Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘ethics

Something’s Burning

with one comment

Something's Burning

Andrew Jennings is a Scottish investigative reporter who has been following the mismanagement and corruption at the European soccer agency, FIFA, for nearly 15 years. In a recent interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, he said he provided the FBI with internal financial documents in 2009 in an effort to help the Americans prosecute FIFA’s wrongdoing. The FBI, along with Interpol and a number of other law enforcement agencies around the world began arresting FIFA executives on Monday, June 1st, 2014.

Ms. Block asked Mr. Jennings if he felt he had violated his journalist integrity by providing those documents. Mr. Jennings adamantly said no, saying FIFA is a corrupt organization, everyone knew it was corrupt and little was being accomplished in the way of internal reform, which he believed it needed desperately. This again brings up the question of how much should a journalist insert themselves into the story and it reminds me of a story from J-school which is built on much historical precedence.

A photographer is photographing a protestor who is preparing to self-immolate himself. What should the photographer do? Should he keep taking pictures as the person sets themselves on fire in the most desperate act of political protest, or should he drop the camera and save the person from what would certainly be a graphic, horrible and painful death? According to Wikipedia, journalist and photographer Malcolm Brown won the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963 for choosing to take just such a photo. In it, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc set himself ablaze in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

There have been 133 self-immolations for political reasons and 10 for economic reasons since Brown’s photo. Journalism has since weighed in on the journalist’s responsibility to intervene. The Society of Professional Journalists cautions journalists in a release from January 2010: “Report the story; don’t become a part of it,”  Even in a crisis, the SPJ says  journalists must be objective.  Actions the SPJ defines as not objective include advocacy, self-promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story, or creating news events.

But Roy Peter Clark, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who recently wrote for the journalism ethics organization, the Poynter Institute, said “That standard – to observe, cover, but not intervene – is surely not absolute.” He continues, “There are those rare moments when a reporter (or other professional, such as a psychiatrist) realizes that life or public safety is on the line.  That professional may choose to assume a different role, to put on a citizen’s hat rather than a journalist’s”. Journalists have a responsibility to tell the story in a way that insures their credibility by not showing bias. But they also have a responsibility to be human beings.  That can be a tricky wire to walk.

What is the life or public safety issue regarding FIFA?  Some have argued that the thousands of immigrant workers that have died in Qatar’s hellish heat as they prepare the country for a possibly ill-gotten 2022 World Cup tournament might be cause for intervention.  Others like Mr. Jennings, simply see organizations like FIFA stealing what is precious to the people, and believe the people don’t deserve to be lied to or stolen from.

“What would you do”, asks Mr. Clark, “if you saw someone trying to set himself on fire?  I would probably run for my own safety, yell like crazy, and point out the danger to others.  I know Good Samaritans, braver than I, who would try to stop the action.  I doubt I would take out my cell phone and make a video of the self-immolation”.

Mr. Jennings made a similar choice. Under extraordinary circumstances, he heeded the call of the FBI to help them put out a different kind of fire.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber

leave a comment »

200px-John_Kitzhaber

I interviewed former Oregon legislator Dennis Richardson in April 2014.  At that time, Mr. Richardson was running against Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber as the Republican nominee.  And during that conversation, he hinted that the governor’s office should uphold high standards of behavior.  Specifically, he told me:

“As far as being governor’s concerned, what I want to do that will set an example is be a governor who truly is mindful of the people. I feel the higher up your position the greater your responsibility for a larger number of people to represent them and to be accountable to them. To have a governor who is accessible, who’s transparent, who’s open, who’s honest, who’s willing to accept advice from the right sources and then use that to make the judgment that he feels is best and then explain that to the people to truly represent the people of the state and not merely have this title of being governor”.

Did Mr. Richardson know something that he preferred to not say?  In light of all that is happening with Mr. Kitzhaber right now, those comments now seem prescient.

Hear the entire interview with Mr. Richardson here.

Written by Interviewer

February 13, 2015 at 07:44

The Thin Black Line

leave a comment »

Thin Black Line

Today, I did a story about protestors marching on a library at Portland State University.  They were representing the “Don’t Shoot” PDX movement (PDX is the nickname Portlanders use for themselves in many cases.  PDX is the designation the FAA gives Portland’s international airport).  While capturing natural sound of the protestors, now inside the library, talking about why they were part of the march, one young white student named Ryan Miller said he is marching because he is afraid that eventually, the police will treat him in the same way as some say they have already unjustly treated people of color.

It was one of those moments of pure honesty that people say they seek, yet are still hard to hear.  As a journalist, for me it was pure gold.  And as a storyteller, I assembled the story and sent it off for airing.  But for a moment, I almost slipped into what I consider to be a bad place journalistically.

Listening to Ryan talk about his fears of being targeted by the police, it was clear to me that he was afraid that the privileged status of being white might one day not be enough to protect even him from police abuse.  And that reminded me of the poem, “First They Came” by 20th century pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

According to Wikipedia, “Niemöller was an anti-communist and supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. His poem, is well-known, frequently quoted, and is a popular model for describing the dangers of political apathy.”  The labels may be different as they apply to Niemoller’s day, but the context seems sadly timeless.

