Aug 28, 2011

Just Following Orders

Disclaimer: The following essay contains my own thoughts and opinions. As a journalist, I always try to work by high ethical standards. However, our profession contains its own particular challenges, and I wanted to reflect on this in a constructive way.
The Brisbane media landscape was this week rocked by the so-called “Choppergate” scandal. Channel Nine sacked two journalists and a producer, and its head of news resigned, after revelations they faked two “live” crosses from their news helicopter. Instead of flying near the search site for missing teenager Daniel Morcombe as the station claimed, it was instead on the Mt Coot-tha helipad, or hovering nearby.
I do not know any of the persons involved beyond cursory bump-ins at media conferences. I do know that they were all well-respected, particularly 25-year veteran Lee Anderson, the former head of news.
I’ve seen the reaction unfold via social media and news sites, and it’s spanned the sympathy spectrum from “a lot” to “absolutely none”.
I feel conflicted.
 On the one hand, I certainly accept that for the station to have journalists pretending to be somewhere they were not was wrong. News reporting is about facts. A studio cross, explaining that bad weather meant they couldn’t be over the scene, would have been sufficient in this instance.
News organisations do demand truth and high standards from those it reports on – for example, governments and businesses – and so it has a responsibility to set an example.
I also accept the “slippery slope” argument – the idea that if a news organisation is prepared to fudge or fake one thing, where does it lead?  Tripping down that rabbit hole can result in situations like the UK phone hacking scandal.
However, I can also see these two faked crosses, taken together, as an isolated operational incident. In the first instance, I don’t know that those involved would have had a deep ethical evaluation of the incident before it occurred.
While the goal of completely independent news is noble, the reality is that many news organisations are also businesses, and thus in a certain degree of competition. Local rivalries are often the most intense; and each network wants to be seen as “the best” or “the fastest” or “the most up-to-date”. TV news is about vision, it’s about providing interest and spark.  We can argue about the merits of this model, but that seems to be the way it is.
So I can envisage a scenario in which journalists and producers consult, and on hearing bad weather would prevent them from being in the air, decide they could still use it as a backdrop. And why not just say “We’re near the search site?”
The reason? It's possibly a controversial thing to say, but… it didn’t “hurt” anyone.
Even as I type these words, I think myself foolish for thinking them. The broader “hurt” is of course to the profession of journalism itself, which already suffers from distrust and wariness from wider society (see previous point about the “slippery slope”). But the reporters/news program didn’t show footage of the site and say “This is the site right now”. They didn’t make up any facts about the search itself, or the Morcombe case in general. From my perspective, they faked the backdrop.
Perhaps that is not the point. The Daniel Morcombe case is the biggest missing person search in Queensland history. I would suggest very few people in the state would not have heard his name or seen his face. I would agree with the argument that the case simply does not NEED any extra “oomph” (for want of a better term), and so it is right that any poor judgement in relation to this case should be corrected swiftly.
But I find it telling that Daniel Morcombe’s father Bruce has subsequently described the affair as a “storm in a tea cup”. That suggests to me that Mr Morcombe feels there was little harm to his family’s work to find their son’s remains and give him the dignity of a proper farewell.
There's another reason why for me this is such a grey area, and quite frankly it's all because of the Nazis.
Among many things, they also ruined
Hugo Boss uniforms and toothbrush moustaches.

In 1961, a Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted a now-infamous series of experiments to test the obedience of subjects to an authority figure. He developed it in response to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The experiment has since been replicated a number of times in a number of ways, but the general conclusion is that a majority of people will perform acts that conflict with their personal values when consistently told to.
Now I’m not trying to compare the “Choppergate” affair to war crimes, or acts of violence or personal harm. Indeed, it’s this kind of incident that should be protested and questioned more regularly, in the interests of raising standards all round.
But I’ve seen the argument a number of times now that the Channel Nine reporters should have “made a stand” and refused to fake the helicopter cross – and I think that is very simplistic.
Even if you leave aside my earlier argument that perhaps they didn’t perceive an ethical dilemma there in the first place – it’s not always possible for people to “made a stand”. Humans are flawed, and we don’t always do what is “right”, 100 per cent of the time.
Yes, journalism attracts particular expectations, which should be met as much as possible. Again, this is not about saying “We all do it, so don’t blame just us journalists”. 
But I ask you to think of your jobs. Have you done work that does not sit well with your moral view? Have you been forced to cut corners, or reject someone’s ask for help because you were not able to? Have you ever done something for a boss that you rather wouldn’t?
Why? It’s good old self-interest. We have careers, families, bills. Few people actively want to lose their jobs.
I am grateful I have not been placed in a position in my working life where I have been pressured to do something against my moral values. But I understand that in journalism – like many other professions – sometimes it really is a case of “If you don’t do this, somebody else will”.
Hopefully, very few of us will ever have to encounter a situation where if we don’t speak up people could die, and if we do, WE could die. But humans are forced to make moral bargains with themselves in all sorts of little ways all the time.
It is admirable to aspire to everyone having the courage of their convictions all the time. But looking at every dilemma and saying “You should have stood up to them!” is a very black-and-white filter for a world that is more often than not very grey.


