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.