Some of the more than 8,000 copies of the July edition await transport to Harpswell. (J.W. Oliver photo)
Last week, I met with the Anchor’s seasonal news intern for a training on ethics in journalism. I consider it the most important topic to review with young journalists. Ethics goes to the purpose of what we do — and determines whether the public trusts us to do what we do.
In these training sessions with young journalists, we review the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, the Associated Press Statement of News Values and Principles, and internal policies.
The Society of Professional Journalists divides its ethics guidance into four categories: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.
Under “seek truth and report it” is an instruction I stress to young reporters: “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”
This seeking can lead to awkward conversations.
At my previous newspaper, I often reported on the criminal justice system. When you report on crime, you call a lot of attorneys to ask for comment on charges against their clients. Most say little to nothing.
On occasion, a defendant doesn’t have an attorney. You still owe the individual an opportunity to speak. But most defendants lack experience with the press, and some seem surprisingly eager to incriminate themselves. I approached these conversations with caution.
A man charged with a gun crime told me he had nearly shot a passing motorist when, under the influence of a doctor-prescribed medication, he hallucinated a deer in a nearby field. “I’m just sorry for the whole shebang,” he said, in what may be the Maine-iest apology of all time.
Another time, I phoned a woman accused of robbing a bank in a rural village. She had posted bail a short time before. When I reached her, she politely told me that she was soaking in the bath and didn’t wish to discuss her case just then.
Of course, not everyone is so polite. People ignore you, yell at you, insult you, compliment you and beg you not to publish your story, then insult you again when you say you must. Often I record these conversations as a “no comment.” But not always.
When I was a rookie reporter, an executive for the company behind a troubled condominium development responded to my request for comment by saying both the town and the newspaper needed to stop micromanaging the project. “Can you spell micromanaging?” he said.
I’ve always had a knack for spelling, but how could he know if I didn’t prove it to him? Neither the community nor his employer found the quote endearing.
Journalism can lead to awkward conversations. But as journalists, it is our duty to have those conversations — or, at least, to diligently seek to have them.
J.W. Oliver, Editor, Harpswell Anchor