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Now a Canadian View of Media Ethics

Morals and the Media: Ethics in Canadian Journalism
Nick Russell
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 of Utility.

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 analysis.

''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 pretty low.''

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 overwhelming pain?

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 with him.

Harold Levy covers the courts for the Toronto Star.

This article originally appeared in Sources, 36th Edition.

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