Ethics and the College Media

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series examining the role of journalism on college campuses. Part one can be read here.

At 3 p.m. on Sept. 5, she tweeted: “Dear most of the black community at penn state: the hub is not your playground, please stop shouting and dancing and playing music.”

Within hours, Pennsylvania State University was ringing in pandemonium over the 19-year-old white sophomore’s Twitter complaint regarding the noise level in her building.

The Daily Collegian, Penn State’s independent student daily, received dozens of messages condemning the tweet for racial insensitivity and requesting news coverage of the incident. The Collegian also found that many campus student leaders expressed concern over the tweet’s racial content.

Editors noted the newsworthy nature of the incident, as it not only triggered immediate and intense backlash from the student body, but indicated underlying campus racial tensions. They struggled, however, to determine how the tweeter’s identity could be verified. Furthermore, if she were to be identified, should her name and picture be used in the news coverage?

This retrospective case study is one of many that the University of Arkansas’s Center for Ethics in Journalism reviews with its journalism students, Arkansas visiting professor and former Penn State professor Gene Foreman said.

Foreman, who has worked as a senior editor at Newsday and The Philadelphia Inquirer, said that the ethical implications presented in the case study reflect the nebulous relationship between a college paper and the student body.

Even within the sphere of professional journalism, reporters tread the fine line of dual citizenship in both the contiguous community and the more objective world of journalism that neutrally observes the community. In a college or university setting, these two worlds are thrust even closer together, and student journalists are challenged by their often conflicting obligations to their community and peers versus objective and factual reporting.

Ethical reporting plays a key role in both college-level and professional journalism, Foreman said.

“Fundamentally, we’re trying to be believed, so everything we do should strive toward credibility, getting things right, being fair and being considerate of everyone involved,” Foreman said. “The two aspects of ethics are recognizing what is and isn’t appropriate and having the moral courage to do what is right, what is good and what is appropriate.”

The four over-arching tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics instruct journalists to “seek truth and report it,” “minimize harm,” “act independently” and “be accountable.”

Foreman notes that journalists are often challenged to reconcile the first two points, which state that ethical journalists “should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information” and “treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect,” two objectives that may bump heads.

“If a student committed an act that is not becoming to that person, that truth can hurt, and the editor needs to decide whether the harm done to the individual outweighs the value of the information to the public,” Foreman said. “The crux of journalism is about stopping and thinking and going through a decision process to try to do the right thing.”

The role of ethics in college journalism is further complicated by age. College journalism is unique in that both the reporters and the subjects of reporting are young adults, who are old enough to be held accountable for their actions and decisions but are still in the process of learning from mistakes, Foreman said.

Harvard Crimson President Bobby Samuels said that two people ages 18 and 58 should not necessarily be held to the same standard of accountability.

As the case study indicates, much of the debate surrounding college journalism ethics lies in the decision to either print or omit names in controversial news stories.

“On a very basic level, that gets into the question of legality,” Samuels said. “If you do want to pursue the question of printing names, then you do have to tread more carefully from a legal point of view.”

During last year’s investigation of the Harvard cheating scandal that involved around 125 students in an introductory political science course, The Crimson printed only the names of those who were publically relevant, such as notable athletes.

Decisions, however, are made on a case-by-case basis, always keeping in mind whether the names are relevant to the quality of the news.

“With all of these questions, the nature of ethics, fairness, credibility, there are no absolutes,” Samuels said. “That’s what makes working on a student paper so intriguing and so interesting. You are faced with these situations and you have to decide what the right thing is to do.”

Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism professor Joe Mathewson ’55 said that a paper both guides and is guided by its relationship to the community it serves.

“It’s pretty obvious that you’re constrained by your personal involvement in any aspect of the community,” said Mathewson, a former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth. “You can’t just stand outside and look at it totally dispassionately.”

Foreman emphasized the ethical dilemma that comes with controversial stories, particularly when the subject is a young adult.

“We are dealing with people who are 18 to 22-year-olds, and you have to weigh the consideration that this person is a young adult against having a juicy story that will draw readership,” Foreman said. “I think you should never lose sight of the value of compassion.”

In an era of digital journalism, reporters must consider the impact of their work even more carefully.

“In these days, if you put someone in an embarrassing spotlight, whatever you print will be picked up by a search,” Mathewson said. “If you put anyone in an awkward or difficult position, that’s going to be very permanent out there on the Internet.”

These problems are further exacerbated by questions regarding online commenting policies.

Editors and publishers need to approach online commenting with great caution and should keep a tight rein on which comments are published and which are filtered out, Mathewson said. If illegal comments, including libelous comments and those that invade others’ privacy, are published, the news organization is responsible for policing the comments and can be held liable in a court of law.

Mathewson said filtering comments does not stifle public discourse and is a serious legal and ethical matter. He encouraged papers to err on the side of being conservative when policing comment submissions.

Commenters are also more likely to be responsible and truthful when they are not granted a cloak of anonymity, Mathewson said. Libelous and other illegal comments posted anonymously can nevertheless be pursued in court to identify the commenter.

Because papers play a major role in guiding debate in a community by both what it does and does not print, journalists and commenters alike should act ethically and thoughtfully when publishing information.

“Journalism, probably more than any other profession, is obligated to obey the law and is obligated to the public to be fair and honest and considerate,” Mathewson said. “It’s really important for journalists to have a sense of responsibility to individuals and to the community at large. I always tell my students Don’t leave your conscience at the newsroom door.'”

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