by Brendan Pedersen
When I asked Tom Bettag how he would describe the role of “producer” in a newsroom, he — like many great executive producers before him — talked about unclogging toilets in Somalia.
It was the mid-1990s, and the American military was leading a “humanitarian effort” with the United Nations against the backdrop of the Somali Civil War. Bettag and his team from Nightline, the ABC nightly news program anchored by Ted Koppel, were reporting on the ground. They were holed up in a shack on the outskirts of town, apparently abandoned before the team rolled in. The water was not running. The toilet was clogged. The smell was not improving.
So Bettag took care of it — “because that’s what the producer does,” he says. From writing the night’s lead to scooping poop in the Somali heat, the executive producer’s responsibilities are as they have always been: diverse.
That may sound demeaning to the profession, and maybe it is. But Bettag has always taken the grittier parts of his job in stride. “If you aren’t willing to serve,” he says, “you aren’t fit to lead.”
Bettag has been leading national newsrooms for a long time: he worked at CBS for over two decades, ultimately as Dan Rather’s executive producer for CBS Evening News from 1986 through 1991. Then he made his way to ABC, where he was executive producer for Nightline and This Week with George Stephanopoulos from 1991 until 2006. He has also worked for CNN and NBC and, to date, he has been awarded at least 30 Emmy Awards. Chris Bury, senior journalist in residence at DePaul University and a longtime Nightline correspondent, described his boss of 14 years as “among the all-time best producers in network news.”
Bettag says he doesn’t do much professional broadcast work these days. Instead, he’s teaching at the University of Maryland as the Eleanor Merrill Distinguished Visiting Fellow. When I asked why he made the jump to teaching, he said it wasn’t so much a leap as another step.
“Producing is writing, reporting, managing, editing — a bit of everything,” he says. “Teaching is a natural extension of that, and I always wanted to get there and do it eventually.”
His students at UMD, he says, “really look like America.” Bettag taught for a brief time at the University of Notre Dame (where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history), and students there didn’t quite bring the same magnitude of diversity (Notre Dame’s study body is 73 percent white while DePaul’s, for comparison, is 55 percent). But in Maryland, where in-state tuition for the state’s elite flagship university hovers around $10,000 a year, he sees the future of his country and, by extension, journalism.
Along with the diversity of experience, Bettag is also a passionate advocate for a diversity of expertise. While he believes there is some value in teaching journalism as its own degree, he said it was best paired with a more specific area of study: political science, economics or even a science.
“When I see a job applicant with ‘journalism’ as their educational background, I have a lot of questions,” he says. “When I see ‘communications,’ I have a lot more questions.”
Bettag usually works with students towards the ends of their academic career, preparing them for the jobs they’re about to dive headfirst into. But beyond their portfolios, educational backgrounds and internships, Bettag wants his students to know how to operate as part of a team — something integral to all newsrooms and broadcast newsrooms in particular. He pointed to the trajectory of another journalist — The Center’s Carol Marin — to illustrate the bridge between teamwork and teaching.
“Carol was always looking out for people in the newsroom,” Bettag says. “It’s just what she does, always did. It doesn’t surprise me at all that she wound up teaching. It’s about giving — that’s what teaching is.”
By Ivana Rihter
To write about politics successfully, you must understand the inner workings of political systems and the motivations of the people that occupy positions of power. Lynn Sweet began her political career in Chicago. Now her political coverage offers a range of insights into the White House, Congress and current movements in legislation. To get to this level of reporting, Sweet advises that journalists master the basics.
“I always say, if you can’t cover your condo board you can’t cover Congress, if you can’t cover your Evanston city council board you can’t cover the White House, if you can’t cover the Cook County Circuit Court, you can’t cover the Supreme Court. It’s not all that different,” Sweet said.
Sweet is a veteran political reporter stationed in Washington as the Washington Bureau Chief of The Chicago Sun-Times as Washington Bureau Chief. She appears frequently on CNN, MSNBC and FOX and has become a staple of political coverage on a national scale.
Sweet is a Chicago native and a graduate from Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism where she received her master’s degree. Sweet began her career at the Independent Register right after university and went on to be featured in a number of publications from The Hill to Politics Daily. While reporting on Chicago government, Sweet honed her thorough and meticulous reporting style.
“I was covering Cook County government and the Cook County Court system for The Sun-Times and I realized I couldn’t understand the totality of what was going on in Cook County if I didn’t understand the politics of the people that were running it,” Sweet said.
