Checking the Ethical Component of a Story

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In an article discussing the new frontier in ethical journalism, Ghanaian journalist Prosper Yao Tsikata lays out four rules for making sure a story is morally ripe for publication.

The four criteria he describes are preponderance to evidence, the filtering process, the crystallizing evolution and finally, disgorgement.

In order to satisfy Preponderance to Evidence, Tsikata urges journalists to check and double check sources-- especially given the consideration that today, there are vast sources like the internet that can't always be taken at face-value.

Tsikata says that one of the most important steps in this process, especially when considering high-profile public figures, is "contacting the individual(s) involved in the issues and checking with them or their inner circles." Had the many journalists mistakenly reporting that Gabrielle Giffords had died checked within her inner circle, it is likely that they wouldn't have made such a serious mistake.

The second step is the Filtering Process. Here, journalists should flesh out their story and pay attention to whether or not the facts they have acquired follow logically from each other. They should fill in as many gaps in the logic as they can by doing their own fact-checking: comparing dates and financial figures, examining individuals involved, etc.

In the third step, which Tsikata calls the Crystallizing Evolution, journalists should act as utilitarians, and make sure that the benefits of releasing the story outweigh any personal issues surrounding the subject of the story. This consideration should have been applied to the recent situation regarding Steve Jobs' health- many journalists and shareholders took the stance that Jobs' health status should be available to the public at large. To me, and seemingly to Tsikata as well, Jobs' health is a personal issue and an ethical journalist would consider it as such.

Finally, Tsikata calls for journalists to consider Disgorgement. For Tsikata, the word means that once the beans are spilled and the full story is out, journalists should take back any statements that have proved to be inaccurate. Disgorgement is a bit of an unconventional term since it is usually applied to unethical gains in economics, but Tsikata successfully applies it to journalism.

It is important to distinguish between the positive properties of transparency in journalism and politics and the ethical dilemma that comes from trying to apply this same transparency to the lives of individuals. Tsikata's guide is helpful in this regard because it delineates ethical boundaries in journalism.

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