EDITOR'S CHAIR: Your Argus and ethics
I TRAVELLED to London last week to take part in a seminar about ethics and journalism. Primarily, this was an event aimed at educators - those who run journalism courses at universities.
The seminar focused on how ethics is taught to potential new journalists, particularly in today's post-hacking scandal and post-Leveson world.
Below are some extracts from my speech at the event, which I hope will explain to readers how we try (not always successfully) to get things right.
I can’t remember ever actually using the word ‘ethics’ when discussing how to approach, or write, or display any particular story.
But the reality is we apply an ethical approach to every story we publish, online or in print.
There will be plenty who will disagree with me – usually the mum of someone who has just been in court, outraged that her offspring’s name and/or picture has been published by the local paper.
So how do we apply ethics to the day-to-day business of running a newspaper?
Firstly, every journalist we employ has a clause in their contract that refers to ethics and sets out the Editors’ Code of Conduct.
Secondly, every journalist at the Argus has a copy of the pocket-sized Code issued by the Society of Editors. They are encouraged to keep it with them, to refer to it when in doubt, or refer to me if still in doubt.
But most importantly, we care about the communities we serve and the impact our stories can have on them.
When a major national story breaks on our patch – and it happens at least a couple of times a year – the national media arrive, do their job and disappear until the next time. Their interest is in getting the story. Period.
We are on patch all the time. We cannot afford to upset people unnecessarily. We have to get things right.
As a young reporter chasing stories 30 years ago, I was taught that first is first and second is nowhere. And I like to be first with a story. Every editor does. Every journalist does.
But I would rather be right than be first.
Brand reputation is more important to me than rushing a story in before it is ready to go. As a local newspaper, without the trust of our readers we have nothing.
Let me give you two brief examples of getting it right – and getting it first.
When I was Editor of the Worcester Evening News in 2008 we broke the story of Dan James, a 23-year-old former rugby player who had been paralysed from the chest down after a training accident and had travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end his own life. He was the youngest British person to die in such a way.
The day after we broke the story, it made the front pages of every national newspaper. The story won us Scoop of the Year and Newspaper of the Year awards. But that doesn’t matter.
What mattered to me was that we got it right. We actually sat on the story for more than a week.
We had covered Dan’s injury and his death. Then we got word that it was an assisted suicide and that police were investigating his parents, who had flown to Switzerland with him.
We could have run the story there and then. But I wanted Dan’s parents to be on board. I wanted them to be involved with the story, to understand the impact it was likely to have on them. So we talked to them – via an intermediary – for some time. In the end, they accepted we would run the story but didn’t want to be involved with it.
We could have lost that story at any point during that period. The Midlands is a competitive area. But I wanted to get it right more than I wanted to get it first.
More recently, at the Argus this month, we covered the tragic story of Caroline Howarth who suffered a heart attack while giving birth to her first child and died two days later. We picked the story up from Facebook, where a tribute page had been set up to her.
Again, we could have run the story straight away. It was already in the public domain. Other media might have already picked up on it.
But you have to get these things right, particularly with such sensitive stories.
So we spent two days talking to family friends, getting messages to Caroline's grieving husband Lee about why we wanted to run the story and how we would present it.
Then we ran the story with the full cooperation of Caroline’s family. We got it first and we got it right.
The result was a message the next day from the family, thanking us for our sympathetic and accurate coverage.
These are high profile examples, but they represent the kind of decisions we take every day. We don't always get it right and I wouldn't pretend that we do.
But it is what matters the most to me and to the Argus.
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