Reporter's Notebook

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TMI?

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TMI2

This is a quickie.

Anna Werner of CBS This Morning did an excellent report on cloned vehicles that drug traffickers use to move drugs across the Mexican border into the U.S.  Apparently, they are copying FedEx trucks, ambulances, police vehicles and WALMART semi-tractor trailers.  It was a great, need to know story.  It reminded me of another great story and a caveat.

In 1993, the Society of Professional Journalism published a guidebook called “Doing Ethics in Journalism”.  Under the chapter “Making Ethical Decisions”,  the authors talk about a Pulitzer Prize winning story called “AIDS in the Heartland” by Pioneer Press reporter Jacqui Banaszynski.  They talk about guiding principles Ms. Banaszynski used when writing her story.  Those were:

Seek Truth and Report it as Fully as Possible
Act Independently
Minimize Harm

About that last one, it is assumed to make sense that minimizing harm, as in not letting the revealing of something actually cause damage or help more of it to happen, should be a goal.  Journalism though, might argue that it isn’t.  And there’s the rub.  In Ms. Werner’s story, it was certainly important for the public to know that drug traffickers were moving drugs in legitimately looking vehicles.  But is it minimizing harm to the public by alerting drug dealers that mispellings on the fake logos of those fake vehicles help police spot them better? The argument could be made that a mispelled logo could also alert the public who could, in turn, alert the police.  But you could make the counter argument that making that piece of information public just helped drug traffickers make better logos.

The problem with the story, as I saw it, was it gave a tiny piece of information that may make finding these fakes harder and makes me question those times when and if news reporting goes too far.  For the public, that detail may have been incidental, but for law enforcement, it might be huge.  Some of that responsibility does lie with the police.  If they didn’t want it shared, they probably shouldn’t have shared it.  Of course, if they did consider it minor and purposely released this tidbit, then all this is moot.  But if it slipped into the reporter’s notebook, then so too did some of the responsibility.

When Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban, I asked this same question.  Although this is about drugs, not crazed religious extremists, the principle is the same.  At what point in a story should reporters just stop talking?  We now know that drug dealers mispell logos and maybe, we laugh at them for their ignorance.

But I’m guessing the police aren’t laughing.

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Written by Interviewer

June 12, 2014 at 01:00

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