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IN EFFORT TO EXCEL, DO REPORTERS WRITE OFF ETHICS?

SHARE IN EFFORT TO EXCEL, DO REPORTERS WRITE OFF ETHICS?

Because news competition has become so keen, reporters who hunger for the hot story are breaking ethical policies they wouldn't have dreamed of overstepping just a few years ago.

This theme emerged at a number of sessions on ethics in which newsmen let it all hang out at a convention of journalism educators last week in Atlanta.One session was on using hidden devices in news gathering. But it ranged well beyond that into how reporters ought to behave when people's privacy can be compromised. Here's the problem that was opened for discussion, hypothetical but not unlike many cases that have resulted in invasion of privacy suits against the press:

The police vice squad invites reporters from Channel 3 to come along to witness a drug raid on a house in the suburbs. The police have a warrant. They burst into the house with two newspeople close behind. The reporters capture on videotape the suspect flushing a white powder down the toilet. They also tape with a hidden camera their questioning of the wife as she sits on the couch in her bathrobe clutching her children. They don't identify themselves to the wife. She tells them, "You cops are always the same. Why don't you ever knock. My world is coming to an end. Last week I tested positive for the AIDS virus, now this."

The station's CamCopter hovers overhead, filming broad sweeps of the house, including some of the interior.

The footage, including the interview with the wife, is aired that night in a 30-second segment. Much later she sues both the police and the TV station for trespass, intrusion and civil rights violations, saying that because the news hounds were invited by the police they were acting "under color of law."

The most vigorous defender of the reporters was a journalism law professor. He said the right to gather the news is constitutionally protected, that the police raid was a public activity, and that the public accepts the price that feelings will be hurt and privacy compromised for the greater good. But a lawyer was far less charitable, saying the newspeople violated the woman's reasonable expectation of privacy.

- A REPORTER for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution who called herself conservative ethically said that in the past 10 years the press has lost sight of its ethics, largely because news work has become so much more competitive. She suggested that reporters should go to the crime scene but not rush in. But she admitted that a lot of editors would demand to know why they hadn't. "There aren't enough debates in newsrooms" on issues like this, she said.

She also deplored the reporting of what she called "glorified rumor," as in the O.J. Simpson case, and the erosion of rules on confirmation in reporting. The rule of not printing a story until it can be confirmed "has about gone out the window." But she said that good ethical decisionmaking can be done on the spur of the moment if reporters are trained in ethical problems just as they are in what makes news. One of her suggestions: Teach reporters that deception should be a last alternative. Today's young reporters often think of it first because it is dramatic and vivid.

The executive who heads up investigations at an Atlanta TV station asked, "How do you use the technology responsibly without offending your audience?"

He said he applied the "scum factor."

- THAT MEANS THAT IF the activity were so objectionable that the audience would applaud the station for exposing it, the ends would justify the means.

But it seemed to me that though he cautioned, "A lot of our behavior is offensive to our audience and our weapons should not be hauled out casually," the "scum factor" was far too vague to hang a policy on.

The executive said his staff once had long discussions on whether it is ever OK for newspeople to misrepresent themselves. "But now it is a given." Recalling that the Chicago Sun-Times was denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 because of undercover tactics in getting the story, he said no doubt the paper would have won today. (The Sun-Times set up a bar in which it secretly photographed payoffs to city officials in a classic sting operation.) Another panelist, a professor, said the Mirage Bar case muddled the moral waters and "did something to our whole notion of societal trust."

I was impressed with the willingness of newspeople to look frankly at the new morality of news gathering. But I was discouraged by how little that awareness seems to matter in the real world today and by the direction in which ethical decisionmaking is going.

THE "SCUM FACTOR," observed one of the panelists, is not really a test at most TV stations because entertainment overrides all other considerations.

I got the same impression when I saw the evening news that night on Atlanta's Ch. 2, which provided a cockeyed view of the world. The first seven stories were on shootings and slayings, followed by one on a freeway pile-up, followed by a segment on the bribery trial of a former city councilman, only then by President Clinton's statement on the crime bill, followed by a story about the moving of a bear at the Atlanta zoo. Thank goodness coverage is more even-handed and comprehensive in the Salt Lake stations (Media Monitor, Feb. 14, 1994).

THE ATLANTA panelists didn't have a lot of kind things to say about how the police used the press. The newspaper reporter said too many police go out of their way for publicity because they want to get on the television programs "Top Cops" and "True Cops." She said the police also increasingly want to subpoena news tapes as evidence and in other ways to "use us as if we were an arm of the police."

Naming suspects

The ethical confusion surrounding reporting of crime is nowhere more evident than in how various media approach the question of when or even whether to name a suspect.

TV typically aggressively names and pictures suspects not just from the moment of arrest but even before. The newspapers have traditionally been more reluctant to do so.

Last week the Tribune held off naming the suspect arrested in the stalking, rape and molestation of children because formal charges had not yet been filed. This was hours after the TV stations not only had named him but also had shown his picture and pretty much convicted him by telling us we could breathe easier with his capture.

The Deseret News, which did use his name and address, has a policy of naming suspects in major crimes (those likely to be followed by the press through the whole judicial process) when the suspect is booked or some other official action is taken. But names of minor offenders are rarely used at all. The News used the suspected child molester's name while the Tribune was still withholding it.

One weakness of the Tribune principle is that the paper often identifies suspects by indirection even while telling readers its policy is not to use names. In last week's case the man was revealed as "a 37-year-old computer company employee and father of a 3-year-old boy," a characterization that narrows the identification considerably.

I applaud the Tribune's efforts to hold to its own standards but also have frequently wondered aloud here whether its policy really protects the accused. I wonder also if it doesn't confuse its readers and even damage its own credibility by trying to take the high road.