Sweet has immersed herself in the world of politics and writes with a deep understanding of the governmental systems at play. It shows in her work. She was inducted into both Northwestern University’s Medill Hall of Achievement and the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame for her contributions to Chicago and beyond.
In the 90s, Sweet broke out in Washington for her coverage of campaign finance reform. She covered the Clinton Administration, Congress and then Senator Obama when he began planning for a presidential campaign. She has been at the forefront of massive scoops and throughout her reporting in Chicago and Washington, her body of work can be categorized by its accuracy and integrity.
“Big stories are often grueling days,” Sweet said. “I’m single minded with the purpose of getting the story done and therefore if extraneous things happen, I have a sense of being able just to brush it off as I pursue getting the story.”
Her exemplary work has been widely recognized. Washingtonian Magazine named Sweet one of the capital’s “50 Top Journalists.” Sweet was also a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
“It is very helpful to have knowledge of government because that is the point of political reporting at the end of the day,” Sweet said. “To make something happen or stop something from happening. It is very useful to understand the fundamentals of why politics exists.”
Sweet is currently the only Sun-Times journalist stationed in Washington and her editorial process is an independent one. Her columns give Chicago readers an in-depth look into the political dynamics in Washington. Under the complexities of the current administration, her work is rooted in integrity and insight that is essential to not only readers but the state of journalism in the present day.
“Journalism is coming under attack,” Sweet said. “I think in the next very short bit of time there is an emphasis on fact checking, explanatory journalism and a new awareness that when you see things on the web, you have to be very careful.”
Tribune White House correspondent Christi Parsons’ take on reporter-source relations
By: Madeline Happold
Before speaking with Christi Parsons, White House correspondent for Tribune Company, WBEZ reporter Dave McKinney gave me some insight he gleaned from his longtime friend – maintain relationships, they go far.
In Parsons’ case, these relationships followed her all the way from Illinois to Washington D.C.
White House correspondents cover a president for roughly four years, eight at most. Parsons has followed former President Barack Obama for over 20 years — from his beginnings in the Illinois Senate to his last days in the Oval Office.
“The papers I worked for kept putting me in position of covering him,” said Parsons. “That was the main thing, but I did seek it out.”
Perhaps Parsons is best known for her iconic final question during Obama’s last presidential press conference. Aware of their longtime relationship, the then-president gave Parsons a personal introduction, to which she shaped her final question with the same sentiments:
OBAMA: Christi is — I’ve been knowing her since Springfield, Illinois. When I was a state senator, she listened to what I had to say. So the least I can do is give her the last question as President of the United States. Go on.
PARSONS: My 217 number still works.
OBAMA: There you go. Go ahead.
PARSONS: Well, thank you, Mr. President. It has been an honor.
OBAMA: Thank you.
PARSONS: And I have a personal question for you, because I know how much you like this. The First Lady puts the stakes of the 2016 election in very personal terms in a speech that resonated across the country, and she really spoke the concerns of a lot of women, LGBT folks, people of color, many others. And so I wonder now how you and the First Lady are talking to your daughters about the meaning of this election and how you interpret it for yourself and for them.
This time, he didn’t shy away.
“When he called my name and then he said something personal I thought, ‘Oh wait, maybe this is an opportunity to ask a slightly more personal question,’” said Parsons. “It just sort of felt right in the moment itself. It felt like the poetic end.”
Fostering relationships with sources is an important tool for journalists. These sources not only provide helpful information and quotes for stories, but help journalists establish a reputation built on respect and trust.
“People appreciate it when you show a genuine interest and you are honestly trying to understand things and ask forthright questions,” said Parsons.
Parsons claims as a young reporter she was drawn to Obama as a source because he offered diversity in what she described as a “throwback” of an Illinois statehouse, sparse of women and people of color.
“He was a different story and that was why I pursued that reporter-source relationship all those years,” said Parsons.
Yet, Parsons makes one point clear.
“They’re not our friends, we’re not their friends,” said Parsons.
As the 2014-2015 president of the White House Correspondents Association, Parsons advocated for greater transparency between the presidency and the press, pushing for daily access to all business of the White House. She describes the relationship between reporters and sources, especially those in a position of power, as a constant push and pull.
“If it’s your job to hold public officials and public servants to the fire, holding the feet of those people to the fire, there’s nothing that’s worth trading the honest question and the pursuit of the answer,” said Parsons.
