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Embellishing The Details

Monday, Apr. 16, 2012

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       Ever since Kate took a class on social justice earlier in the year, she has become very interested and involved with the workers’ rights of the custodians and gardeners on her college campus. And recently she discovered that the school has increased the cost of the workers’ premium and co-payments for their health insurance.

      Now Kate works for the school newspaper and thinks that if she writes an article on the increased cost of their benefits, it could gain the attention of the administrators who could help the workers' case. However, with the facts and interviews that Kate has been able to collect, she doesn't believe the story will be able to persuade those she needs to reach. But if she portrays a composite character as a real person, estimating his salary and the devastating effect these price hikes would have, she believes her article will have the necessary strength to have an impact.

      Her actions have no intent to garner praise for herself; she merely wants to achieve what is due to these workers. Is it ethical, then, for Kate to employ such tactics?  

Further Information

Framework for Ethical Decision Making 

Journalism Ethics: Right Name, Wrong Game


Photo by Sasha Y. Kimel under a creative commons license.

Comments Comments

Jeremy Geist said on Apr 19, 2012
Although she is doing it with the best of intentions, passing off a composite character as a real human is detrimental to her, her newspaper, and the people she represents. Truth is one of the most important components of journalistic ethics; should people find that the person Kate has written about does not, in fact, exist, it would reflect poorly on the paper that allowed her to publish the article. Should another journalism opportunity arise, Kate will be taken less seriously, even if she is completely honest in future articles. As for the workers, while they are not, technically, associated with Kate, the fact that one of their proponents used dishonest techniques in order to aid them would be bad publicity for them and for their plight. Furthermore, the fact that the only person truly suffering from the health care changes is a fictional construct would also lessen the apparent severity of the changes. - Like
Marlys Hunt said on Apr 22, 2012
I agree with Jeremy. To inflate data or create a composite character is a candy-coated lie. Supplying inaccurate data such as this does nothing more than discredit the news media, not that it's current reputation is all that pristine. What would be the logical action to take is to present a true and existing case of one of the workers affected by the changes. However if the identity of the worker is at risk, stating that the information is cited under a false name would give the report credibility and supply truthful facts to the community in stating how a real life person is affected by such changes made by the larger institution, which here is the university. - Like - 7 people like this.
David Andrews said on Apr 23, 2012
Of course, I agree: it would be best if Kate found a real person that embodied the struggles these health care changes are imposing. However, the case above presents it as though that is not a possibility. And if this is true, we have to measure whether the end justifies the means. Although Kant would argue that you should always tell the truth no matter the circumstance, his philosophy mandates that you turn over a concealed Jew to Nazi investigators rather than lie. But nearly everyone would argue it's all right to deceive in this case. Why, then, couldn't it be all right for Kate to stretch the truth? These workers are suffering. The school isn't doing anything to help them. Kate's current means for improving their conditions is ineffective. Yes, lying is wrong. But it's more wrong to cause such physical, tangible injustice to people that directly affects their livelihood. And if, as a humanitarian, as we all should be, it means that we must manipulate the facts to save/improve lives, it seems that we should do everything we can to achieve that. - Like
Feliz Moreno said on Apr 23, 2012
There are two sets of "ethics" that are in conflict here. First there are journalist ethics that emphasize truth and facts over all else. To be a journalist is to have a social responsibility to your audience to tell the truth. As a journalist your job is to present the facts and allow your audience to come to their own conclusions as to what is right and wrong. The other set of ethics that Kate is dealing are those of a social activist. An activist has already made the personal decision as to what is right and wrong and wants to persuade other people to agree with her conclusions. While I realize that Kate has good intentions in trying to get people to empathize with the workers, it will defeat her cause anyway if people discover that she lied. Good social activist platforms cannot be built on lies - that would be counterproductive to the cause. Therefore, not only would fabricating a fictional character to create more emotional appeal among her audience be unethical, but it would also be unreasonable in either approach (journalistic or activist) she is attempting to take. - Like - 2 people like this.
Anthony Cave said on Apr 24, 2012
Kate's use of a composite character would frame a desired narrative as opposed to factual reporting. At the least, she could attempt to get a mistreated worker to speak off the record. Kate may have moral imparative to create the character, but doing so leads to shoddy, biased journalism. - Like - 3 people like this.
Julie said on Apr 26, 2012
Many individuals struggle to find a way to garner support and attention for their cause; however, in order to gain that positive kind of recognition, you need to have credibility. If Kate were to continue with her story and use the "composite character" she would gain attention which would be good for her in the short run, however, if she continues to gain recognition for her cause, anyone following her story will eventually come to know the truth one way or another. The issue here is that her "composite character" is a made up character. As humans we tend to be wary of people who create such fallacies because we tend to think that there?s a greater chance of them creating yet another one. If Kate wants to be a representative for a reputable newspaper then she would be better off not employing such tactics. There are other ways that she could go about in gaining interest in her story by declaring early on in the story that the measures that the school have taken have had such and such an effect on workers and these are what the statistics would look like. Being personable and engaging with your audience is key but creating a composite character and presenting them as a real character may lose you the trust of your audience. - Like - 1 person likes this.
Navila Rashid said on Apr 26, 2012
Both Jeremy and Feliz make excellent points. I think that Kate should not create a composite character to win over the sympathies of the school's administrators for the reasons provided above (i.e., hurts the reputation of herself, the paper, and the workers), and as a journalist her job is to present the facts and let other decide the course of action (as Feliz notes). What I would like to add is, Kate might be overenthusiastic about helping and has a cognitive bias towards her means of action. She thinks that writing an extremely compelling piece will, hopefully, change the minds of the administrators, which will then result in a change of wages for the workers. I think a few facts need to inform her judgment: 1. what is the likelihood of these administrators reading the school newspaper and being so influenced that they revert back to keeping the premiums as they were? 2. Are there no other means that she could employ that is more sustainable and/or effective other than writing a column? Just because the data she has come up with does not allow her to write a compelling article, it does not follow that she ought to fudge the facts and risk her reputation, the paper's history of integrity, and possibly make the worker's situation less pressing. The potential of great harm outweighs the benefit she thinks her article will provide. 3. What does she not know? It could be possible, and may be her data highlights this, that increasing the healthcare premiums was necessary in order to avoid job cuts. This is where I would question her overzealous behavior, there are a number of complex factors that go into raising costs, and sometimes it is in the best interest in those workers, but without that knowledge, one cannot simply assume that the ?powers that be? are being evil/unjust to the workers. - Like - 16 people like this.
Anayo said on Apr 26, 2012
As a journalist, I know it is sometimes hard to make the decision between what will get you the best story and what is ethically and morally correct. As some of the other responses have stated, although it would be done with the best intentions, it is not honest and would not only hurt Kate if what she had done came to light but would also tarnish the integrity of the newspaper and possibly even her school. This is a paradox, as Kate wants to makes social change but is considering going against ethical code to make that happen. One of the main problems of journalism today that goes across the realm from print, online to television is that the viewer/reader is losing the facts of a story to the embellishment of details and propaganda-like nature overtaking the message. Good journalism is being objective, stating the facts, and giving the reader what they are owed - the truth; but just like in the case of Janet Cooke and "Jimmy's World," bad journalism can quickly overtake what would be a good and honest story when the journalist gets wrapped up in an issue so deep that they would do anything to create a story. For Kate, I would say keep the facts that you have straight, skip the creation characters and let your passion for this story shine through your honesty. From there, social change will come. - Like - 10 people like this.
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Tags: honesty, journalism, lying