Now a Canadian View of Media Ethics
Morals and the Media: Ethics in Canadian Journalism
UBC Press, Vancouver, 1994, 249p., $24.95 CDN, ISBN 0-7748-0457-2.
Reviewed by Harold Levy
Until now, Canadian journalism schools have had to teach ethics
using American materials. That changes with publication of Morals
and the Media; Ethics in Canadian Journalism, by Nick Russell,
an associate professor at the University of Regina School of Journalism.
Russell has deliberately omitted considerations of the philosophic
underpinnings of journalism ethics, so don't expect discussions
of Aristotle's Golden Mean, Judeo-Christian norms, or Mill's principle
Instead you will find some rich, home-turf examples of ethical dilemmas
that have taxed news managers (or shot blithely over their heads
without thought) and sensible, non-dictatorial guidelines on how
one might go about resolving them.
In a section dealing with privacy, a photo presented for discussion
shows a Toronto man who returned from the corner store to find his
whole family dead.
Russell comments: ''Leaning on a police car, he weeps. Grief is
private, but can such a moment remain private when five people are
dead and the street is a chaos of screaming sirens, ambulances,
police cars and gawping neighbours? Instead, could such a picture,
in fact, provoke sympathy and support for the griever?''
Another photograph of a woman, a victim in the Concordia University
massacre, slumped in a chair, with a guard taking down Christmas
decorations in the background, also provides opportunity for ethical
''Who gets hurt by this picture?,'' Russell asks. ''One might be
tempted to answer that the dead girl's family would be hurt, but
she can't be recognized from the picture. (Four different families
telephoned the Montreal Gazette to say the girl was their
daughter). Who benefits? The audience does. The need-to-know overrides
the issue of privacy here.''
But, Russell has problems with a related photo showing a woman on
a stretcher, oxygen mask on her face, and part of one breast exposed.
He says this picture is ''much less defensible and a much greater
invasion of privacy, even if she, too, was unrecognizable.''
One of the most acute questions Russell raises - ''Just how much
graphic detail is needed, especially in court reporting?'' - is
particularly interesting in light of the challenges faced by news
organizations in the Paul Bernardo trial.
For those rare people who may not know, Paul Bernardo went on
trial in Toronto in May, 1995, for the slayings of teenagers Leslie
Mahaffy and Kristen French. The evidence, including graphic videotapes
of physical and sexual abuse, is among the most grizzly ever exposed
in a Canadian court.
Using the example of a news report of a sexual harassment trial
containing details such as, ''(He) started to massage her shoulders.
She protested when he touched her chest,'' Russell comments: ''Certainly,
in a rough-and-tumble world, the media cannot protect audiences
from unpleasantness all the time, and justice must be seen to be
done; but on the need-to-know meter, such anatomic detail rates
But, the Bernardo case is a study in the depths of degradation and
horror. Bernardo and his accomplice, ex-wife Karla Homolka, may
have out-done the legendary Marquis de Sade, in the diabolic catalogue
of sexual perversions they inflicted on Mahaffy and French, other
victims, and on each other.
So where are we on Russell's need-to-know meter? Does the media
set itself up as society's protector by filtering the truth so that
it causes minimal discomfort, or does it relay the horror that is
being revealed in the courtroom, even though this may this may inflict
To what degree can the media water down coverage of the Bernardo
case and still give a true sense of the horror inflicted on the
victims and their families or insights into the perverse relationship
between Bernardo and his ex-wife?
Morals and the Media is far more readable then its title
suggests. Russell skillfully uses cartoons, photographs, illustrations,
and clippings to make his points.He also makes good use of the occasional
'tough call,' a neatly-posed factual situation that calls for some
ethical considerations. Here's one of them:
''The publisher of your newspaper - whose policy manual forbids
reporters from getting into conflict-of-interest situations - wants
you to editorialize passionately in favour of a new expressway into
downtown. The highway would significantly facilitate newspaper delivery.
What do you write?'' (Reviewer's note: Perhaps the question should
be re-worded, ''How do you like your job?)
Russell also provides a helpful assemblage of footnotes, and an
extensive biblioraphy. This is where the reviewer must declare an
ethical dilemma: There are several references to my writings in
the text. Does this mean I have a conflict-of-interest? I trust
not, as these are hard times and the cheque for the review will
be well appreciated. Hopefully, disclosure will suffice.
All-in-all, on this reviewer's how-much-is-it worth gauge, Russell
gets an eight-out-of-10 rating. It would rise to nine should his
book go loose-leaf and be easily up-dated on challenging new cases.
And, he'll get the full 10 when he takes to the Internet and we
can all have an enlightened time discussing the issues directly
Harold Levy covers the courts for the Toronto Star.
This article originally appeared in Sources,
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