Ethical decision-making not as easy as it sounds

Reporting on bad news in a small community is serious business

By Stu Salkeld Black Press

The Pipestone Flyer is part of Black Press Prairie Division, and the group is a member of several professional associations, including the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association and News Media Canada (formerly the Canadian Community Newspapers Association). On occasion, I’ll receive emails from these associations offering training, advice and other benefits. One message from News Media this week brought back some memories.

The subject was a training course on how to publish “bad news in a small community.” I’m telling you right now, after 25 years experience in this business, bad news, especially sudden deaths, should be handled carefully and consistently.

When I was in college, we took a media ethics course for a full semester. In that course we not only studied mistakes other newspapers made when covering “bad news,” we were also given tools to analyze ethical conundrums and make the best decision possible, balancing community members’ right to privacy with the rest of the community’s right to know how and why something bad happened.

Our instructors presented us with a system called Kant’s Categorical Imperative that allows users to make ethical decisions by balancing different community expectations.

Immanuel Kant was an 18th Century German philosopher who, simply put, placed virtually all decision-making emphasis on reason. Note to any PhD’s, Masters of Philosophy etc. who are reading this column: the categorical imperative taught to me involves community journalism, and wasn’t part of any seven-year university course. Go easy on me.

The categorical imperative asks the user to assume that whatever decision he or she is about to make is henceforth the absolute precedent on which all similar decisions follow; whatever decision you arrive at for this problem is automatically the solution you adopt for any similar problem. Then, you ask yourself, is this precedent proper? I’ve used the categorical imperative throughout my career, and it’s never failed me.

Earlier in my career in southern Alberta I covered the death of an 11 year old boy. He was participating in a minor hockey practice, and was struck in the back of the neck by a puck. The puck severed his spinal column, killing him. I asked myself, “If I ignore this death and write nothing about it in the newspaper, does this mean I just set a precedent that no child deaths will ever appear in the newspaper?” I decided it had to be reported because to set such a precedent harms the community as a whole: the community has a right to know how the death occurred and what can be done to prevent it in the future. While the Calgary media sensationalized the death (bad coaching, unsafe arena, faulty equipment), I spoke directly to the pathologist who conducted the boy’s autopsy: the death was a freak mishap that, in theory, could happen anytime during any hockey practice. No one was to blame.

However, a few days later I had to make another ethical decision related to this boy’s death. The boy’s funeral was a major event in the community and I was contacted by a Calgary newspaper asking me if they could hire me to take photos at the funeral. I had never done anything like that before, so I used the categorical imperative: If I take photos at this boy’s funeral, I have to take photos at every funeral. The answer was clear, it was not only unnecessary to take the photos, it would be, in the context of a small community, ill-advised for both my reputation, and the reputation of my employer.

I found the training I was given in college prepared me rather well for the unforeseen situations I’d find myself in later. These situations can be unfortunate, even tragic, and reporting them to the community requires a compassionate, consistent approach.

Stu Salkeld is the editor of The Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the newspaper.

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