It’s a lonely title being the torchbearer for truth.
For young reporters starting in unfamiliar cities in a brand-new newsroom, source relationships prove vital. How do young journalists, just getting their foot in the door and learning the ropes, create these connections? Parsons advises “diligence and doggedness.”
“Knock on those doors, ask those honest questions, and remember who told you things that were meaningful,” said Parsons.
Now, Parsons is stepping back from the press room. She is currently on sabbatical, working on a personal memoir — how a Southern, white girl from Tuscaloosa found herself covering the nation’s first black president.
Perhaps the political really is personal.
by Liz Vlahos
This blog was supposed to be about an interview with a renowned journalist, but has evolved into one about obstacles in reporting.
I was initially assigned to search out and interview Lee Cowan, of CBS Sunday Morning, but the obstacle I faced was his production schedule. I was informed that he would be out on assignment and subsequently unable to participate.
As a backup, I was assigned to interview Steven Reiner, formerly the producer for 60 Minutes and currently an associate professor at Stony Brook University. I was looking forward to this one, considering his work. I was formulating questions as I jotted down the famous ten facts about him. I wanted to pick his brain regarding his time at NPR, especially how he juggled being the Washington bureau chief and the senior editor and executive producer for “All Things Considered.” I was especially curious as to how he got NPR’s science reporting unit off the ground, since it came into fruition on his watch. I wanted to ask him, having worked for all three major networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – about the differences in how each network approached reporting the news. I wanted to know the story on “60 Minutes” that stuck with him to this day. I also wanted to ask him how he made the decision to cross over to the academic world, and his thoughts on being an associate professor vice a boots-on-the-ground producer.
I emailed Mr. Reiner, called his office, called his departmental office, and even saw that he had viewed my profile on LinkedIn, which may or may not have been an indication that he had received my communiques. That said, however, I never received a response. I would say that Mr. Reiner’s academic schedule may have been an obstacle, but the lack of a response on his part was frustrating considering Lee Cowan’s producer, Rand Morrison, got back to me within a day or two in comparison. (This is not an expression of ill will toward Mr. Reiner, I wish to clarify.). The lack of a response, as well as the encroaching uncertainty, was indeed a formidable obstacle as well.
As frustrating as these obstacles were, however, I have learned first-hand about another obstacle – a significant one, in fact, that poses a threat to every journalist, whether in the classroom or out in the field. This particular obstacle can greatly affect your ability to deal with the plethora of other obstacles faced by journalists every day.
That obstacle is burnout.
Although the impact of burnout may hit you like a baseball bat to the face, the onset is nowhere as blatant; this insidious beast slowly sneaks up on you.
Burnout almost never stems from one particular stressor, and the stressor can be either professional or personal. It can be a multitude of stressors that in and of themselves seem relatively mild from an outsider’s perspective, but when piled upon one another can slowly start to weigh you down, much like the world on Atlas’ shoulders. Tasks you once whizzed through as though they were second nature become a Sisyphean struggle to complete, and they continue to pile up at your previous rate of completion, effectively burying and overwhelming you. Before you know it, you find yourself choking on the same obstacles you used to eat for breakfast without a second thought, you’re rushing to meet deadlines where you normally would have been light-years ahead, and you start to feel exhausted; whatever rest you take never seems to be enough to recharge. Before you know it, you dread coming into work, and the very thing that sparked you into going into journalism, whatever it may have been, is either gone or in danger of disappearing.
As scary as burnout is in general, here’s what’s particularly daunting about it: It can hit you at any stage in your career, whether you’re on the job or in school. When it hits you in school, it can be especially frightening.
Experiencing burnout while you’re still in school can create a particularly disturbing sense of doubt within, making you question whether you’re really cut out for this particular line of work. It can create a multitude of troubling questions within your brain, among them, “How can I handle the demands of the newsroom or this industry as a whole if I’m barely staying on top of my academic obligations right now?” The existential crisis from burning out before your career has even taken flight can destroy your confidence and make you question whether all your hard work as a student journalist has gone to waste.
If I hear back from Mr. Reiner, I will be more than happy to pick his brain with the questions I scribbled out for him. I would also ask him if he has ever felt the sinister dulcet whisper of burnout, and if he has how he managed to bounce back; if he hasn’t, I would ask how he managed to stay ahead of this beast. Either way, I would pass on that information; it’s something every journalist needs to know.
