Molly Marshall’s Top 10 Journalistic Ethical Dilemmas

This blog post was written by Olivia Folmar Ard from the perspective of her character, Molly Marshall. The Marshall Plan is now available in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon.

I’ve wanted to be a journalist for years now, but I never realized how hard it would be to do the job the right way. As it turns out, journalism is so much more than writing interesting stories, and it takes more than a good person to be ethical. Whether you dream of having a community column or penning a dramatic exposé, there are rules to follow when you’re responsible for disseminating information to the public. I break more than one of those rules on my quest for glory in The Marshall Plan. Here are my picks for the top ten ethical dilemmas facing young journalists today.

1) Truth should be your guiding principle.
This might seem like a no-brainer—it certainly did to me at first—but it’s harder than it seems. It’s one thing to be honest about the facts you present; it’s another to have anything other than the truth motivate your search for a great story. Pesky little things like jealousy and desire for revenge like to sneak in when you’re not looking. No matter how tempting it is to follow them, don’t! They’ll only hurt you in the long run.

2) Stories should be completely, 100% unbiased.
There’s a reason jury selection is such a long, drawn-out process—the courtroom process only works if the jurors come to a decision based on the evidence presented them, not on any prejudices they may have. This is why I should have never tried to write that exposé—I had entirely too many personal connections and biases.

3) Journalists should respect the individual’s right to privacy.
While snooping is sometimes required when looking for the truth, there’s a right way to do it. When I was trying to gather information for the exposé, I did some bad things. Not only were some of my actions unethical, they were highly illegal and violated more than one person’s right to privacy. Thank goodness I had some sense knocked into me before I kept going down that road!

4) Accuracy of stories should be confirmed early on.
Like #1 this seems a bit obvious, but I still managed to slip up here. In journalism, as in a courtroom, circumstantial evidence alone isn’t enough. Before I started investigating such a he said, she said story—especially one so scandalous—I should have gone straight to the people involved to get their accounts. I didn’t have confirmation that my story was correct until after I dropped the story. If I’d published it without knowing for sure it was accurate, I might have ruined someone’s life for no reason!

5) Concern for the public does not justify distorting the facts.
Despite my personal biases that played into my investigation, there really was a part of me that thought I was doing the right thing for the Bennett community. Unfortunately, wanting to help others doesn’t justify unethical practices. Putting an intentional slant on a story for any reason is not okay!

6) Avoid conflicts of interest like the plague.
If a story has the potential to cause you benefit or harm, you’re probably more interested than anyone else in seeing to its outcome, but trust me—drop it on someone else’s desk. The moment your primary concern becomes personal welfare, it’s impossible for you to follow guideline #1. This is one of the few rules I didn’t violate while trying to write the exposé. Ethics: 5, Molly: 1.

7) Don’t insert opinion into a piece being presented as news.

Editorials have their own sections of the paper for a reason—opinions have no place in a news story. This is a crucial mistake I made over and over again. Instead of gathering all the evidence I could, I cherry-picked so the story would match up with my opinion of the people involved. It seemed like a good idea at the time. . .

8) Stories shouldn’t be written expressly for accolades.
Once again, in case you’ve been snoozing—in journalism, the TRUTH should be your primary motivation at all times. Technically I didn’t violate this during my investigation, since I wasn’t trying to win an award. Even so, the hope that the story would launch me into a successful career was a major factor in why I pursued it in the first place.

9) Make promises only if you can keep them.
This goes back to #4. Accuracy matters! I almost turned in a story proposal to my editor without even getting firsthand accounts from the people involved. What if I’d written the initial article and then hadn’t been able to follow through? Not only would my credibility (rightly) be damaged, the reputations of others would be called into question without resolution. Bad all the way around.

10) Don’t use your position to manipulate outside business interests.
Writing stories encouraging people to invest in or patronize your business is wrong, for obvious reasons. They didn’t pick up a newspaper to read an advertisement in disguise? Unfortunately, I did this to an extent with my community column. Since I wasn’t manipulating a news story, I suppose it wasn’t so bad, but still a little sketchy.

You’re probably thinking, “Hey Molly, maybe you shouldn’t be a journalist after all!” I thought that for a while myself, but honestly I think I’ve learned my lesson. Don’t judge me until you’ve read my story!
Items on this post were based on the Associated Press Media Editors’ Statement of Ethical Principles. Thanks to all the ethical journalists and correspondents who keep us informed!