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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Exploitative Tactics or Good Journalism?

Jessica Silliman

Mike Madison was in his senior year at Santa Clara University when he participated in an internship program through a local daily newspaper. His years at Santa Clara had convinced him that he wanted to pursue journalism after graduation. For the last two years he had been a part of The Santa Clara, the university's student newspaper, and had become entrenched in reading and thinking about the media. This internship was his first chance to get a feel for the industry.

Mike had various responsibilities as an intern, but most required him to stay in the office to handle phone calls and fact-check articles. One day his editor approached him about a breaking news story-a father and daughter had just been in a bicycle accident and the father was pronounced dead on the scene. Mike's editor asked him to cover the story and take pictures for the front page.

Mike couldn't believe he was given this huge responsibility. He had been warned that very few interns get to do actual reporting, so he considered this opportunity his big break. After putting in months at the newspaper, he finally had a chance to report and, even better, report on a front-page story.

But Mike wasn't sure he agreed with his editor's last word of advice: "Get as close as you can…we need pictures of the scene and it needs to be strong," said his editor.

"This was not the kind of approach I wanted to take," said Mike. "It really turned me off."

As a low-level intern, Mike wasn't inclined to raise his concerns. Plus, he was thankful for the opportunity to report on such a big story and didn't want his editor to think otherwise. He couldn't ruin this one chance to report.

Mike went to the scene and gathered all the details. The father had been helping his daughter ride her bike in their neighborhood when a car had run a stop sign and hit them both. The father was killed instantly, but the daughter survived and had been taken to the nearest hospital.

"I didn't feel right about splashing the end of this person's life on the front page," said Mike. "How is that helping people?"

Despite his concerns, Mike complied with the editor's wishes. He took a few pictures at the scene, getting as close as he could, and interviewed some bystanders. The next day, Mike's story was on the front page of the newspaper, along with one of his photographs.

Although Mike was excited to see his name in print, he wasn't proud of the story. He soon asked for fewer hours. Two months later, Mike quit the internship.

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think the editor's instructions to Mike to "get as close as you can" were exploitative or good journalism?
  • Do you agree with Mike that putting the picture of the dead father on the front page doesn't "help" people?
  • Despite personal resignations, do journalists have an obligation to report on these topics?
  • Did Mike's decision revolve around a mere personal discomfort or does it point to a larger problem with the industry?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007

Jun 1, 2007