When Opinions Can Get You In Trouble
By Alison Parker
Reviewed by Jennifer Williams
I studied journalism in college and if I learned anything, it was that as journalists, we hold ourselves out to be the fourth branch of government; it is our duty to objectively report the state of affairs in an informed and unbiased manner. Sure, a lot of news out there today may appear to be a bit liberal or a bit conservative, and some sources are definitely sensational at times. But despite attempts to sell papers, or in this day and age, to get clicks, the journalistic oath remains in tact. There are certain jobs where giving your two bits is acceptable, but being a journalist certainly isn’t one of them.
A Russian news broadcaster was recently fired after allegedly flipping off president Barack Obama in a newscast. On November 14, Tatiana Limanova of REN TV was reporting about Obama and the Asia Pacific Cooperation conference taking place in Hawaii when she gave the camera the bird. Perhaps unsurprisingly, REN TV has been quick to cover up the incident, claiming that Ms. Limanova didn’t think that she was on camera and that instead, she was giving the finger to her producers.
Whether she really intended to give the president the bird or not remains uncertain, but regardless of her intent, what she did was unprofessional and undoubtedly gave some viewers the impression that she had a negative opinion about what she was reporting on.
It’s actually not uncommon for reporters to lose their jobs after revealing a bias or giving their own stake regarding a situation or controversy. The Washington Post has reported that the Occupy Wall Street movement has cost two reporters their jobs. A freelance journalist from Brooklyn lost her job at a New York public radio morning show after she was seen holding a sign in an OWS protest. Although she claims that the plan was for her boyfriend the hold the sign and that she would report on the event later, she ended up holding the sign herself and even tweeted about it afterward. Once her company caught wind of the incident she was out. Another freelancer was recently let go from a documentary show that is broadcast by NPR affiliates for her actions in the OWS movement as well.
These media companies were right to fire their journalists. The rule for journalists to live by is the idea that they must avoid the appearance of impropriety. And if a journalist is out there, rallying and supporting OWS, or flipping off a political figure while on TV, it would appear that the coverage they provide regarding those issues would be compromised in some way because of their personal motivations–how could the news-consuming public rely on what these journalists are reporting if they feel the coverage is clouded by bias?
Other professions are governed by similar ethical guidelines. Lawyers must avoid the appearance of impropriety, but not by being completely impartial. In fact, they must be totally partial to their clients in that they must appear loyal to their client and unconflicted in their representation. In order to achieve this result, there are certain restrictions on who a lawyer may accept as a client. For example, it is against the code of ethics for a lawyer to represent both the husband and the wife in a divorce proceeding. Or for a lawyer to represent both the shareholders and the corporation in a derivative action. Or in these situations with journalists, it would be unethical for the lawyer to represent both the journalist and the news corporation in an action brought by the journalist for wrongful termination. You get the idea. The rules get more complicated when referring to clients and former clients, but the idea is still the same. The goal is for the lawyer to not compromise their loyalty; they don’t want to appear at odds with what they are doing.
In the same vein, journalists cannot compromise their loyalty to their company or to the journalistic oath. In the end it is one’s duty to be aware of the code of ethics of his or her given profession. These journalists have no one to blame but themselves.