  1. This is a weird one. Unusual to see the media sacrificing their own over what was a relatively minor incident.
    In my opinion, they should have been told they were a pack of idiots and not to do it again. Sacking was way excessive. But there were a couple of complicating factors working against them.
    - The fact that it was the Morcombe case. This is a sensitive issue, one that the entire community has taken to heart, and these faked crosses could legitimately be seen as slights to the Morcombe family;
    - The fact that, all over the world, media integrity is such a very big topic right now. If it wasn't, then a slap on the wrist may have been all they got.

    It was the wrong decision at the wrong time.

  2. Great reading your thoughts on this.
    The thing I can't understand is WHY they pretended they were there - added nothing to the story anyway!

  3. In the grand scheme of things this really isn't even a storm in a teacup. It's channel 9 playing make believe for around a total of 60 seconds in a coupla hundred years of history. I'm surprised someone even asked Mr Morcombe.

    This is apparently only a big deal in the local industry and your average punter laughs it off as unsurprising.

    As moral compasses go, I reckon from their point of view they aren't filming a person drowning from ten feet away. It would be one of those 'dodgy moments' that enter our lives occasionally and if no one finds out then there's no harm done, and even if they do, they've only tripped over in a game of dodge ball and made themselves a target.

    I think though, them being caught out with something this minor so early in a potential slippery slope is a good thing. Obviously firing them was ridiculous though.

    "Among many things, they also ruined Hugo Boss uniforms and toothbrush moustaches."


  4. Well thought and well reasoned piece, are you sure you're a journalist ;)

  5. An as ex-journo myself, I find this whole story a bit shocking. I really don't think the punishment fit the crime at all... and that those punished were(as you noted) simply following orders. I doubt the journos had any say in how their location was really represented... in the scheme of things it was not a big deal.

    They REALLY should have said they were simply reporting on the facts, or 'we are heading to the site shortly'. But sacking them? Overkill by embarrassed management who no doubt put the initial pressure on them ... hope some other network snapped them up quick smart!!

    And that is my soapbox piece for the week.

  6. Talk about shooting the messenger....
    Both figuratively and, almost, literally
    A storm on a heli pad really
    The Ancient Man

  7. I think the embarrassment at having been caught out was punishent enough. Sacking the reporters was an over reaction. The person issuing the orders should have taken the flak, apologised, reputation tarnished, lesson learned by all stations and that be the end of it.

  8. This whole situation is entirely ridiculous, but when I first heard (before anyone was fired) I was like 'They just CAN’T do that'. I’m a firm believer in integrity especially in situations like this. In the grand scheme of things it’s no biggy but the slippery slope thing is so true ... and how often DOES this happen that we simply don’t know about - every day I suspect.

    I think doing right isn’t a Grey area; it’s really quite simple.... just do it. Now I've never been in life and death situations where ethical decisions may be a little more challenging ... but I've certainly been in many many situations professionally and personally where I've had opportunity to choose one path or another and not found it too difficult to choose.

    But I am appalled sometimes how I see other people completely disregard what is the right and decent thing to do. I now teach Ethics and I am shocked at the complete uncaring standard by which some people operate and the lengths people will go to with no regard for the impact on others.

    It might sound naive but I really believe how you conduct yourself even when nobody is watching says so much about who you are, even things that are 'no biggy' aren’t worth compromising your integrity over.

    So while I agree that getting fired over something that really didn’t impact anyone is nuts - part of me still thinks that if this and other things like this are just accepted then where does that leave us? I think people struggle to articulate what they value, and I think that’s a huge part of all this. People (ok not all people) do what they are told, want to win, want to please and don’t want to challenge... and certainly don’t want to say ‘No’.

    As far as values go I think honesty and integrity are the things that really matter.

  9. I really enjoyed this post. I have oft times been placed in situations where telling 'the Truth' was unwelcome, and yet I felt that my personal integrity would be compromised if I didn't. Personal integrity is cold comfort when you have a mortgage to pay and other people relying on you for basic needs.

    I feel for the journalists who may (or may not) have been placed in the position of having to 'do what they were told' and totally agree that a black and white attitude to them 'making a stand' is simplistic. However, whoever made the suggestion to do it in the first place deserves what was coming to them. I can only hope it was actually one of the people who was punished...but more than likely, it wasn't.

    The world might be a better place if people working for big corporations had the courage of their convictions more often, but frequently the "convictionless" in these structures are the ones with the power.