Let’s say you’re a plumber. You get a call from a woman who’s found a puddle under the kitchen sink.
You drive out to her house for a look and, sure enough, there’s a small body of water right there below the elbow joint of the pipe, with more water dripping into it every second or two.
What do you do? Do you (a) fix it? Or do you (b) call a special hot line number and ask the expert on the other end for help?
The correct answer is (a). You’re a plumber — plumb! Get out a wrench and start turning the thing and make the leak stop leaking. If you need somebody else to tell you what to do, you don’t deserve to be a plumber in the first place.
Now imagine you’re a journalist. You get a call from a woman who says that her plumber overcharged her for some repairs by more than a hundred bucks, and, furthermore, the guy is such a crook that he’s ripped off half a dozen other households in the neighborhood, and a lot more than that all over the town, for even greater amounts.
What do you do? Do you (a) report the story right away, with the woman as your sole source? Or do you (b) try to get the plumber’s side of it and evaluate the two versions, even if it means you have to put more time and thought and energy into the assignment?
Are you stumped? And do you decide not to ask the people in your office for their opinions because they’d be even more stumped than you?
Then what you might do is call the Ethics Advice Line for Journalists, a service of the Chicago Headline Club chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and Loyola University Chicago. The person who answers the phone will tell you the correct answer is (b).
If he has any guts, he will also tell you that you’re an idiot.
The Ethics Advice Line for Journalists? They’ve got to be kidding! That’s about as ridiculous as . . . well, as a leaks advice line for plumbers. Granted, there are more nuances to journalism than to pipe repair, but just as training should prepare a person for most problems that arise in the latter line of work, so should common sense and a basic predisposition toward fairness prepare a person for the exigencies of the former.
A journalist should make distinctions between the public’s need to know and the public’s appetite for curiosities. He should weigh the feelings of the victims of a story against the importance of the information for others. He should find out the truth, decide on its relevance and present what needs to be presented in as lucid and perceptive a manner as possible.
If he doesn’t know all this without resorting to a telephone, then he should be the one fixing the pipes and the guy who takes the calls for the Ethics Advice Line should be out there in the woman’s house doing the report.
The Ethics Advice Line for Journalists asks simply that a caller identify himself or herself, state his or her predicament, and leave a phone number. "Most questions," the advice line promises, "will be answered within 24 hours by a person trained in journalism ethics at Loyola University Chicago."
I know what you’re thinking. I’m making fun of this. I’m treating the Ethics Advice Line for Journalists as a joke, and the entire point of this column is to show how little respect I have for the Chicago Headline Club chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the journalistic ethicists at Loyola University.
Not so. I support the advice line. I believe it is a valuable service. I am not lamenting the fact that it exists.
I am lamenting the fact that it needs to.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .