They're what journalists are supposed to explain. 'We'll focus on the issues' is the vow in virtually every newsroom in virtually every campaign. Ideally, it means producing comprehensive, thoughtful analyses of candidates' positions on economic growth, health care, education, defense, the environment, and so on."
There is, however, a story that became the political issue when Senator Berry's public life, for whatever, became entangled in the lives of not one, but five of his staff people; all women, and all with similar accounts of allegations of a criminal nature. It is not in discord with the ethics of professional journalism to report on this story. That the allegations involve a public officer, whose behavior is incompatible with that of a publicly elected official, and, if the charges are substantiated, are criminal in nature, in which case much more than the Senator's office would be at stake. It is the responsibility of the journalist reporting the case to publish the fact of that form the basis of the allegations against the senator, especially since the senator has refused comment.
That the senator has refused comment is not an admission of guilt, because the nature of the case becomes very complex, even if the senator innocent. Should he comment, his comments could incriminate him, and be used against him. Legally it is in his best interest not to comment on the allegations that have been made against him.
The reporter should report the details of the case, but he should also be careful to refrain from using the names of the women whom have requested their identities not be revealed. He should also remark that the senator refused to comment, but should not go into any description of what he, as a reporter, perceived the senator's state of mind to be, or quote his use of profanity. Even though the profanity is a fact, it is not relevant to the allegations, and it has no news value.
By reporting on just the fact, the reporter does not risk judging, or influencing the reader by interjecting his or her own interpretation of the facts, and making that interpretation become the story. When a reporter reports the fact, it allows the reader the discretion to arrive at their own conclusions. If the reporter has done a really good job in reporting the story, the reader will no doubt follow the story through its evolution, and even - in this day of the internet - perform his or her own research of the senator.
The ability of the public to engage in mass communication has put a greater burden to stick to the facts of the story on the news journalist. People, by the thousands, engage in blogging and on forum discussions kicking around opinions, ideas, and judging people and events that are brought to their attention in the news today. When the journalist gives reports on just the facts, the story remains within the framework of the events. In the case of the senator, ostensibly a criminal investigation, the outcome of which will determine the fate of the senator legally.
Investigative reporting is verifying facts that will appear in a story. It means quoting people accurately, and giving the parties involved an opportunity to respond to the story. It is not, as we know, necessary to cite the names of the people who made the allegations, because those names are protected by the Constitution as it pertains to journalistic reporting.
So long as the journalist remains cognizant of his or her journalistic code of ethics, they will not encounter legal issues, and they will not risk tainting their story, or, worse, casting the shadow of public doubt on their own character as a dependable and reliable news source.
Society of Professional Journalists, 'Code of Ethics,' found online at http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp,2009,retrieved 2 March 2009.
Reuters Fraud Photo: A Taxonomy of Fraud, U.S. News & World Report, 'Dangerous Liaisons,' July, 2006, found online at http://www.zombietime.com/reuters_photo_fraud/,retrieved3 March 2009.
Reuters Fraud Photo: A Taxonomy of Fraud, found online at http://www.zombietime.com/reuters_photo_fraud/,retrieved3 March 2009.
Society of Professional Journalists, 'Code of Ethics, op. cit., online.
Seib, Philip, Campaigns and Conscience: The Ethics of Political Journalism, Praeger Publishers, 1994, p. 41.