So that posts at other USF journalism blogs do not become too long, we can store documents here and then link to them here.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

1st Essay for American Journalism Ethics

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the more information consumers of news media have, the better choices they will be able to make in some area of their lives, beginning with the political but not necessarily ending there. The idea of utility will be our standard for what is newsworthy – for the sake of argument.

Let us further assume that you are a reporter working on a story that you think is, indeed, newsworthy. You believe reasons exist that make it desirable for people to get this information. That being the case, what – if any – are the ethical standards that govern how you go about that most basic of all journalist activities, the face-to-face interview?

I am not talking about granting anonymity to sources, a topic we will consider later in more detail. I am talking about all the ways in which one tries to get the subject talking and keep the subject talking, everything from the opening compliment, to the fake smile, to the mild flirtation, to that moment when Connie Chung “in an interview with Kathryn Gingrich, the mother of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, urged her subject to whisper her son's comments about First Lady Hilary Clinton ‘just between us.’ The whisper was picked up by the microphone and used by Chung for broadcast.” (That quote is from the Museum of Broadcasting website.)

The list of techniques for “opening up” sources goes on and on, from laughing at dirty jokes to putting down your note pad and lowering your pencil, the implication being that what is about to be said, or was just said, is not part of the interview. (As a former student recently reminded me, I once told him to “keep two drinks behind” whomever he was interviewing, the implication being you should coax the person being interviewed into having a few drinks in the first place. I may have said something like that? How ethical would that be?)

Some guidelines: Part of this exercise consists simply of your making a good first choice, of selecting an interesting aspect of this problem to concentrate on, and also a manageable aspect since the suggested length of this paper is 1,000 words. Also, I don’t simply want just a “term paper” in which you only summarize the ideas of others. I can imagine a good essay that consists of your drawing on a half-dozen sources, pointing out conflicts or particular pertinent points and explaining in your own words why you embrace certain ideas and reject others. A possible approach might be to see what the books say on some point and then discussing with working journalists how useful the books are. (I think we are talking about “field ethics” here, what you actually do, not what you say you will do.)

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