Listening to Ryan, I had the brilliant idea of using Niemoller’s poem in the story.  And I did.  But it suddenly hit me that the poem would be equating the Portland Police to Nazis.  And although there may be many people who feel that way, I realized it is not my job to editorialize.  So I undid what I did and then I sent it for air.

The police often talk about how they represent a thin blue line that officers say is the barrier between ordered society and chaos.  I think it’s also the line cops try to not cross, lest they become the thing they say they are fighting against.  I think in journalism, there is a thin black line, which might symbolically represent the ink.  This side is as credible and balanced as is humanly possible according to the highest and best ethical standards.  And that side is soapboxing, muck-racking, yellow journalism and all of the worst aspects of the quill.  Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the change of fortunes from Dan Rather to Peter Jennings, the self-serving slide from one side to the other can be almost imperceptible.

I don’t like what’s been happening across the country for my own reasons.  But I don’t think it’s my job to turn my stories into weapons.  By contrast, the listeners will hear them, judge me, my story, the events I describe and make their own decisions.  That is how it should be.

Who is This?

leave a comment »

Press Pass

Yesterday, I spent several hours trying to get a state agency to talk to me about a program they had created to help homeowners deal with the possibility of forclosure. I saw the story on Feedly and it sounded like  a good one. I called the agency, identified myself and the staff person was reluctant to tell me the name of the program case manager. She directed me to another state agency where I had to leave a message on voicemail for their media relations person. That person called me back an hour later and said the case manager had been called and she was ready to talk to me about this program. I called the case manager and she said she hadn’t received any call and needed it  before she could talk to me. I called the media relations person back and got her secretary. I told her I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to let me tell what I thought was a GOOD story. Half an hour later, I was called back by the media relations person who told me again that the case manager had been called and told it was OK to talk to me. I called the case manager and conducted the interview. I edited the story and it aired.

Supposedly, bureaucracies will talk to you all day about the good they do but will clam up like a safe if you want to talk to them about problems. That’s the assumption, anyway but it’s not always true. What’s seems more true is that everybody watches the news but nobody likes reporters. And waiting for call backs with reluctant interviewees when you’re on a deadline to tell even a positive story is a bad taste that’s hard to forget when that same agency sends out a press release about something they want to get coverage for. Your first thought, even if just for a second is, “You ignored me then and you want me now?”

So sometimes, reporters call with questions first and identification second. I did that this morning. I called an agency with some general operations questions that weren’t on the website. When I was asked who I was, I said so. That is an ethical responsibility. But if reporters aren’t asked who they are, sometimes in some situations, they don’t volunteer it because saying you’re a reporter is often followed by a promise to call back that never comes. Some people say it is unethical for a reporter to not immediately identify themselves when they call with questions. And if I’m asking the same questions that an average citizen might ask, the argument then is it’s not about the questions but about the intented use for the information.

Reporters not identifying themselves as they collect information for a story is not unprecedented. In 2004, the Poynter Institute, a leading journalistic ethics organization, published a story about the work of the Contra Costa Times and their investigation on the accessibility of public records. Times reporters called public agencies and asked for very general public information but didn’t identify themselves as reporters. And in each case, they were eventually thwarted by officials for arbitrary reasons. You can read that story here.

I called Poynter and talked with Al Thompkins. Mr. Thompkins has advised media organizations on ethical issues for years. He said with the Times, reporters were posing as citizens because citizens should have access to public information in a way no different from journalists. That was different than me because my intent for the information was for reportage, not general interest. I didn’t first identify myself because it might’ve resulted in no call back for a story I need to complete. Many organizations may be obliged to talk to citizens and journalists, but when a journalist is identified, they have to follow a protocol. In that case, the person who answers the phone deserves to know who they’re talking to.

But Mr. Thompkins also said that doesn’t mean there is never a time when a journalist doesn’t identify themselves. He once did a story about how the offices of then Senator Al Gore weren’t recycling. This was during the time when Senator Gore had just written “Earth in the Balance.” When the story came out, Mr. Gore’s office manager was practically apaplectic. Mr. Thompkins says if an individual or an agency has information that is relevant to a story, the first words out of their mouths should be, “Of course we’ll give you what you need. We just need to go through this process first.” In that respect, he said I was not as fair with the person on the phone as I should’ve been.

So that’s why I feel like crap. I think in my whole career, that was the first call that didn’t lead with my ID. I shouldn’t have let my experience the day before color me. But on the bright side,  Mr. Thompkins said that as an ethics expert, my self questioning is just what he wants to hear. At the same time, he said he doesn’t want to hang up thinking I’ll be “pussy-footing” around anybody from here on out trying to block a story because of this minor sin. But for reporters, having reluctance to reveal yourself is always a tantalizing tease because you know officials and bureaucrats can run like white tailed deer even if the goal is to make them look good.

That’s bait I can’t take. Live and learn.

Written by Interviewer

July 11, 2014 at 01:33