Balancing Ethics, Advertising and Journalism

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Patrick Robinson’s book ‘Nimitz Class’ knocks the press for (a) jumping all over any military mistake and (b) diminishing people’s confidence in their government.

Journalists are the favorite whipping boys-and-girls of right wingers who suspect that newsrooms are full of liberals. And a survey some years ago did find that journalists voted heavily Democratic.


Editorialists and columnists deal in opinion, but most journalists wrestle mightily with fairness and balance and are backstopped by editors on that. The problem is that our job is to be a watchdog. And a good watchdog sometimes will bark at a shadow or a harmless sound. It’s the price you pay for the bark that fends off a would-be burglar. Journalists are always watchdogging military and government people.

The issue of what to print or broadcast and what to spike is something else. That involves judgment about community standards and sensitivities. Unlike doctors, journalists are not ethics-bound to “do no harm.” Much of what they do harms somebody.

Last Sunday’s PBS Masterpiece posed a matter well suited for college journalism classes. A TV reporter uncovered a small village’s conspiracy to frame a man for a murder that didn’t happen. The people wanted him hanged because they discovered he’d been sexually abusing village children. They didn’t want just a jail sentence. The man was convicted and hanged on manufactured murder evidence. The detective who stumbled on the conspiracy later said nothing.

If the TV story runs, the villagers will all have to be charged with a crime. The detective is ruined. The now-grown-up children will be exposed as sexual abuse victims.

What does a journalist do? The episode left that question unanswered.

I’d do the story because I see my job to be getting at truth. I also supported newspapers running that photo this year of a Marine dying despite his comrades best efforts in a firefight. The Kaneohe Marine base commander cancelled his newspaper subscription. We obviously see a journalist’s obligations differently.

Many years ago, the local media council criticized me for running a TV clip of a teenaged girl jumping from the second floor window of the old Circuit Court building across from Iolani Palace. She landed in tiger lilies and was not seriously hurt. The council said I’d added embarrassment to her other problems. I said “yes, that’s true, but it happened in public view and deserved some mention and I’d do it again if it happened again. It’s my job.”

Some readers of this will disagree and argue that the community expects some things to be censored. Most local media do not report the name of somebody who commits suicide out of public view. They delete names of juvenile criminals except in the most heinous crimes. They don’t name rape victims.

That’s understandable and probably meritorious but it’s also what we often call a “slippery slope.” First you censor this, then that. Now maybe you cut some slack for a heavy advertiser? I once caught hell at KGMB when we ran a story on a police raid on false-carated jewelry at JC Penney and another on the state dinging McDonald’s for not including “plus tax” in their ad prices. My boss reminded me how much ad money those two spent at our station and how they were cancelling some because they were mad at our exclusive coverage.

The debate is not clear. What if the cancelled advertising would mean the demise of the newspaper or TV station? Or your story makes an influential politician decide to kill your tax break? Usually, media owners come down on the side of some compromise while the reporter is livid and feels betrayed.

I’ve been through that many times in my long career!

‘Bob Jones is a MidWeek columnist. Reach him at’