By Jennifer Nazha
A hypothetical: Miriam Jones is running for president. During a campaign stop in Alaska she is shot and fatally wounded. The name of the shooter is quickly identified as John Doe of Chicago. You quickly find out this John Doe lives in the 2300 block of West Addison in a three floor walkup. You arrive at his apartment, make your way up the stairs, knock on his door and suddenly the door, which is unlocked, opens three inches. What do you do and why?
If I have learned anything from being a part of DePaul’s Center for Journalism, Integrity and Excellence, it is that journalists are faced with ethical decisions to make every day. We can sit and talk about hypothetical situations until we are blue in the face, but will we ever truly be prepared for them when they come our way? CBS News’ national correspondent for “48 Hours,” Erin Moriarty, says it’s a continuous struggle.
“You don’t feel wiser,” said Moriarty. “Even as long as I’ve been doing this, you don’t.”
When faced with ethical quandaries, making the right decision does not get any easier. Moriarty has covered a variety of stories ranging from the death of Princess Diana, the Oklahoma City Bombing to the Columbine high school shooting, and has had to make those decisions at every turn.
Moriarty graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in behavioral sciences and received a law degree from the university in 1977. Although she has a background in law, Moriarty still seeks out the insight of lawyers when approaching a story, which is something she says journalists do not do enough.
“I tend to go to the lawyers before anybody else, but not necessarily because of their legal information,” she said. The wisdom, training and obligation of lawyers to look at all sides of an issue are why Moriarty seeks out their advice beyond legal answers.
Moriarty recalls a report she did on stalking, in which she did a facetime interview with a schizophrenic stalker named, Justin Massler. During the interview, he threatened a number of people. He continued to reach out to Moriarty after the interview. She became concerned for his safety and the safety of others around him. This led her to a plethora of ethical decisions to make.
“You’re constantly making decisions,” said Moriarty. “It’s really more of an ethical, moral decision that you have to make.”
Moriarty’s moral obligation led her to call the cops on Massler, and he was arrested. This decision took Moriarty far beyond her job as a reporter.
Journalists are entrusted with a great responsibility to tell the stories of others. For this reason Moriarty does not take her job lightly, especially when it comes to making moral and ethical decisions.
“When you are dealing with these very important issues, and people’s image and their lives on camera, you’re convincing people to open up their hearts and their lives to you,” said Moriarty. “You’ve got to take that very seriously.”
No matter the story, big or small, Moriarty believes it is important for journalists to put the same amount of care and effort into each story.
“Every story you do is very serious and very important, even the lighter ones,” she said.
Whether it is deciding if you should enter John Doe’s apartment or deciding if you should accept a cup of coffee bought by an interviewee, Moriarty makes it clear that journalists must constantly think about how their decisions will affect their integrity and that of the people whose story they are telling.
Democracy does not function properly without freedom of the press. The public must be informed in order to operate within our government and the press plays an essential role in our everyday life as citizens. Yet, for journalism to truly contribute to the type of democracy we aim to have, it must incorporate the tenets of democracy in its newsrooms. As an industry, we must strive toward newsgathering that reaches outside of the newsroom and plants itself in the center of our communities and asks the questions: What do you want to see on the news? What are we not covering and why are we missing it? How can we help create a well-informed population that is able to advocate for themselves? The old timey saying “the news is what the editor sees on his way to work” is not only dated but irresponsible. It is our jobs as journalists to search the far corners of our communities for injustice and ask our readership what they would like to see covered. Journalism is an opportunity to represent moments in time, governmental decisions and the state of the world, for others. It takes a close look at how our democracy functions, holds those in power accountable and creates opportunities for the public to have a platform.
