Wednesday, January 24, 2007

An Ethics Exercise, Plus Mick LaSalle

Today in Journalism Ethics we did a little exercise the thrust of which was whether or not Oprah should have asked -- on the air, or at least on tape to be aired later -- the parents of that young man kidnapped somewhere near St. Louis and then held (and he was held in some sense of the word) if they thought he had been sexually molested.

Most of the students thought not. Then I gave the question a twist. Would it have been ethical if the interviewer had been a print reporter because the print reporter would have had the option not to use the answer, if an answer was forthcoming. Class ended before we could burrow into that variation on the basic question.

My thoughts are that such a question would be appropriate for a print reporter to ask; in fact, it was a question that should have been asked. But that assumes the print reporter was strong willed enough to then decide if an affirmative answer should go in the story. A further assumption lies within: that reporters are justified in keeping information from their editors if they doubt the integrity of those editors.

Any thoughts, people? It's easy to be hypothetical.

Postscript: And what to my wondering eyes should appear this morning but Mick Lasalle's review of the Alexandra Pelosi documentary on heartland Evangelicals. He talks about the weakness of Pelosi's interviewing approach:

Pelosi allows herself to be charmed by her subjects, which is not a position of strength for a journalist. However, because her subjects end up trusting her, they open up and we get to see what they look like when they're not on their guard.

I'd prefer if Pelosi were disarming them for a purpose, instead of disarming herself, but in her methodical, non confrontational way, she does stumble upon some illuminating moments.

Okay. I'm running with you, Mick. God have mercy on our souls we admire a certain degree of manipulation in interviewing if it gets at the truth. Then, Mick woodsheds Pelosi for her failure to press Ted Haggard -- the king-of-the-herd Evangelical who was outed as a gay whoremaster when the documentary was near release -- on his assertions about who is really a Christian and so on? But her gentle style bears fruit in other ways.

However, because Haggard likes her and feels safe, she is privy to a bizarre moment in which he claims that "evangelicals have the best sex." To prove this, he turns to two young men and asks them how often they have sex and how often their wives "climax." In light of his own secret sex life, one can only wonder what Haggard was thinking in those moments.

I'm not sure this gets Pelosi off the hook. Even if you like a subject enough not to have to pretend you like him or her, that doesn't mean you wouldn't ask tough questions somewhere near the end of the interview. It's not either/or.

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