Monday, May 10, 2010

Be Selectively Sensitive

Even though the SPJ code tells journalists to “minimize harm,” this premise is inherently vague. In most instances, journalists should take steps to minimize harm, yet there are occurrences when such a motto should not enter the journalist’s mind.

Let’s start with the former. Journalists should be sensitive and look to minimize harm in instances of tragedy. When interviewing a widow or a family member of an individual that has recently been killed, journalists must be kind, gentile and accepting. They should not be aggressive in searching for answers that the interviewee prefers not to touch on.

In the case below, Oprah Winfrey interviews Vicki Kennedy, wife of 17 years to the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who had died three months earlier. In one instance, Oprah asks Mrs. Kennedy what the late Senator’s last words were, but Mrs. Kennedy speaks of her wishes to not disclose them, and Oprah handles the situation correctly, not pushing the envelope with a guest in a fragile state of mind.

In this case, journalists should employ John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” in which Rawls argued that “justice emerges when negotiating without social differentiations.” When placed in situations like the one Oprah was in, journalists should try to put themselves in the widow’s shoes before determining their course of action during the interview. Oprah was, in my view, successful in doing so, as she recognized that Mrs. Kennedy was in a difficult state of mind and decided not to carry out the interview aggressively.

A contrast to the Vicki Kennedy story does exist, though, and these are situations where the journalist should not be concerned with being sensitive to the grief-ridden interviewee.

Consider the example of Bernard L. Madoff, whose extensive list of crimes is documented below, as originally written by Diana B. Henriques of The New York Times.

Bernard L. Madoff is facing life in prison for operating a vast Ponzi scheme that began at least 20 years ago and consumed billions of dollars of other people's money.

While his fate will not be certain until he is sentenced, his lawyer told a federal judge on Tuesday that he intended to plead guilty on Thursday to all the criminal charges that federal prosecutors had filed against him -- a list that could yield a prison sentence of 150 years.

Mr. Madoff was arrested Dec. 12 at his Manhattan home by federal agents who accused him of running what was perhaps the largest fraud in Wall Street's history. The scheme zigzagged across the world, drawing in foreign banks, hedge funds, charities, celebrities and ordinary retirees who had entrusted their savings to his investment firm.

The charges, made public late Tuesday, offered a few fresh details about how Mr. Madoff conducted his long-running fraud. And they raised its price tag from his own estimate of $50 billion to nearly $65 billion, the total amount that thousands of customers were told they had in their accounts at his firm.

But left unanswered were questions about the involvement of family members and employees and the treatment of favored investors.

To sustain his fraud, prosecutors said, Mr. Madoff assembled an ill-trained and inexperienced clerical staff, directed them to "generate false and fraudulent documents," told lies and supplied false records to regulators, and shuffled hundreds of millions of dollars from bank to bank to create the illusion of active trading. The government said Mr. Madoff ordered multimillion-dollar bank transfers in part "to give the appearance that he was conducting securities transactions in Europe on behalf of the investors, when, in fact, he was not."

And, in an accusation that extends his crime's shadow to the edges of the business where his brother and sons worked, prosecutors accused Mr. Madoff of using some of the money he gathered through his Ponzi scheme to support the supposedly legitimate wholesale stock trading operation that made his name on Wall Street.

Specifically, prosecutors said that Mr. Madoff "caused more than $250 million" he collected through his Ponzi scheme from at least 2002 through 2008 "to be directed, through a series of wire transfers, to the operating accounts that funded the operations of these businesses."

The government also charged that he had money transferred from his firm's London office "to purchase property and services for the personal use and benefit" of himself, his family members and his associates.

Finally, prosecutors said that Mr. Madoff -- whose investors prized his steady single-digit annual returns -- actually had promised select clients extraordinarily high returns, as much as 46 percent, to lure them in.

In all, Mr. Madoff was charged with 11 felony counts, including securities fraud, money laundering and perjury. Under federal sentencing guidelines, those crimes would yield a life sentence for the 70-year-old trader.

If Madoff, in light of his guilty plea, had accepted a media interview, there would be no justifiable reason for the interviewer to be sensitive of his situation. Yes, the interviewer should be fair to Madoff and allow him the opportunity to explain his side of the story, but at the same time, a journalist can do this without going out of his/her way in order to appease a man who was recently sentenced to 150 years in prison. The interviewer should demand answers and not let the interviewee off the hook, as Oprah did in a much more passive interview with the late Senator Kennedy’s widow.

In cases like this one, journalists should subscribe to John Stuart Mill’s principle of utility and “seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Even though Madoff may not appreciate the journalist asking tough questions, the public’s right to know topples his concern. He committed a dreadful act, and a clear majority would favor the journalist pressing him for answers in comparison to letting him off the hook. Thus, the journalist must be aggressive in his/her pursuit of the truth, demonstrating that his/her primary loyalty is indeed to the public.

This ethics fundamental, which, to an extent, goes against the grain, seemingly places journalists in a delicate situation as to which interviewees deserve special treatment and which do not. However, that is not actually the case, for a pretty clear line separates a widow from a convicted felon. If journalists understand this line and carry out their duties accordingly, they will garner increased appreciation from the public.

No comments:

Post a Comment