By Lynn Walsh
By Mike Brannen
Working in a newsroom is like living in an amphitheater in which Socrates or Plato would lecture. Ethics are at the center of every disputed discussion, with each side presenting valued arguments justifying their positions. Of course, reaching an agreement is quite a feat.
When it comes to journalism, I am entitled to my opinions, many of which were shaped during my college classes on reporting. After graduating in Missouri, I landed a job with the CBS affiliate in Seattle. Naturally, I have butted heads with co-workers from time to time on the way we operate. Every newsroom faces this.
Perhaps the most difficult ethical topic (at least in the TV news biz) involves what is appropriate for air, and what is appropriate for social media. I am led to believe most news managers’ instant reaction is this: what isn’t fit for air isn’t fit for tweets or Facebook updates. Newsrooms have a right to take that stand, and for the most part I support it.
However, this hard and fast view may be a disservice to our audience.
Steve Sternberg of USA Today wrote a fantastic article exploring social media’s powerful role when people face disaster (i.e. Japan). He writes that in times of crisis, social media has empowered people to “share vivid, unfiltered images, audio and text reports before governments or more traditional media can do so.”
Social media is a buffet of information. Some is interesting, some is boring. Some is appealing, some is trash. Some is true, some is false.
We journalists choose to present information we are certain is true. It at times feels like a curse on our profession, because there are some stories where we just know something is true, but we haven’t determined the facts for ourselves. Therefore, we can’t share with the audience all that we know.
Filtering information for social media would be a dilemma for Walter Williams, founder of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, and author of the Journalist’s Creed. In it he wrote, “I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.”
Williams supports free information, but defining his “welfare of society” is subject to interpretation. When it comes to times of crisis, do we lower the threshold over what’s tasteful or not?
Are we more likely to show violent graphic images? I think most journalists wish we had the power to disseminate all information freely without consequence, without fear of harm or retribution. But, we do filter information because we understand the sensitivity of our audience. They say the truth hurts, but journalists are tough enough to take it. Journalists are called to this profession because we believe knowledge is power.
So like Socrates and Plato, wisdom is a virtue we seek. And like the Greek philosophers, journalists who possess wisdom face the predicament of what is ethical and who is right. Unfortunately, as it has been for centuries, there’s never a hard and fast rule that will satisfy everyone. So the debate continues…
Mike Brannen is a morning newscast producer for KIRO7, the CBS affiliate in Seattle. He recently received a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia and completed his thesis, “Motivational Use of Twitter.” He previously worked multiple positions at KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri during the past four years.