Engagement cannot be reduced to a Google Analytics number of online clicks, instead it must be a relationship between newsrooms and their local community. Insular thinking has no place in newsgathering, reporting or publishing. Journalism must be inclusive, accessible and open to engaging in a dialogue with its surroundings. In our digital age, the increase of open source data, digital journalism and process-oriented reporting we are able to chip away at the false notion that journalism is something for the elite. In reality, journalism is something that happens on the ground that highlights the stories of real people. This sort of democratic thinking is being applied in our newsrooms through the use of digital resources that increase reach and accessibility. For example, the New York Times 2015 investigation on nail salons across New York was published in English, Korean, Vietnamese and Spanish. This editorial decision to include complete translations of the piece made it accessible to the communities disproportionately impacted by these kinds of abuses. In the recent emphasis on transparency in the news, the use of Document Cloud has allowed our readership to look into court cases, legal files and criminal records for themselves. The effects are that not only does our process become more accessible and understandable, but our readers are able to draw their own conclusions and trust the legwork done before a piece is published. Increasingly, I have seen numerous startups like Gather and Github aim to create a community of open sourcing and knowledge exchange between journalists, the public and coders alike. It opens up the space so we are able to address the concerns of the public as a collective, sharing expertise and innovating the use of data every step of the way.
As a young multimedia journalist, thinking digitally and democratically has become an integral part of my reporting process. I am ardently dedicated to not just accuracy, but public engagement and transparency in my work. I have physically put myself in the spaces I write about, whether that be a prison or a courtroom, and gone out into my DePaul community and asked, What would you like to see in your student magazine? I have found that when young people feel ignored, marginalized or frustrated by their administration, student media can play a critical role in educating and engaging our student body.
By now you’ve probably seen the face of Marilou Danley, the girlfriend of Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, plastered across various media platforms. On Tuesday, Sheriff Joseph Lombardo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department addressed the media naming Danley a “person of interest” in the investigation of the attack her former boyfriend carried out Sunday, leaving 58 people dead and hundreds wounded on the Las Vegas Strip.
Whether or not Danley knew anything about Paddock’s plans to commit a mass murder still remains unclear. In fact, she was out of the country when the attack took place. Danley had been in the Philippines from Monday, Sept. 25 until Tuesday night when she arrived in Los Angeles from Manila, according to Antonette Mangrobang, a spokeswoman for the Philippine Immigration Bureau.
According to the New York Times, “person of interest” is a loose term that does not necessarily specify that the person is suspected of committing a crime. This is the problem. At this point in the investigation, Marilou Danley has not been charged with any crime; therefore, she is innocent until proven guilty.
So, how should we as reporters approach a situation like this? Do we call a person of interest’s character into question by plastering their face all over the news, potentially depicting them as a suspect or criminal? Or do we wait until they are charged with a crime?
Marilou Danley could be guilty, but she very well could be innocent. It is not the media’s job to decide that or put that idea in the minds of the public. However, it is the media’s job to think ethically about how this is going to affect her, especially if she truly did not have any part in this horrific act.
So many times, people are brought into a narrative that they never asked to be a part of, and so many times, we act before we think. As journalists, we must realize that our actions affect the lives of others. Unless we are sure, then we should not run a story that could ruin someone’s reputation.
If she is innocent, every time a google search is done on her, her face is still going to be tied to this terrible incident. Every time she goes out to the grocery store, people will look at her differently. People are now going to remember her as Stephen Paddock’s girlfriend. That is her new reputation.
On the other hand, if she is guilty, well maybe it does not matter now that we released her photos and information because it was bound to happen anyway, but how can we be so sure to act before we actually know.
This is a big story with many moving parts. It is understandable that people want to know everything that is going on, but we cannot paint people to be one way or the other. It is not the media’s job to decide whether someone is guilty or innocent.
It is the media’s job to report the facts. That very well could have been done without releasing her pictures. We must be sensitive to the lives of others because one mistake on our part could have lasting repercussions.
Sometimes tragedy is inescapable.
Like hurricanes Maria and Irma that decimated Puerto Rico, leaving thousands homeless and without power. Or, more recently, the mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas that resulted in 58 dead and over 500 injured. As reporters, we are often thrown into these situations to deal with the aftermath — the tears, the bloodshed and the stories.
But when people are most in need, how do we stretch out our arms only to hold a microphone? Reporting on these events can be seen as spreading crucial news to the public, but can also be seen as insensitive towards others when most vulnerable.
[Embed video of CNN coverage here]
Take CNN’s recent coverage of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. During a live interview, a Houston mother criticized CNN reporter Rosa Flores and her coverage of the aftermath after being questioned about current conditions following the storm.
“People[s] are really breaking down and ya’ll sitting here with cameras and microphones trying to ask what… is wrong with us,” the woman responded.
The newscast quickly cut from the interview as Flores calmly apologized to the woman. CNN later issued a statement saying “The people of Houston are going through a very difficult time… Our reporter handled the situation graciously.”
In these circumstances, people are exposed and hurting. Journalists cannot disregard these emotions when reporting. We must balance the line between respect for people’s current position and asking often uncomfortable questions. As journalists, we must understand that sources hold the rights to their experiences and should avoid pushing people for the sake of a story.
Reporting tragedy is a journalists responsibility, though, especially when the events have a larger impact on the surrounding community and public. According to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics, reporters should show compassion, avoid lurid details and recognize that gathering information can initially cause harm or discomfort to others. SPJ also notes that stories involving victims and grief should work to minimize harm and treat “sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”
Yet, do reporters have a moral responsibility to be actively involved with aid? Only when a source is in direct harm. For example, photojournalist Kevin Carter sparked controversy after snapping an image of a starving Sudanese girl being stalked by a vulture for the New York Times. The 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo resulted in the questioning of Carter’s journalistic ethics after he watched the pair for twenty minutes, waiting for the best shot.
When reporting tragedies, we are journalists first and citizens second. Our initial impulse may be to drop the pen, set down the camera and help, but remembering the reason for our being in these situations should remain forefront — to capture history through storytelling.
Thus by sharing these stories journalism can begin to shape itself as a means of respectful social activism. We can only hope that through our coverage these stories will touch a larger audience, acting as a catalyst for compassion, support and change.
Detachment and Compassion in Reporting
by Liz Vlahos
As journalists, we have it drummed into our heads from day one that we have to approach everything we cover with an objective eye. It’s a cardinal rule, as sacrosanct to our profession as the Hippocratic Oath to the medical field. This is especially important with “fake news” having become a major point of contention this past year; to show any type of personal bias in any story covered calls into question our objectivity and our ability to do our jobs effectively. As journalists, we are expected to detach ourselves from the subject matter as much as humanly possible, and also to recognize when our personal biases may impact our ability to tell the story in question.
With the words, “as much as humanly possible,” however, a question comes to mind: How much detachment from the subject matter is too much?
In our business, the chances of covering feel-good news all the time are zero; no matter where we find work, bad things will happen that we will be expected to cover. These include the following:
- Natural disasters – tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on.
- Fatal traffic crashes – these aren’t limited to the city, as evidenced by the horrific crash in Beecher, Ill., in late July that killed a pregnant mother and all three of her children.
- We’ve also seen quite a few pedestrians killed by Metra or CTA trains in recent months.
- Unexpected tragedies – the aforementioned crash, for example, or the sudden death of a high-school or collegiate athlete.
- Scandals or investigations that bring an institution’s reputation into question, such as the football hazing scandal at Wheaton College or the NCAA basketball recruiting scandal, both of which made headlines in recent weeks.
- Violent crime and terrorist attacks. Sadly, no shortage of violent crime exists here in Chicago, as the death toll climbs from one shooting after another.
The knife attack in Marseille, France and the massacre in Las Vegas in late September and early October only serve to drive the above point home.
By no means is the above an exhaustive list.
A certain degree of detachment is healthy and necessary in covering these types of stories, for failure to do so can be detrimental not only to a reporter’s ability to effectively tell the story, but also to his or her well-being. At what point, however, does detachment become a liability rather than an asset?
It can be argued that engaging those we interview on a personal level is bad practice, for it could potentially compromise our objectivity in reporting. It could also be argued that making our interview subjects comfortable enough to talk could garner us more information for our stories. In addition, an argument could be presented that being too cold and detached could discourage an interview subject from cooperating. These perspectives on their own, however, come across as excessively utilitarian and neglect one simple truth.
The people we interview are not simply sources of information. Any person we interview in these circumstances could be profoundly affected by the events that transpired, and for a reporter to blindly bombard that person with question after question can cause significant trauma. A key tenet of the SPJ Code of Ethics is to minimize harm, of which the second sub-tenet specifically states to show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Mining the parent of a murdered child for information as if you were doing a data dive on that person shows a blatant lack of compassion that could also be considered cruelty from the perspective of the bereaved. We cannot allow ourselves to become so detached from what we’re covering that we treat those affected as a check in the box rather than as human beings who are, at that moment, reeling and hurting from what has transpired. If we cannot bring ourselves to care about what has happened, let alone show compassion to those affected, we really shouldn’t be there.
We need to find the delicate balance between detachment and compassion. This balance is necessary in order for us to effectively do our jobs and to do right by those whose lives were torn asunder by the events we are sent to cover.