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Morals and the Media
Ethics in Canadian Journalism

Russell, Nick
Publisher:  UBC Press, Vancouver, Canada
Year Published:  1994  
Pages:  249pp   Price:  $24.95   ISBN:  0-7748-0457-2
Library of Congress Number:  P92.C2R87 1994   Dewey:  302.23'0971

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Until now, Canadian journalism schools have had to teach ethics using American materials. That changes with publication of Morals and the Media; Ethics in Canadian Journalism, by Nick Russell, an associate professor at the University of Regina School of Journalism.

Russell has deliberately omitted considerations of the philosophic underpinnings of journalism ethics, so don't expect discussions of Aristotle's Golden Mean, Judeo-Christian norms, or Mill's principle of Utility.

Instead you will find some rich, home-turf examples of ethical dilemmas that have taxed news managers (or shot blithely over their heads without thought) and sensible, non-dictatorial guidelines on how one might go about resolving them.

In a section dealing with privacy, a photo presented for discussion shows a Toronto man who returned from the corner store to find his whole family dead.

Russell comments: ''Leaning on a police car, he weeps. Grief is private, but can such a moment remain private when five people are dead and the street is a chaos of screaming sirens, ambulances, police cars and gawping neighbours? Instead, could such a picture, in fact, provoke sympathy and support for the griever?''

Another photograph of a woman, a victim in the Concordia University massacre, slumped in a chair, with a guard taking down Christmas decorations in the background, also provides opportunity for ethical analysis.

''Who gets hurt by this picture?,'' Russell asks. ''One might be tempted to answer that the dead girl's family would be hurt, but she can't be recognized from the picture. (Four different families telephoned the Montreal Gazette to say the girl was their daughter). Who benefits? The audience does. The need-to-know overrides the issue of privacy here.''

But, Russell has problems with a related photo showing a woman on a stretcher, oxygen mask on her face, and part of one breast exposed. He says this picture is ''much less defensible and a much greater invasion of privacy, even if she, too, was unrecognizable.''

One of the most acute questions Russell raises - ''Just how much graphic detail is needed, especially in court reporting?'' - is particularly interesting in light of the challenges faced by news organizations in the Paul Bernardo trial.

For those rare people who may not know, Paul Bernardo went on trial in Toronto in May, 1995, for the slayings of teenagers Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. The evidence, including graphic videotapes of physical and sexual abuse, is among the most grizzly ever exposed in a Canadian court.

Using the example of a news report of a sexual harassment trial containing details such as, ''(He) started to massage her shoulders. She protested when he touched her chest,'' Russell comments: ''Certainly, in a rough-and-tumble world, the media cannot protect audiences from unpleasantness all the time, and justice must be seen to be done; but on the need-to-know meter, such anatomic detail rates pretty low.''

But, the Bernardo case is a study in the depths of degradation and horror. Bernardo and his accomplice, ex-wife Karla Homolka, may have out-done the legendary Marquis de Sade, in the diabolic catalogue of sexual perversions they inflicted on Mahaffy and French, other victims, and on each other.

So where are we on Russell's need-to-know meter? Does the media set itself up as society's protector by filtering the truth so that it causes minimal discomfort, or does it relay the horror that is being revealed in the courtroom, even though this may this may inflict overwhelming pain?

To what degree can the media water down coverage of the Bernardo case and still give a true sense of the horror inflicted on the victims and their families or insights into the perverse relationship between Bernardo and his ex-wife?

Morals and the Media is far more readable then its title suggests. Russell skillfully uses cartoons, photographs, illustrations, and clippings to make his points.He also makes good use of the occasional 'tough call,' a neatly-posed factual situation that calls for some ethical considerations. Here's one of them:

''The publisher of your newspaper - whose policy manual forbids reporters from getting into conflict-of-interest situations - wants you to editorialize passionately in favour of a new expressway into downtown. The highway would significantly facilitate newspaper delivery. What do you write?'' (Reviewer's note: Perhaps the question should be re-worded, ''How do you like your job?)

Russell also provides a helpful assemblage of footnotes, and an extensive biblioraphy. This is where the reviewer must declare an ethical dilemma: There are several references to my writings in the text. Does this mean I have a conflict-of-interest? I trust not, as these are hard times and the cheque for the review will be well appreciated. Hopefully, disclosure will suffice.

All-in-all, on this reviewer's how-much-is-it worth gauge, Russell gets an eight-out-of-10 rating. It would rise to nine should his book go loose-leaf and be easily up-dated on challenging new cases. And, he'll get the full 10 when he takes to the Internet and we can all have an enlightened time discussing the issues directly with him.

Table of Contents



Part I: The Framework
1. Values and Evaluation
Common values in the Canadian mosaic / free enterprise vs. journalism / the family newspaper / giving audiences what they want? / codes of ethics / the five Ws of ethics / Kohlberg's moral ladder / Kohlberg no panacea / tough calls
2. The Nature of News
Good vs. bad news / all the news that fits / the personality of papers / credibility: hard won, easily lost / accuracy / fairness / loaded language / irony: easily abused / privacy / sensationalism / arrogance and independence / tough calls
3. The Role of the Media
Objectivity and truth / is truth accuracy and accuracy truth? / objectivity and motivation / objectivity and the Five Ws / reporters report? / the media and the status quo / social responsibility / the journalist as advocate / tough calls

Part II: The Pressures
4. The Media and Money
Chequebook journalism / brass cheques / boilerplate / advertorial / advertisers' clout / junket journalism / no such thing as a free lunch / tough calls
5. Conflict of Interest
When is a freelance free? / private wives, private lives / public service, private conflict / the Goldhawk affair / being seen to be clean / in dispute: the union / using the media for personal gain / tough calls
6. Pack Journalism and Celebrity Journalism
Pack editing / the journalist as star / tough calls
7. Manipulating the Media
Overt manipulation / the vulnerability of broadcasters / the boys and girls on the bus / making it easy for the media / the ubiquitous press release / covert methods / leaks and trial balloons / the media event / sources fight back / tough calls
8. To Press or to Suppress
Journalism: an exercise in what to leave out / cooperating with authority / tough calls
9. Playing Fast and Loose with the Truth
Hoaxing the media / hoaxes by the media / first you don't see it, then you do / special techniques / subterfuge: reporter as sleuth / getting it taped / stolen words: accident or capital crime? / after errors: who's sorry now? / tough calls

Part III: Specifics
10. The Media and Violence
The many forms of violence / when words suffice / tough calls
11. Privacy
Scenes of grief / private lives and public people / community attitudes / are relatives and ordinary citizens fair game? / a dirty job: does somebody have to do it? / covering suicides / tough calls
12. Naming Names and Revealing Sources
When courts demand sources / two important cases / should journalists protect their friends? / tough calls
13. The Media and Sex
Nudity in the news / people as sex objects / sexist language / erotica in the community / ads that provoke / words alone / reporting vulgarity / tough calls
14. Hide the Paper: Here Come the Kids
Print vs. broadcast / which words offend? / printing the unprintable / taking the name in vain / AIDS: communicating the unmentionable / drawing the line / tough calls
15. Different Media: Different Problems
News agencies / print media / broadcasting / tough calls
16. Righting Writing Wrongs
Ways the public can seek redress / ways the media can read out / appeals to press councils / appeals to ombudspersons / tough calls
17. Codes of Conduct
The case against codes / survey results / the role of codes / tough calls
18. Conclusion
Journalism as a profession / freedom of the press / 'red light' vs. 'green light' ethics / the good news / tough calls

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