Ethics – a few final thoughts

Did I get it right? I will leave you to decide.

There are perhaps one or two things I might do differently today given the technology available.

For instance, having found the house, if I had had a mobile phone I would probably call the newsdesk to discuss the issue of knocking on the door and potentially informing the couple of the death of their son. That is probably a decision an editor should make, not a reporter on the ground.

I would have called the FCO from the scene as well to establish whether they could get someone round to the house quickly – probably a police officer.

However, it was not a straight choice between me or the FCO telling them. If I had not knocked on the door, then reporters from the nationals who were not far behind me would certainly have done so.

I remained in touch with the family for a long time afterwards. They invited me to attend their son’s memorial service – he was buried in Bosnia. We also talked to people out in Bosnia to try to find out more about the circumstances of their son’s death and what he had been doing there.

This raises some fairly fundamental questions about journalistic ethics. If the end result was that I assisted them, does it matter that my motivation was to get a story for my paper? Or does my motive negate what good I was able to do?

They were pretty philosophical about that themselves, and said they accepted I was working for a paper, but as long as I got the facts right, that is what mattered.

I was a reporter for about 10 years before I went onto the newsdesk and eventually into night-time newspaper production, and in that time I did many, many doorknocks in all manner of difficult circumstances.

This remains the one that gives me the most pause for thought. I hope this has shown that journalism often is not an easy job. You do things other people would not dream of, to tell a story. You make decisions in a very short space of time, always conscious of deadlines and the threat of competitors. You try to get things right, and do the least possible harm along the way.

Thanks for the comments many of you have left here, or on Twitter. I’ve had a lot of requests from readers to do another. I will try to come up with something suitably intriguing from my back-catalogue of stories. I’ll let you know when I do.

Thanks for taking part.

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2 thoughts on “Ethics – a few final thoughts

  1. Truly thought-provoking. While you were just ‘doing your job’, you obviously acted in such a compassionate, respectful and professional manner that (IMHO) your motivation to get the story does not negate the good that you did. This actually gives me faith in a profession that, these days at least, you hear a lot of nasty things about.

    I’m a writer. I have a particular set of skills in that regard. I think journalists need those skills and a whole lot more. I’ve never considered myself ‘journalist-worthy’ because of that and I think this set of dilemmas only confirms to me that I might not have the tenacity to follow through with the job in such a sensitive situation.

    However, if my career ever moves in that direction, rest assured that yours is the template I will follow.

    Great stuff.

  2. Dan,

    Before you write yourself off as not “journalist worthy” you have to remember something my mum of all people told me before I got into reporting – sometimes people want to talk.

    They are often just sat there, numbed by terrible news, with surprisingly little control over circumstances, just waiting for the police or another official to call them and let them know what happens next. Once the difficult step of knocking on that door happens then the benefits to that family, if you are respectful and sensitive, can far outweigh the associations many have with newspapers descending on families. Many will thank you once the piece is written.

    And remember, in a decent newsroom, you don’t get sent out there too early – you will be ready for the job when it happens. Little is more important in my view than preserving someone’s memory in the right way, or
    warning of the dangers of war and other terrible things which take the lives of the young so suddenly.

    You have clearly got an ethical compass and can write, which means you may well be the right sort of person for the job.

    Conrad

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