The Duty of a Journalist

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

“You have a choice to make. If you choose to publish that article, you will be responsible for ruining the reputation of the school. Do you want to have that on your shoulders?” Assistant Principal Jeff Dingo asked me sternly. The following day, Principal Joe Schwartz summoned me to his office and warned that although he had never censored the school newspaper, Tandro, he had the right to do so. Several faculty members advised me to think carefully about publishing the article. Seven months earlier at the Iowa Forensics Institute, I researched and debated whether journalists have an ethical obligation to withhold information from the public. Now, as co-editor-in-chief of Tandro, I needed to answer that question in the “real world.”Less than a week earlier, we had learned of a drinking incident on a school-sponsored trip to France and decided to investigate. Gradually, we discovered the administration’s motive for seeking to suppress the story. Despite adopting a zero-tolerance policy following the widely publicized 2003 Homecoming drinking debacle, the administration rescinded the punishments it had meted out because students had apparently been told by a faculty chaperone they could drink in moderation to fully experience the culture. The story had merit, but I was deeply troubled by the potential repercussions of publication, including sullying the reputations of participating students, faculty chaperones and the school, jeopardizing future field trips and precipitating a backlash against Tandro and its staff. I also considered the feasibility of preserving the Tandro experience in light of Principal Schwartz’s threat. After much study, consultation and reflection, I determined that suppressing the article would be a dereliction of journalistic duty and the practical equivalent of submitting to censorship. In view of the political pressures, it was agreed, contrary to customary Tandro practice, that I should co-author the article and personally verify its accuracy and fairness. I interviewed several key students and sought confirmation from teachers and administrators, most of whom refused to cooperate. I decided we should focus on the school’s zero-tolerance policy and the strengths and weaknesses of the travel abroad program and eschew the sensationalism of disclosing names and discussing details of drunken behavior. We published the article without prior review by the administration. Unlike the 2003 Homecoming, other media did not cover the incident, and there was no backlash. Indeed, numerous faculty members, including some who had advised against publication, complimented the article and the manner in which we conducted ourselves. Additionally, The Journal News ranked the article first in the News category of its High School Journalism Awards.I am confident that our decisions were correct as a matter of principle. Our actions also had the added benefit of re-establishing the proper relationship between Tandro and the administration, as demonstrated by the administration’s recent refusal to quash a potentially controversial article about a local clergyman despite pressure from several parents. However, writing the article sensitized me to the administration’s concerns about negative publicity and sharpened my awareness of the responsibilities and burdens of a reporter, especially in connection with the reputations of affected people.

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