Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Good Day in Ethics Class

We finished our discussion of interviewing ethics today, and I was pleased that the students seemed to have done a good job of tracking down working journalists, whose opinions sometimes (but not always) make a nice counterpoint to more theoretical discussions of journalism ethics. News workers are interesting when they talk about how they handle ethical problems and perhaps even more interesting when they talk about issues that we think create ethical dilemmas, and the news workers don't.

When the ethical push comes to moral shove, we all have our peculiar concerns, our words carved over the door. My mantra is that a journalist's job is persuading your sources to tell you more than they want to tell you, working them and working them to squeeze it all out. This involves all kinds of logic chopping as you consider which means are fair and which are unfair when it comes to milking the interview.

Only once you have all the quotes and paraphrases can you decide what to do with it all. You may choose not to use it for all kinds of reasons, from fear of the law to simple kindness.

But what if you are too weak to resist emptying your notebook because it's all so good? I think students sometimes fear that. They fear the choice and thus do not interview as aggressively as I might like. Better not to know, they think.

The interviewing section makes a nice lead-in to our discussion of John Milton and his Areopagitica. Milton (I think) would agree that whenever temptation arises in the exercise of your journalism, that's a good thing, and sometimes you must put yourself in its way:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

Certainly you can resist sweetness -- till it rests in your hand. You have to open the door and let the snake in to make its acquaintance.

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