Groping for Ethics

How appropriate was your college ethics course once you graduated and started working in the "real world?" I knew there would be difficulty applying the high-brow philosophical concepts taught in my class as soon as I saw the name of the textbook on my syllabus: "Groping for Ethics in Journalism." Yikes.

Sure enough a month after graduating from the University of North Florida with my shiny new communications degree, I was offered free season tickets to a local community theater, Theatre Jacksonville, because of my role as a writer at a weekly arts and entertainment publication. I wasn't the theatre reviewer and did not require the tickets to do my job. Not directly. But, sure, I'd love to attend the plays, and being new to Jacksonville and new to my role as staff writer, I could see how becoming familiar with the work of the Theatre could be educational.

Groping for the right answer, I told the TJ director offering the free tickets all this. I talked to my editor and publisher. They all thought it was a good idea for me to accept these opportunities to learn more about the community I'd be writing about, and since I wasn't the Theatre reviewer, there was no conflict of interest.

I accepted the tickets and I never ended up writing anything about Theatre Jacksonville for the publication.

What do you think, did I do the right thing? Looking back, I'd do it again. There really was no conflict.

Pam Benoit, Associate Professor of Communication, University of Missouri, has created an interesting list of ethical questions related to lying in various professions.

She asks lawyers, would you impeach the credibility of a witness telling the truth? Would you put a witness on the stand when you know they will lie? How about giving legal advice you believe will tempt your client to lie. After all, doesn't the lawyer-client relationship depend on confidentiality and won't Truth win out when both sides pull out the stops? Then again, the ABA says lawyers should not knowingly deceive the court, and the purpose of justice is deterred by deception by a court officer. Hmm

Well, what about the law enforcement profession? We've all seen those Law and Order cops and DAs use the end to justify the means. They say they are doing the greater good. The stickler for doing things by the book reminds his colleagues they are role models and lying - even to get the bad guy - generates loss of trust and creates suspicion

Politicians sometimes believe lying is actually required to do the job or claim right and wrong depends on the content of the lie. Benoit asks ethicists to consider these issues, however:

  • Deception erodes trust
  • Deception takes away citizen control
  • Consider the issue of public good vs. private gain.
  • Lies encourage the profession to grow more insensitive to the truth through the practice of deception.

    Consider the medical profession. Is it okay to keep secrets to protect your self and loved ones or because you have promised to keep a secret? Ethically, does a promise outweigh a lie? What do you tell the sick and dying? The truth might hurt their health or the diagnosis could be wrong. Benoit points out that some medical professionals may believe that patients don't want to hear the truth. The opposite arguments are that patients suspect the truth and want to be told or they need to be told the truth so they can prepare and make informed decisions about their care. What's a doctor to do?

    In the journalism profession - the one I was taught to grope for ethics in, a journalist wields a greater amount of power than she might realize. Might she encounter a situation where she thinks she would be promoting the public good by lying or leaving out parts of the story? While this seems a clear misuse of the press to me, I still don't know what I would do if asked to suppress a story of national importance, say, for a few days. It would depend on all the circumstances, right? But then, who am I to make that decision?

    Other reporter issues could include lying to the source as the only way to get the information or even time constraints or pressure to produce a memorable story. Again, the larger issues here involve encouraging a general practice of deception and having the power to work for your own private gain not just public good.

    If I've left you groping for answers, good! Keep questioning.

    About the author: Laura L. Link is an accredited public relations professional who speaks on business and communication ethics, abundance and women's business issues. She is the Ethics Officer for the North Florida chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. Have issues too touchy to bring up in public? Email and we'll confidentially bring your question all the way up to the PRSA Board of Ethics (BEPS). 2004 Laura L, Link, APR

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