The dilemmas we face: how young journalists draw ethical red lines

By Katelyn Verstraten

This story began when an elderly woman with dementia wandered onto a busy highway in the middle of the night in July 2014 and was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Police found her lifeless body in the morning and notified the family. Her children and grandchildren were devastated. Officers began searching for the driver.

I was the journalist assigned to cover her story for one of Canada’s largest mainstream media outlets, an organization I had been working at for just three months. My editor was adamant that speaking to the woman’s family was top priority, so I immediately called the police to see if the family wanted to talk with me. They didn’t, an officer told me, at least for now. They were grieving and wanted privacy. I assured him I understood—but my editor did not.

“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “We need to get a quote from the family!”

“But they don’t want to speak with the media right now,” I said carefully. This man was my boss. I respected both him and his work. Disagreeing too adamantly could earn me a reputation of being difficult to work with, or cost me my job.

“So scour social media, search for the family online,” he instructed. “Someone must know something! Let me know what you find and we can send someone to their house.” And with that I was dismissed.

Back in my office, I uneasily contemplated my task. I had reached out to the family, and they had declined to comment. My editor still wanted me to speak with them. Something about this felt very wrong.

A year after this ethical quandary occurred, the incident continued to haunt me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So this summer, I decided to reach out to other young journalists and ask them about the ethical dilemmas they have also faced—or anticipate facing over the course of their careers.

There’s a thousand eager journalism students willing to take my place”

Jimmy Thomson, a 27-year-old freelance journalist, has reported all over the world: from China to the Norwegian Arctic, from the Middle East to Russia.Yet when I ask him about the most ethically challenging situation he has been in, he describes his work with one of Canada’s leading publications.

The publication—which Thomson has requested remain anonymous—has partnerships with an organization representing multiple oil companies, partnerships that significantly influence their editorial output. The journalists working at the organization are doing great work, Thomson notes, but the publication is not acting as ethically as it should.

Thomson was told by his editors to write several pieces about the natural resource industries—and that oil organization would have full editing rights. He believed the publication was being ethically compromised by their connection with the organization, but as a young journalist he felt his ability to object was limited.

“I want to write for them,” says Thomson, who wrote the pieces but asked not to have his name attached to the work. “In the future I want to have that door open rather than slamming it because of some ethical conundrum…I didn’t want to sour my relationship.”

Concerns about “souring” a critical mainstream media relationship or being a replaceable commodity are common among my peers.

“I feel like I haven’t gotten a good enough foothold in the journalism profession where I feel safe airing my ethical misgivings,” says a freelancer in her mid-twenties who asked to remain anonymous. She tells me about ethically fraught situations in which she voiced concerns to an editor, and was made to feel “small and replaceable.”

“I’m a young journalist in a highly competitive industry,” she says. “If I disagree and it’s perceived as dissent, there are a thousand eager journalism students willing to take my place.”

Jessica Davey-Quantick, a FASPE fellow and journalist who worked in both Canada and Qatar during her twenties, agrees.“If I don’t take that picture, somebody else is going to,” she says. “If I don’t get that quote, or interview someone, someone else is going to. There’s so much competition!”

So how can young journalists follow our ethical compasses while pleasing our editors and reporting the truth?

“I think it can be a real Catch-22”

After speaking with my peers, I decided to turn to two of my journalism ethical gurus: Kathy English, public editor of The Toronto Star, and Kirk LaPointe, former ombudsman of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and ethics professor at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

“It doesn’t matter what your news organization tells you, you have to know within yourself what’s right as a journalist,” English says. “How far do you go for a story? How far do you allow yourself to be pushed? We all have to find our own ethical moral compass for the way we do journalism.”

“But how do we please our editors when they disagree?” I ask.

“I think it can be a real Catch-22,” English says. “It’s easy for me as an idealist to say ‘hold on to your own ethical principles,’ but when you come smack up against the wall of a superior telling you to do something, I’m not sure how you reconcile those things.”

She pauses, and I feel relieved. If one of the most ethically experienced journalists I know finds these issues challenging, it’s no wonder I feel confused early in my career. “It won’t always be easy. There’s no doubt about that,” she continues. “There are true ethical dilemmas for young people. Thinking about it in advance really helps – what you stand for, what you believe, and what your views are rooted in.”

LaPointe agrees.

“You’re going to be your own personal ombudsman,” he says. “You can’t rely on your organization to be doing all these things. You’re have to have your own framework, and bring it with you.” LaPointe reminds me of the codes of ethics created by both the Society of Professional Journalists and the Canadian Association of Journalists. By using guidelines such as these, he says, young journalists can develop their own ethical code.

“Ty to develop reflexivity in your work—and try to do it regularly,” he adds. “So that when you review your own body of work at the end of the week, month, year, you can see where you were congruent to these principles. That, to me, is success for a journalist these days.”

My conversations with LaPointe and English remind me of an epiphany moment I experienced while on the FASPE trip in May 2015, just one month earlier. It was a profound ethics fellowship, but a moment at the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin stood out for me.

Wolf Kaiser, deputy-director of the House of the Wannsee Conference, was leading us in a discussion about the ethical dilemma journalists faced in Nazi Germany. Kaiser said those journalists had four choices: “Become a Nazi, leave the profession, keep working as a journalist but try to send ‘between the lines’ messages, or immigrate and publish their work outside the Reich.”

“But how did it get to that point?” I asked him. “How can we avoid being in such a extreme ethical dilemma?”

“You need to decide on your ethical principles well, well in advance so you’re not caught off guard in an unethical situation,” he replied. “Draw your ethical red lines when things are good, and then you won’t cross it when things are bad.”

“It’s a constant assessment and reassessment”

My principles led me to abandon the quest to find the hit-and-run victim’s address. But one of my colleagues was successful in tracking them down, and went to their home. The family asked again for privacy and declined to comment. Newsroom life went on.

I haven’t forgotten about the grandmother, or how her life ended. The longer I am a journalist, the more I understand the role ethics plays in my career. Every day issues that require a quick ethical decision arise, and every decision is significant, shaping the journalist I will become.

My ethically minded colleagues may not have all the answers, but they are doing their best to find them.

“I have a strong sense of ethics, but all journalists, myself included, are constantly confronted with situations that defy those ethics,” said the anonymous freelancer. “It’s a constant assessment and reassessment. The best thing I can do to maintain my ethics is not subscribe to a rigid set of guidelines but instead keep talking and reading about ethics.”

“I think there are many ethical red lines, and I prefer to see it as a dart board,” agrees Thomson. “You’re standing in the middle of it and surrounded on all sides by different ethical lines you could cross. And you just have to try not to stray too far from the middle.”

“The biggest thing for journalists is that no matter what your ethical decision, you have to be able to defend whatever it is you do,” said Davey-Quantick. “We can try and arm ourselves as much as we can, but at a certain point we are going to have to sleep at night. And if you can’t, then you have to try and make some changes.”

There are no clear answers when it comes to the ethical dilemmas we face in our careers, but maybe that’s the beauty of it. That as young journalists we can constantly “assess and reassess,” feel confused, lose our way, then learn and try again.

Jessica Davey-Quantick

The author at the House of the Wannsee Conference in May 2015. (Photo by Jessica Davey-Quantick)

























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