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Practicing ethics can help make sense of coverage

by Stan Zoller
Prior restraint. Censorship.

They are things all media advisers dread.

Imagine what it would be like if your principal started telling you what your kids could and could not cover in their media.

Many advisers don’t even think about it because their  principal is “really nice” and understands journalism.

Now suppose, just suppose,  a gubernatorial candidate went to your principal and objected to something scheduled to be covered.

Nonsense.

That’s probably what Dave McKinney, Springfield Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times probably thought.

Surprise.

In one of the most bizarre tales of the Illinois gubernatorial race, Republican candidate Bruce Rauner allegedly went to the publishers of the Chicago Sun-Times to block a story McKinney, along with WMAQ reporter Carol Marin and producer Don Moseley were working on because Rauner and his staff took exception to it.

Briefly, while the Sun-Times brass stood behind McKinney, when all was said and done, he had to take some time off, was told his byline would not be on upcoming stories and was offered other positions at the paper which, he said in his resignation letter, he considered demotions. In the midst of all this, the Sun-Times endorsed Rauner for governor.

Oct. 23, McKinney resigned and said, among other things in his resignation letter, that “I’m convinced this newspaper no longer has the backs of reporters like me.” His resignation ether can be read here.

So what does a professional reporter with 20 years of experience have to do with scholastic journalism?

A lot.

Maybe not Dave McKinney specifically, but the lessons he leaves behind for journalism educators and their students.

Too often it seems as though journalism educators focus more on delivery and design of their media than on essential fundamentals. Unfortunately, this includes units on press law and ethics.   I know one adviser who starts the J-1 curriculum with interviewing and gets to ethics and law “sometime” during first semester.

That’s one approach. My preference, at both the collegiate and scholastic level, has been to start the curriculum with an overview of where journalism and has been and is going (as far as anyone knows where it is going) and then moving into press law and ethics.

I have borrowed an approach from the dedicated, albeit somewhat crazy, men and women who teach drivers education. You need to know the rules of the road before you get the keys to the car.

And so it is with not just scholastic journalism, but journalism as a whole.

In addition to those court decisions that specifically impact student journalism, there are litanies of court cases that impact the nation’s journalists. In the past year, courts have struck down eavesdropping laws while one media company challenged – and won – the right to access the text records of public officials during public meetings.

States are constantly revising Freedom of Information laws, and are often facing challenges from watchdog groups. In Illinois, the Better Government Association (Better Government Assn.) is at the forefront of leading the charge to maintain open access by public bodies and officials.

Both the court decisions and efforts of organizations like the BGA are not predicated with disclaimers that “this does not apply student journalists” for one very good reason – actions taken by an attorney general, watchdog groups or the courts are for all journalists.

The McKinney situation brings to light the need for understanding and teaching ethics. Period.

The alleged effort by the Rauner camp to keep information out of the paper is little more than censorship. It reeks of a lack of transparency as it seems as though he wants only “positive news” to be published. How many journalism educators have heard that from an egotistical administrators sashaying around in rose-colored glassed?

Adding gas to an already smoldering fire, the Sun-Times, according to McKinney, seemingly obliged by keeping his bylines off of stories and even pulling some of his stories.

Prior restraint? They may not call it that, but if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. The Sun-Times also endorsed Rauner for Illinois governor.

Cynics, and there are many, are beginning to cast a pall over the endorsement saying it seems the Sun-Times was in bed with the Rauner campaign. At issue here is transparency. The Sun-Times, which like most reputable news organizations, calls for transparency by public bodies and officials while waving the watchdog flag, but yet seemingly pulls it in when the winds don’t blow their way.

Perhaps the only thing “saving” the Sun-Times’ endorsement of Rauner is the fact it has not been alone in criticism of incumbent Pat Quinn and support for Rauner based on his campaign. Several major metropolitan dailies have endorsed Rauner.

Journalism educators need to break away from solely using text and use daily media to show students how stories need to be verifiable, independent and accountable. If students can deconstruct stories – and opinion pieces – they should take the next step and start asking questions as to why a media outlet has taken a position, or why it is covering a story in a specific fashion.

Once student journalists realize that “it’s not just them,” and can ethically apply fundamental journalism skills within the realm of the laws, then they can move on to what they and their advisers may think is “more fun.”

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