Natural disasters and other catastrophes like Hurricane Harvey, as well as the much ignored flooding in South Asia, either bring out the best in people or the worst. It is, after all, times of hardship and duress that reveal the true characters of men and women. Because natural disasters happen to draw the attention of massive audiences around the globe, the heroes and villains of these crises quickly become the focal points of the news coverage surrounding these events. Under such extreme conditions, the court of public opinion is quick to rush to judgment. Rich and famous Pastor Joel Osteen, for example, faced public condemnation after his Megachurch failed to open its door to the displaced due to potential flooding.
CNN’s Rosa Flores discovered just how easy it is to become a target of public scorn when she approached a Hurricane Harvey victim who thoroughly blasted the reporter for her lack of sensitivity and sensibility. The Harvey victim was, obviously, distraught due to the life-threatening, devastating conditions her and her children had endured for almost a week. After such an ordeal, the last thing anyone would want is to be used as entertainment by a company seeking to profit off a natural disaster. In an age defined by the presence of cameras everywhere and YouTube, it is bad enough that irresponsible individuals seek attention from the suffering of others. The last thing anyone needs is a profession fostering that kind of behavior. This incident, therefore, necessitates a discussion on the changing role of journalism and ethics.
Frankly, the suffering experienced by victims of tragedies and devastating circumstances is no one’s business. On the surface, the intrusiveness of journalists and reporters is no different than that of the town gossip. Their coverage of “interesting” stories is little more than a highly polished means of feeding the same perverse curiosity that propels YouTube videos and personal Tweets to viral status. On the other hand, the work of journalists and reporters makes people aware of the dire struggles faced by others. In the case of natural disasters and inhumane living conditions, coverage helps drive fund raising, which alleviates the suffering of victims. The idea that people have to essentially become entertainment in order to be helped is, however, unsettling and, potentially, harmful to victims.
Furthermore, coverage of unseen and untold stories helps drive public policy. As the world is democratizing, public awareness allows individuals to make more informed decisions when it comes to civic engagement. Public reactions to such coverage also help public officials make decisions based on public opinion. To that end, the work of journalists and reporters is beneficial, and necessary, to democratic society. The news industry is supposed to provide a service, not serve as a form of reality-based entertainment. It is when the professionals of the news industry no longer seek to provide a public service that they become nothing more than paid gossips. It is when they cover events and stories without a clear purpose that they fail to serve the public good and protect the dignity of those involved in their reports.
Like all professions, journalism needs ethics. The core goal of ethics is to maximize the value of the profession and minimize the harm done by the practices of the profession. As such, how journalists and reporters approach their coverage of human suffering matters. If the goal is to simply create a reality-based drama in order to attract attention and make money, the human focal points of the story are most likely just being exploited. If the goal is to offer victims a platform to willingly express their views for their own benefit, e.g. relief or a sense of social support, victims will be empowered by the coverage. If the goal is to cover events in order to foster public awareness, interviews of victims can and will be circumvented. CNN Corespondent Ed Lavandera demonstrated this when he cut his live feed in order to protect the dignity of hurricane victims onto a rescue boat.
Furthermore, professional ethics exist to help minimize the negative effects of experts while ensuring a firm and its industry sustains healthy competition as well as socially responsible behavior in the long run. Put simply, professional ethics control costs that cannot be controlled directly or may not be known. Ethical considerations ensure journalists are truly credible sources of information while ethical conduct also determines if writers are assets or impediments to the world of politics as well as the rest of society. Ethics for such a pivotal source of analysis and reporting must be grounded in a sense of responsibility to one’s readers, the Public at large, and the community as a whole.
Journalists are expected to communicate relevant information to readers. It is, therefore, an ethical obligation for journalists to ask questions that their audiences might find relevant. The answers, at times, can be quite damaging to the people and institutions caught up in the stories. Although integrity requires writers to honestly report their findings, there is also need for balance. This means journalists must also present alternative interpretations of the data, especially when their coverage can be damaging. Facing potentially destructive findings, it is the responsibility of journalists to show a way forward as well as to facilitate the healing of the damage done by their coverage
Ethics for the journalists require these professionals show no favoritism toward or against a public figure for the sake of personal gain or other considerations. Clearly, everybody has their own bigotries. As such, transparency, when a potential conflict of interest arises, is a requirement. Much of the time, journalists must report nothing more than the facts; however, many stories oblige writers to interpret the facts to make them useful. This means journalists must also recognize when their personal views influence their analysis. Donald Trump might say offensive, controversial things, but ethics require journalists to cover his campaign in a more constructive manner.
Read old posts