Ethics

This essay was produced for my capstone class during my final semester at the Missouri School of Journalism. I was challenged to look back on my four years of college and wrestle with an ethical issue I’ve encountered and that I feel strongly about.

Understanding Perspective, Chasing Truth

When I was a senior in high school, I wrote more scholarship essays than I care to remember about why I wanted to become a journalist. At the time, I had very little idea of what journalism actually was, but the thought had been planted in my head that journalists helped people understand the different perspectives surrounding an issue so readers could make their own decisions.

Of course, I catapulted myself into my first semester as a journalism student at the University of Missouri less than a year later, and I was quickly disabused of most of my notions about journalism. I soon learned that concepts like truth, accuracy and ethics were far more complex than I’d naively assumed. I can still remember having my mind blown when I was first told that objectivity as an end goal might not actually exist. I still shudder when I think about my first correction, a major reality check for a beginning reporter at the Columbia Missourian. A missed word ended up changing the meaning of a sentence entirely, an error I could have avoided if I’d only checked the facts more carefully. I quickly realized that getting my stories right isn’t something I can just stumble into.

Even though my views became more nuanced, or even changed completely, I never could shake the weight I felt when I was sorting through my sources’ individual perspectives. They would tell me about their lives or their opinions, and I was left to grapple with what was true, both in terms of their perspectives and of what actually happened.

One of my strongest beliefs as a journalist is that my job is to convey reality as closely as possible. As Kovach and Rosenstiel put it in The Elements of Journalism, my first obligation is to the truth. With that belief comes another: that people’s perspectives matter, and that every individual has a right to be part of the conversation about what truth is. People are complicated, so working with them means finding truth is complicated because it’s often caught up in a tangle of opinions. However, by believing that individual perspectives matter and by committing myself to truth, I’ve started learning what it means to tell the whole story.

During the summer of 2013, I moved to Dubuque to work as a reporting intern at the Telegraph Herald. While there, I became known as the unofficial “transportation beat writer” and the perpetually enthusiastic intern. I spent my summer learning how to describe plans for the overhaul of a stretch of highway and the workings of bridge repair closures. I also learned that lawnmower racing is a real thing and that the local YMCA bought more than 6,000 lemons for its county fair lemonade stand. In between the constant hum of daily news, however, I was given the opportunity to produce a couple of long-form stories that allowed me to dive deeper into a particular topic or person.

One was a piece in which I was assigned to follow up with residents whose property had been purchased by the city to accommodate a major stormwater management project. By the end of my first week on the job, another reporter had taken me on a whirlwind tour of the site and handed me a list of names to call. After that, I had a couple of weeks to track down as many residents as I could.

I chatted with roughly a dozen people, at dining room tables and in backyards to ask them about having to leave their homes to make way for the project. Their perspectives varied widely. One source told me the best thing the city ever did for her was buy her property; another said the city had “screwed” him over. I had hours of interviews, and so many perspectives on how the city handled things that I wasn’t sure where to start. In particular, I struggled with portraying a couple who was upset about losing a rental property to the city. During the interview, they leveled several accusations against the city for its handling of the property-buying process and for its treatment of landlords in general. Though their feelings were valid, I had no way of proving that some specific things they said were true.

As I sat down to write, I wrestled with portraying their story in light of both their individual experiences and the realization that their perspectives sometimes colored their views on reality. I combed through my notes, trying to figure out what details I could write as true to their experience and what details simply couldn’t be backed up on a fast-approaching deadline.

Telling their story made me think more carefully about what I mean when I say that my primary goal is to report the truth. The idea of truth gives journalists a standard to which to hold themselves, but when they start trying to portray truth practically, the situation gets murky. In the case of the stormwater management story, I faced a dilemma: What does it mean to tell the truth? I could repeat what I was told accurately, but that might have introduced errors in telling the truth. I’ve learned over time that perspective can completely change one’s perception of an event. The experience might be real for that person, but it might not be true to what actually happened. At the same time, telling the truth meant I was obligated to accurately repeat what people told me because it would make my story true to their experience. Though people are sometimes prone to bias or faulty memory, all of my sources had stories to tell that were real because they was true in their own lives.

In The Elements of Journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel point out that while journalism is obligated to truth, that concept can be tough to wrestle into an everyday definition. One idea they posit is a view of truth as a process, “a continuing journey toward understanding” (43). In this vein, they write, journalism “attempts to get at truth in a confused world by first stripping information of any attached misinformation, disinformation or self-promoting bias and then letting the community react, with the sorting-out process to ensue. The search for truth becomes a conversation” (44).

Truth is a matter of having conversations with my stories, questioning how I’m writing them and what I’m including or leaving out. During the piece I was working on in Dubuque, this became a balancing act. I sat down with a city engineer to talk more about the city’s handling of the project, and I also dug up several pages of documentation. I used this information to shape my writing into the best version of truth I could determine. I also talked with my editor about how best to portray the couple, making sure their frustration showed in my copy without venturing into unsubstantiated allegations made in anger. He worked with me to pay even closer attention to elements like attribution and phrasing to help our readers understand what we knew to be true and how we knew it.

Since I was on a tight deadline, I had to strip out a few details I couldn’t prove — specifically the claims the couple made about the way the city treats landlords — but I did my best to get to the heart of their tale. In the end, I felt like I portrayed their story in a way that was both true to reality as far as I could verify it and to their own experiences.

My agony over how to write their story helped me realize I believe that individuals’ experiences are important and that they deserve to be treated with dignity. Their stories may be strange, but they still matter. At the same time, I must always be equally committed to truth, portraying reality both factually and experientially. Truth is messy, but it’s important. Truth is one of journalism’s principle ideals, and it’s something society needs to run on an everyday basis. It’s part of the reason I decided several years ago that I wanted to work in a newsroom, and though my definition of truth may have changed, it’s a key principle that still drives me now.

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