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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Can a Journalist Have Dual Loyalties?

A student at Duke University, Betsey Sauer asked whether it was ethical for a
native American journalist to report on a painful event inside the
community of which she is a part.

Here is her question:

I am a student at Duke University doing research for a case study
in a journalism class. I was wondering if you could find time and
address some questions about ethical reporting of American Indians.

The case study involves a American Indian journalist who is allowed
to come on an Indian reservation shortly after a mass murder. Other
journalists were not allowed on the scene. The reservation knows that
she is a journalist. She is also allowed to the 5 hour funeral held
by the reservation in honor of the murder victims. During the
ceremony, she frequently leaves to write notes down. (therefore the
tribe does not know she is reporting on the event) I have a few
questions regarding the ethics involved in this case.

Since the reporter has shown intent to report on the sacred ceremony,
do you think that it is an invasion of privacy for her to report on
this aspect of the case without consent from the tribe?

Do you think that publishing a story about the mass murder would
cause more pain for the tribe or be more beneficial for American

And in conclusion, do you think that the reporter crossed any other
ethical boundaries as a journalist?

Thank you,
Betsey Sauer

And my answer:

Dear Ms. Sauer,

To me the question is whether we looking at a case of dual loyalties: was she there attending the funeral service as an Indian or as a journalist?

Of course, she was there as both. Her cultural identity
and her professional obligations may appear to be in conflict.

In the end, they really aren't. Her obligation is to report on the event.

If she felt that by writing her impressions down in front of the
assembly, she would be disrespecting the tribe and its values, she did the right thing in stepping outside, then coming back in to observe some more.

But she fulfilled her role as a journalist and that was her primary obligation. To obtain the tribe's permission would have compromised her
independence as a reporter and in effect, made her a p.r. agent for the tribe.

Put another way, if a Catholic reporter attending the
funeral of a pope required the approval of the College of Cardinals before
reporting, the public would correctly infer that this was a report designed to show the Church in the best possible light.

But did the reporter use his religion to gain access to a front row seat? Did he or she ever imply that the report would be good for the Church? This is where it gets complicated.

And what if that same reporter obtained information that the College was split about who to select as the next Pope, should he/she obtain the Church's permission to report on this? I can imagine the howls of outrage from the public and the reporter's own editors and they would be right to complain.

The tribe elders were aware of her presence and presumably, said nothing in
advance to restrict her activities.

The complication may be that (as I understand it) in native American culture, the agreement of the tribe is paramount and to report on internal dissent or criticism of the tribal elders is considered disrespectful.

In this case, she was not reporting on divisions among various opinions, but on a tragic situation that had powerfully affected the tribe. She may have used her background to gain access. I think that is fair as long as the tribe has no say on what she can or cannot report. To me, she has fulfilled her professional obligations without compromising her principles as a reporter or as an Indian.

Without seeing the final story, I don't think this was an invasion of privacy. Her report may have caused more pain for the tribe by re-living the
event, but it is important for all Americans to know about the lives of Native Americans.

Hope this helps.

Best regards,

Jeffrey Dvorkin

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