication. Do you publish the women’s names when they testify?
Yes, it’s legal to name them.
No, some evidence suggests the women were coerced into the sex acts and the Star should not stigmatize them.
My answer: No.
I honestly can’t imagine this actually happening. (Did it?) Courts almost always err on the side of protecting the identities of minors who are victims of crimes (or even when they’re the perpetrators). The only exception to this rule I can think of is when they consent to being identified after they’re adults.
Not knowing the court’s reasoning behind this decision, I’ll err on the side of not publishing their names unless a compelling case can be made that there’s a reason the public should know who they are.
8. Three young Toronto men are killed in a car crash in Muskoka when their car rips through a guardrail and plunges into a river. A few days later, your reporter examines public court records and learns that the driver, 20, was in danger of losing his licence and that the two passengers who died had also faced charges under the Highway Traffic Act. Do you report these facts?
Yes, this is a matter of public interest because reckless driving was likely a factor in this tragedy.
No, it’s heartless and insensitive to the grieving families.
My answer: Yes.
I would definitely try to determine if driver error had something to do with the cause of the crash. Failing that, I would report the information but stress that we don’t know what caused the crash.
9. An earthquake devastates China’s Sichuan province killing thousands of people. An AP photo captures an anguished mother cradling her dead daughter. Do you publish this photo on Page 1?
Yes, though the Star rarely publishes photos of dead bodies this photo conveys the impact of the human suffering.
No, the photo is too graphic for a family newspaper.
My answer: Yes.
People die. You don’t want that information, don’t read the newspaper. The photo in question doesn’t show anything obviously gruesome, so I’d let it in. If it was someone whose head was blown away, I’d probably keep it off of Page 1.
10. The mayor of Vaughan is under fire for her expenses, which include thousands of dollars for meals. The Star investigates meal receipts and learns she spent $300 for lunch for three at an Italian restaurant. You send your restaurant critic to review the restaurant. His review includes stereotypical descriptions of the restaurant patrons that read like a scene from The Sopranos. Do you edit these references from the review?
Yes, these descriptions are unfair, offensive stereotypes about Italians and the Star should hold to a higher standard that doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes of those of any race, religion or nationality.
No, reviewers are entitled to their opinions and the reviewer reported on what he observed.
My answer: Yes.
Racism is bad, mmm’kay? The fact that Italians might go to an Italian restaurant is not news.
That’s my take. Anything you disagree with?
UPDATE (Jan. 13): The Star summarizes responses. Most are in the form of “readers said don’t publish; The Star did; The Star was wrong”
For number 7, yes that really happened and I think the Globe and Mail decided to run the first names of the women only.
You should totally spoof that and create a blogger’s ethics quiz. That would be hilariously lame.
well some of these stuff are too controversial.
Re 2.: I’m beginning to flinch every time I read yet another Gazette pun headline. Maybe headline puns are very, very occasionally appropriate, but not daily – and certainly not over the story of a death by misadventure, no matter how “amusing”.