Conflicting Loyalties and
A reporter and a photographer covering AIDS in Africa are asked to buy rubber gloves and bleach for a woman who is caring for her dying daughter; without those simple protections, the woman could become infected. A reporter learns that public school officials look the other way as children steal food from the cafeteria to take home to empty cupboards. If she reports it, the school could be forced to crack down—and kids could go hungry. A reporter covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans finds a woman and her grandson stranded on a freeway. Their story is as compelling as it is desperate: the woman wrote her grandson’s name and date of birth on his arm so he can be identified when he is found—alive or dead. They have no water or transportation and beg the reporter to take them to a shelter.
Every day, journalists confront situations that ask us to weigh our journalistic principles and practices against our personal values and instincts. Many seem minor: Do you indulge in the buffet table at a political meeting when there’s nothing else to eat? Do you let your spouse donate money to an environmental group? Others cut deeper: Can you cover an abortion-rights bill if abortion is against your religious beliefs? Can you protest the closing of your child’s school if you sometimes fill in on the education beat?
Most can be addressed by newsroom policies or resolved by consulting a good editor or respected colleague. Almost all require some level of disclosure or transparency—either within the news organization or directly to the public. But many situations journalists wrestle with are not neatly managed by boilerplate policies. They cut to the bone and seem to pit our values as “objective” journalists against our values as compassionate, caring human beings. We are to report the news fully, “without fear or favor;” yet our reporting could expose