Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Black and White, There is No Grey -- A Look at Ethics in Journalism

Okay, I’ll admit it – the only reason I saw Billy Ray’s 2003 film “Shattered Glass” is because teen-heartthrob Hayden Christensen played the infamous role of a young reporter by the name of Stephen Glass. It wasn’t until my second year of journalism school that I realized how influential the actions taken by the reporter would be to my education.

Young reporters face the fear of failure every day – which explains why Glass felt the need to fabricate his stories. He wanted success.

According to the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics, reporters must seek the truth and report it. And – ten years ago – Stephen Glass flaunted his expertise as a journalist to enough to make him one of the biggest names in the field despite his age.

How did he do it? Glass’s use of cinematic dialogue and first person accounts is what put readers in a reporter’s shoes. His youthful approach to storytelling enchanted his readers and left them wanting more. But soon after making a name for himself, he became careless and got caught. Sure, he could told great stories – but none of them were accurate.

Accuracy is essential to good journalism. It’s the salt to the journalism’s pepper, the ying to its yang. You can’t have one without the other. Glass didn’t see it that way.

As a journalism student watching “Shattered Glass” in class, I was dumbfounded as to how someone so smart and talented could be so ignorant to his own job description. It is a journalist’s responsibility to provide the public with reliable information that they can use to make important decisions. Storytelling comes in a close second.

Glass didn’t realize that when it comes to ethics, the answers are either black or white. There is no grey. It’s possible to write creative stories and being ethical.

Chicago Tribune columnist and author, Garrison Keillor, brings his stories to life with every piece he publishes. His conversational tone and humorous recounts of his daily routine generates a universal vantage point, making his work relevant and relatable for any reader.

New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, does the same. Her work is angsty but honest, leaving readers both entertained and informed.

The point is: there is no possible reason to ever fabricate a story. There are no excuses. Writers amuse and educate readers every day, without fail, while keeping their artistic integrity. It’s a shame Glass didn’t figure that out before turning news into fiction.

Journalists, young or old, are responsible for providing regular people with vital information to make important decisions daily. Journalists ask the questions that everyone needs the answers to, whether they’re tough or not. It’s their job. And – they do it for all of us.

If young journalists are looking for words of wisdom to follow in a post-Stephen Glass world of reporting, all they have to do follow the words of wisdom Peter Parker’s uncle told him in the first Spiderman movie, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” It’s that simple.

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