Want to know the right thing to do? Ask a journalist

Over the last year, I’ve become familiar with a particular journalism exam question.

From an NCTJ reporting past paper, it tests reporters’ ethical instincts and Editors’ Code knowledge using a travel industry scenario.

Essentially, exam candidates are asked to decide what they’d do if the boss of an airport which paid for a press trip to a Med resort tried to call in the alleged favour when an embarrassing story emerges about trouble from stag weekends facilitated by his flights.

The airport MD not only points to his largesse but also raises the spectre of job losses and a commercial backlash if the story goes ahead.

My model answer revolves around another question: What would UK Press Gazette or Hold the Front Page make of the way your paper handled this issue?

It’s a litmus test that I’ve used a few times over the years when wrestling with ethical dilemmas and conflicts of interest, teamed with a simpler one: What feels right here?

And it is these sort of questions that must be at the heart of any decent – in every sense of the word – PR strategy.

To reword that main one: What would the Daily Mail (or The Guardian, or The Sun) make of this if it became public?

Well, it was the Mail on Sunday which provided the hard-hitting scrutiny in another, more tragic, travel industry scenario at the weekend.

Finally yesterday, Thomas Cook chief executive Peter Fankhauser offered the genuine, human apology that the parents of Christi and Bobby Shepherd had sought for the last nine years after their deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning.

There seems to be a genuine consensus that the disastrous strategy pursued by Thomas Cook until the weekend must have been driven by legal advice, rather than emotional intelligence or even common sense.

It was media exposure that forced a shortsighted company to belatedly see the bigger picture.

Two points occur to me.

One is that the lesson Thomas Cook has learned – that the morally right thing and the legally right thing aren’t always the same – is one which we in the media also need to remember at times.

But the main thought is that often journalists who have analysed a situation for just a few minutes – significantly, the same period as the average customer – will have a better feel for the right thing to do than all the highly-paid executives in the land.

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2 thoughts on “Want to know the right thing to do? Ask a journalist

  1. To play Devil’s advocate (sort of)…

    Isn’t the danger with your conclusion, however, that journalists risk seeing themselves as the moral shepherds of a nation, justifying their content on ‘moral’ grounds without any mitigation? In the exam example, it could be moral not to bow to pressure from the travel operator, but is creating potentially thousands of job losses – real people, remember – morally justifiable as a result? Taken to its absurd extreme, surely such an attitude would return us to the early days of the BBC and the until-recent days of the BBFC, when ‘morally-upright’ people decided what we should and shouldn’t know. Notwithstanding the fact that the internet has made it night-on impossible for such a strategy to work.

    The above is not necessarily my own opinion, but I think the issue of morality in journalism is once that we must keep having. And yes, the issue of moral vs. legal is key – A Man For All Seasons, and all that.

    • I agree, Daniel. I think the point I was making is that journalists can sometimes see a simple truth – the Emperor’s New Clothes moment – which could save businesses an awful lot of heartache and damage.

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