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Russell Frank: The Semester in Ethics: A Brief Review

by on December 09, 2011 5:55 AM

The syllabus for my journalism ethics class is organized by topic: We spend a week on privacy issues, a week on conflict of interest, a week on sensationalism and so on.

At least once every semester we have to interrupt the regularly scheduled discussion to address the ethics issues raised by coverage of a breaking news story.

My first year on the faculty, it was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. In 2001, of course, we asked painful questions about coverage of the September 11 attacks. In 2003, we wrung our hands over Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who made up the news as he went along. Last spring, we parsed coverage of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz.

Then there are the presidential election years, which always provide fodder for discussions of fairness and accuracy. Was coverage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin sexist? Did questions about John Kerry’s service in Vietnam or George W. Bush’s in the Air National Guard or Barack Obama’s relationship with ex-’60s radical William Ayers distract us from far more pressing matters? How should journalists handle statements by candidates that are patently false?

Given the endless stream of news that demands to be examined from an ethics standpoint, I’ve considered scrapping a topic schedule altogether and teaching the class on the fly, responding to whatever’s in the news from one week to the next.

This semester, I could have pulled it off. From the Daily Collegian’s inaugural sex column and the gory coverage of the death of Moammar Gadhafi in October to the Jerry Sandusky and Herman Cain scandals in November and December, current events dominated the class.

Since we all have a stake in ethical journalism, here is a recap of some of the issues we hashed out.

Conflict of Interest: Several of the reporters who have covered the Sandusky scandal have Penn State ties, including alumni Mark Viera, of the New York Times, and Sara Ganim, of the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Editors had to judge whether their contacts and knowledge of the culture outweighed any loyalty they might feel toward Dear Old State. Ganim, by the way, has to be a serious contender for a Pulitzer Prize, which would be quite a coup for a paper the size of the Patriot-News.

Privacy: The eight men who testified to having been molested by Jerry Sandusky when they were children are identified as Victims 1-8 in the Grand Jury report. Though a little investigative work would uncover the identities of at least some of them, news organizations have adhered to the widely agreed upon policy of not naming victims of sexual assault, especially juvenile victims. But the New York Times has been criticized for going too far in providing identifying details about one of the victims, right down to the tie-dyed socks he wore to track meets.

As for Cain, journalists continue to struggle with the question of whether extra-marital affairs are the public’s business.

The Breakfast Test: Clearly, none of us one wants to read about rape or see a bloody head in the morning paper while eating our Cheerios. But the tormenting of Gadhafi spoke volumes about the hatred he had incurred during his 40 years of tyranny. And the graphic language of the Grand Jury report is crucial to our understanding of Penn State administrators’ handling of the information furnished by Mike McQueary. Not going to the police might be understandable if the talk was of “horseplay,” unforgivable if the talk was of anal rape.

Fairness and Accuracy: My students continue to boil about their depiction as slavish devotees of St. Joe and God Football. The idea has taken hold among some that “the media” caused the riot. I gently reminded them that no one was forced to throw stones, stomp cars or flip a TV truck. But I agree that the photos of the flipped truck needed to be contextualized as the handiwork of a tiny band of Penn State students, 90 percent of whom weren’t even in Beaver Canyon at the time.

The other complaint of many JoePa cultists is that the news media are focusing more on Paterno than on Sandusky. Here, too, I defend the press. The Grand Jury report tells us that in 2002, Paterno told Tim Curley that McQueary saw Sandusky “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature” to a young boy. Sandusky is alleged to have continued victimizing boys until 2008. That has to raise questions about whether Paterno and everyone else who knew about the 2002 allegations did enough with that knowledge.

On the last day of class, I always exhort my students to hold themselves, other journalists and the people journalists report on to a high standard of ethical behavior. This semester I added university administrators and football coaches to the list.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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