When questioning the ethics of journalism, issues that arise usually concern either the reader, subject of discussion or validity of the claim being made, and more often than not, all three. Recently I came across a piece of investigative journalism which challenged ethics in a new way – those concerning the writer. To save myself a backlash of abuse from those who will take my view in an incorrect manner I shall make no reference to the journalist, story or others concerned here and make it clear I am not writing this to make a judgement on the content of the story, but instead will take a less-considered look at the effect of the whole matter on the journalist.
Some time ago I attended a work shop and lecture delivered by the journalist in question, providing an introduction to investigative journalism. I found it to be almost revolutionary – I had never considered before that a journalist could be responsible for a story in this way. It is one thing pressing the police, government and other authorities to provide information for a story, but in this case the story arose as a result of a hunch – the journalist held an intrinsic suspicion that what was being reported was not the whole picture, and took it upon themselves to investigate the details – with the public’s help – to uncover a completely new story.
What I find both fantastic and unsettling is the development of the story and the journalist’s level of emotional involvement. For one reason or another, the story came to mean a great deal to the journalist. This is more likely than not down to the reason that they take their job very seriously and enjoy what they do, but the result of the story meant what was uncovered went from voicing some truths to changing the life of the person at the centre of the story in one of the most dramatic ways possible, and unfortunately I’m not talking about a lottery win here. If the story continues as it looks set to, the individual in question could be facing a serious prison sentence. Some people may ask whether the journalist was right to single-handedly change the fate of this person’s life, but that’s for a jury to decide – not me. What I’m asking is what effect this will have on the journalist (besides a promotion, I expect).
Journalists aren’t known for being the most sentimental of creatures, but how would one cope knowing their actions had taken a member of society from their everyday life and put them behind bars, especially when it occurred so unexpectedly – I firmly believe this individual did not believe they had done anything wrong until this was recently questioned. This factor blurs the ethics slightly – if a crime is committed without intent, it surely lowers the feelings of contempt the public have towards the individual, and if this is the case, the conscience of the journalist could be unsettled somewhat. This may not be the case – after all, the journalist must have known this outcome to be a possibility when they began their investigation, but I would expect the realisation of this to have some emotional impact. This said I would hope the impact is minimal and the journalist is extremely pleased with the work they have produced in order to do so again in the future. This is the first case I have come across of truly inspiring, hard-hitting journalism: the story did not previously exist. Journalists may report on many gruelling stories of the largest global issues, but finding an issue from scratch is somewhat different. This is the type of journalism that should be represented to the public, not only for the observers of it but for those with an ambition to become involved. As someone said recently, this is inspiring stuff.