Ethical Lessons From A Tragedy

Monday kicked off the Society of Professional Journalists’ official Ethics in Journalism Week. As co-presidents of the Northwestern chapter of the society, we decided to discuss the four elements of the SPJ Code of Ethics with respect to the tragedy at Virginia Tech last week.

The first value is to “seek truth and report it.” In our society, especially in the media, we value timeliness. When anything major happens, people stay with their TVs see any updates about the story. Television networks understand this, and they will broadcast any developments. This poses a big problem: Where is the buffer? Who are the fact checkers?

The day of the Virginia Tech shootings, everyone asked questions, but few answers existed. A detective cannot come to conclusions before he collects all the evidence, so how can the media report factually on events still taking place? Television updates should air to keep people out of danger, but these cannot serve as on-the-spot analysis. Editorializing requires a focused reflection on the facts, not the arrival at conclusions immediately after an event.

Another part of the code is “minimize harm.” During the Virginia Tech massacre, journalists had to visually portray the severity of the crime while remaining sensitive to those affected by the massacre. For example, The New York Times made the decision to show bloody photos of wounded bodies. The recent Virginia Tech shootings impacted the entire country, so the images of the bodies were important for some people. To others, the images were too vivid and too soon. On the other hand, when Americans hear of tragic situations such as the Virginia Tech shootings, oftentimes they distance themselves from the events. The scenes of grief captured America’s emotions.

The Virginia Tech shootings raised another concern regarding civic journalism. Pictures, video and audio supplied by bystanders often cause problems. This type of media is especially difficult to deal with when a tragedy of this magnitude occurs. The question then becomes: Does civic journalism help tell the story, or does it further harm those impacted by the shootings?

According to the code, journalists must also have the ability to “act independently.” People usually think of financial conflicts of interest, but emotional conflicts also exist. Journalists associated with Virginia Tech need to ask themselves, even after the tragedy, if they can portray the events accurately. It is not fair to expect a grieving person to report on the story that has caused him anguish.

Additionally, journalists need to block out the influences surrounding the story. If the Virginia Tech university police requested that the media downplay an aspect of the tragedy, the press would have to stand firm in its autonomy. On a moral level, a journalist works only for truth and ethics. The media can obey an ethical request to not show images of the dead, but reporters should never change the facts of what happened.

Finally, the code charges all journalists to “be accountable.” Protecting a byline, publication name or company name is essential in the media. Perhaps that is why NBC was careful when it received the multi-media package from Seung-Hui Cho. The network handled the package with gloves and immediately notified the police. After the police copied the contents of the package and thoroughly examined the information, NBC began deciding what content was appropriate to publish. When they began broadcasting the information, they specifically stated the means by which they received the package. After acting with accountability, NBC invited dialogue with the public through their online forums.

We recognize the complex nature of journalism and look to the SPJ Code of Ethics for guidance in our work.