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Rights come with responsibilities, says Marco Mulcahy of The Associated Press
If a photographer went into someone’s home and took pictures without permission, that would be illegal and unethical, said Marco Mulcahy, a supervising editor at The Associated Press.
But if a reporter protected a source in court, that would be illegal but ethical, he said.
Exposing a business scandal after interviewing every possible source would be both legal and ethical, he said, which is the best type of situation.
In "Press Freedom vs. Press Responsibility," Mulcahy spoke Friday, March 21 about keeping the balance between what is legal and what is ethical in journalism.
"While we have all these rights and laws to support us in this country to protect the media and the press,” Mulcahy said, “they come with responsibility."
Mulcahy gave three tips that journalists should follow in keeping the balance between legality and ethics.
1. "Avoid being used."
Mulcahy told a story about heavy coverage of missing children stories in Japan. It turned out that these missing children, who all came back home, were part of a "runaway club."
To become a member, they had to be on the news for running away.
2. “Think about consequences."
For example, stories about bomb scares could encourage others to imitate the bomb scares in copycat crimes, Mulcahy said.
"If there's a bomb, then there's a story," he said. "But if not, it's a pseudo-event."
Other pseudo-events could include ribbon cutting ceremonies, check passing, groundbreaking, and being ranked the "812th best high school in the country," he said.
3. “Names are not the only way to identify people.”
If a source goes off the record, then the "key goes on the lips," he said. The information cannot be published, he said.
However, other types of information can be published without the source's name, he said. These are not often desirable except as a last resort, he said.
Background information, he said, is when information can be published but only under the conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the journalist will not publish the name of the source, but will give a description of the source’s position.
Deep background is when the information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified even anonymously. This type of information can be used if the journalist can corroborate the information from another source, Mulcahy said.
Mulcahy concluded the lecture with advice for journalists.
"Discuss issues," he said. "Five heads are better than one."
He also said it's better to be correct than to be first, that journalists should judge each dilemma on a case to case basis.
Above all, he advised student journalists to remember their audience.
"Remember who you're writing for," he said. "It's not you, it's not your advisor, and it's not your principal."
Will Feinstein is an editor of the Newtonite at Newton North High School in Newtonville, Mass.
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