Poynter ethicist runs NEPA media panel

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He had the audience members laughing. He kept them thinking. But he never seemed to forget why he was there — to teach them something about journalism ethics.

Poynter Institute training guru Al Tompkins, author of the widely read Al’s Morning Meeting, led a panel of eight current and former Northeastern Pennsylvania news professionals through a series of actual case studies designed to illuminate the ethical decision-making process for an audience of some 200 students, faculty, journalists and others at King’s College Thursday morning.

As Tompkins predicted, the panel struggled with the choices facing them in each case study. They sometimes squirmed in their seats, weighing their desire to uncover and tell the truth against other concerns, such as privacy and audience sensibilities. In the end, they usually disagreed about what should be done.

That was not necessarily a bad thing. Journalists should not fall into the trap of believing they need to find the “right” decision, Tompkins explained. What they need to do instead is to find a good decision, one that they could live with and be comfortable defending to others.

What is important, he said, is the process. By working through the ethical decision-making process, journalists could develop their skills so that when the time comes to make a tough call on deadline, they won’t drop the ball.

That process involves asking questions. What does the journalist know and what does he or she need to know? What is the journalistic purpose in running the story?

He encouraged journalists to avoid making any decisions until they had at least three alternatives to choose from. Those alternatives vary from story to story, but they must always be identified before any tough call can be made.

One panelist’s remark that he had a gut instinct on a case led Tompkins to both praise such instincts and caution against them.

“Listen to your gut,” he said. “But don’t trust it.”

Gut reactions come from experience, but also from emotion. If a journalist has had a good experience doing something, that person’s “gut” will tell them to do it again even though it might not be the best alternative in a new situation.

Journalists need to “get beyond the gut and move up to what we call ‘reflective thinking,”‘ said Tompkins.

The session was the first of a two-part workshop sponsored by Kings and the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. The panel included Bianca Barr, WNEP; Mark Davis, WBRE; Renita Fennick, Times Leader; Mark Guydish, Times Leader; Bob Kalinowski, Citizen’s Voice; Claire Shecter, Citizen’s Voice; and Phil Yacuboski, King’s faculty member, formerly of WYOU.

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