Reputation and Respect: What do story subjects have a right to expect?

A journalist has a duty to report a story fairly, but a journalist should also have a duty to its story’s subject. That’s what a group of journalism graduate students argued last week as a Ryerson media law and ethics class continued its examination of the defamation defence of public interest responsible communication.

“It's up for debate whether journalists have any real duty to their subjects,” says Amy Smart, one of the group members. “That said, subjects – even the ones we love to hate – are human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity. The best way to ensure that is to practice responsible and honest journalism.”

The group suggested a Subjects' Bill of Rights – similar to the Society of Professional Journalists' (SPJ) codes of ethics– would ensure a journalist is practicing responsible and honest journalism. Although this bill of rights is entirely hypothetical – like all of the presentations in this course – the group thought it was an interesting exercise to examine what a subject might expect from a journalist.

The four principles of the group’s bill of rights invert the four tenets of the SPJ code. Under the Subjects' Bill of Rights, a subject has the right to be reported on truthfully; the right not be harmed unnecessarily; the right not to be subjected to a conflict; and the right to respond.

For each precept, the group applied a notable news item.

The way facts are reported can directly affect a subject even if those facts might be true – this was the case with Devante Beard when the Toronto Star wrongly reported that he had been shot and killed this past spring. Journalists should also consider the kind of harm their reporting has on a subject – like the kind of affect the exposé on Adam Giambrone’s illicit affair had on his bid to become Toronto's next mayor. But interests, even the subject’s interest, can skew a piece so a journalist must always be mindful – unlike the Los Angeles Times was when it originally sponsored what is now called the Staples Centre. And, journalists should always be accountable to readers, viewers and subjects – just as Jennifer and Michael Vincelli held the Toronto Star accountable for not printing that their late son Nicholas was, in fact, the last baby born at Toronto's Woman’s college Hospital.

“It was a good exercise in considering the way that journalism may affect its subjects," Smart says of the conceptual bill. “If journalists have a duty to adhere to a certain standard of conduct, as dictated by the SPJ code of ethics, then perhaps subjects should expect certain rights.”

Although the group emphasized the worth of such a concept, they recognized its limitations.

“It would be impossible to enforce a bill of rights, and it could compromise free expression if journalists are constantly concerned that they might harm a subject unnecessarily, for example,” Smart says. “Plus, things get complicated in situation where you must weigh one right against another, or weigh the violation of a right against the public good/interest that may come from its violation."

Ultimately, the group explored the larger, if somewhat convoluted, philosophical perspectives journalists can reflect on to analyze their methods, particularly John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism and Immanuel Kant's Deontological Ethics.

Mill’s philosophy attempts to measure what will bring the greatest amount of happiness for everyone, not in the agent (in this case the journalist). Mill asks the journalist: Is your story useful to greatest number of people? Contrastingly, Kant believes every action has a moral seed that precedes the action. He asks journalists: What are your reasons for reporting this story?

Since many bygone thinkers have conflicting views, it is a struggle for journalists to adhere solely to one thinker’s maxims or even to mix and blend theories to create any kind of concrete code of ethics or bill of rights.

“But it's certainly valuable to be aware of the variety of perspectives and approaches," Smart says. “It's difficult to take one ethic and apply it as a blanket on all journalism – each story requires consideration of very different factors. It's case by case.”

The theoretical codes and complex treatises aside, the group wanted the class to glean from the presentation an understanding that a journalist cannot rely solely or his or her instincts. Smart insists critical thinking is what benefits everyone involved in story.

“Blindly following instincts could mean missing the real story or fabricating an angle that skews the truth."


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