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Lessons from an Ancient Spirit: A Case in Journalism Ethics Revisited

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Lessons from an Ancient Spirit: A Case in Journalism Ethics Revisited

To seek truth and report it is the most basic job of journalism. Journalism holds its professionals to a code of ethics unlike that of any other profession. In comparison, the medical Oath of Hypocrisy and the Oath of Attorney do not cover as much detail and delve into the inner core of every individual as does the Journalism Code of Ethics. It is in the content of the code that one must look at themselves and truly understand who they are and where they come from in order to be an abiding participant to the code's core values. Understanding ethics, in general, is difficult. It requires personal evaluation to determine if a particular subject will violate any oath. Conflicts of interest are of major concern; as is association. "To seek truth and report it" is most often accomplished through observation and research, but does it require journalist participation? This question is addressed and analyzed ahead. Can a journalist's participation in a story ever be justified?

Journalists are accountable to their readers, viewers, listeners, and each other and should be free of obligation to any interest. According to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), to accomplish this requires journalists to "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived and remain free of associations and the activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility" (SPJ, 1996). This can be difficult when dealing with issues that are close and/or near and dear to our hearts or when they involve heritage and social culture that circumvent our own genetic makeup. Ben Winton, a religion reporter for the Phoenix Gazette, faced one such ethical dilemma when he was assigned to cover an American Indian religious ritual. In the middle of the dessert standing outside a teepee warmed by a glowing fire, the reporter was there to witness "a dozen or so Indians about to ingest peyote - a hallucinogenic drug as part of a religious ritual. [He] was given an ultimatum by the Indians: Either [sic] come inside, partake of the 'medicine' and learn about their religious traditions - or leave" (Winton, 1991). He chose to go inside. This decision required him to do some soul-searching about the ethics of what he was doing. He had to face both personal and professional reasons for wanting to participate that included addressing his Yaqui Indian roots that he did not know much about and, on a professional level, understand why these Indians were so upset about a recent decision by the Supreme Court regarding sacramental peyote. The journalist says, "It was my intention to watch the ceremony, talk to the Indians about their feelings and document how the peyote affected the Indians physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I had discussed this with an editor, and gotten permission to sit in on a ceremony where peyote was in use. I had not discussed taking part" (Winton, 1991). If the reporter participated, he would not be breaking any laws because Arizona permits using peyote in Indian services, but would he be in violation of any company anti-drug policies? Would his participation in a peyote ceremony become the story, rather than the ceremony itself?

"Journalists must find the threshold where individuals are disqualified from reporting, editing, or influencing a particular story. One threshold should be when fairness cannot be achieved and the other involves public opinion" (McBride, 2004). When a journalist enters into the public debate, he/she gives the public cause to doubt his/her ability to report the news fairly. This usually involves a specific action. Was participating in this ritual a violation of the communities trust? I think not.

Although this story and ethical dilemma took place more than a decade ago, journalists now more than ever are facing similar crossroads. "For quite a while now news organizations in general, have rejected the once generally accepted standard that reporters should not make themselves part of a story" (McIntyre, 2010). This is due to the nature of the news business and the advancement of technology. Human interest angles to news stories are now a part of daily news programming and they pique the interest of the community at large. Cameras and laptops now travel with the reporter to large scale disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the devastating tsunami that hit Japan. Reporters now share their first-hand accounts with their readers, viewers and listeners. It is not just about the story; it is about their relationship to the story.

Reporting the news, in general is undergoing a metamorphosis. College educated reporters and multi-million dollar news organizations have to adjust to a new breed of reporter. Technology has brought this new breed to the table. News is being produced by regular people who have something to say and show. "Via emails, mailing lists, chat groups, personal web journals - all nonstandard news sources - we are now receiving valuable content that major American media could not or would not provide in the past" (Gillmor, 2011). We have been witnessing the future of news and news organizations are beginning to be more

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