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Truth and Honesty in the Media

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In a world surrounded by mass media, we depend on truthful and honest information to form accurate conceptions of current events and issues. Journalists, editors, producers and broadcasters should do their best to convey information that reflects the truth. Truth and the public’s right to information should be the basic foundation for all journalists. One reason for the importance of truth in the media is that it demonstrates a respect for people as ends rather than as tools to be manipulated. In other words, it is not used to influence or control society but rather to benefit it. The public depends on the media to discover and report societal problems and issues that they themselves would never have the chance to know about.

The media is the one way to get a message that is of extreme importance across a nation within minutes. Another important aspect of truth is the building of trust between individuals and society’s institutions. When the public knows they can trust the media and they are honest in their reporting, their trust grows more for the society as a whole. Also truth is essential to the democratic process. In a democratic society, the media is the primary source for truthful, accurate and meaningful information. It also tends to be fair and avoids biases. Failure to promote truth and honesty will most likely result in society’s loss of confidence, respect and trust in the media. (Day, 81.)

The news media plays a very significant role in today’s society. Millions of people turn to the media for the latest news and information. The media is responsible for preparing and delivering news programs accurately and honestly to maintain public interest. They are also responsible in evaluating the newsworthiness of all broadcast items and recognizing the public’s right to know. According to The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, “Facts should be presented honestly, fully and fairly. This applies to news stories, columns, editorials, headlines, graphics, illustrations, captions, photographs, layouts and any other editorial component. Editors, photographers, and artists should always strive to inform readers accurately and represent situations fairly.” The Journal Gazette states, “Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. (www.presswise. Org.uk/Accuracy.htm-12/3/02).

Regardless of age, the media today in one way or another affects everyone. Since the news media pertains to local, national, and international events, these stories become of an extreme importance to millions.

In the news world, there is major controversy over the media’s role in presenting the truth. In favor of the media, many will argue that the public has a right or need to know certain information and that reality should be presented as precisely as possible. Also, they believe that revealing certain stories will help prevent or deter similar situations from occurring. However, others argue that sometimes the media goes too far and there should be limits in revealing the truth. Revealing certain events can also hurt a person’s reputation and image. Other arguments include the use of “unethical means” to get a story will lead the public to lose trust in the media.

The public’s right and/or need to know is a strong argument in favor of revealing all truth. Information that is of important significance and vital to the public interest, should be conveyed by the media regardless of any unethical means. This has been shown through a number of events in which many defend as the public’s right to know and it is what the public wants. In 1994, ABC cameraman went undercover in a Phoenix medical laboratory to investigate the frequency of errors in reading pap smears for cervical cancer. This segment was later aired on ABC’s Prime Time Live. Although the procedure used a supposedly “unethical” practice, it proved to be both beneficial and helpful. Beneficial in the aspect that it uncovered what shouldn’t be concealed.

Helpful in the sense that not only will it help people with illnesses but also future patients to come. Many will argue that regardless of the “unethical” use of the hidden camera, “the end justifies the means.” ABC Attorney, Andrew Hurwitz said hidden camera investigations, “when used properly…serve good purposes.” (Fishcer, 2002). In the case of ABC vs. Medical Laboratory Management Consultants, the court claimed that the public interest was much more significant in this story and outweighed any privacy issues of the lab. “There can be no doubt that information about a medical issue with potential life and death consequences affecting millions of women is plainly of public concern.” (Tannenbaum, 2002).

Supporters also argue that the personal lives of celebrities and public figures should become part of the media. Such situations have occurred in the life of Princess Diana who was constantly followed by the media. On the night of her death, she was followed by paparazzi in attempting to obtain a picture of the Princess and her new “lover.” Research published by the Broadcasting Standards Commission shows that the public believes celebrities should accept that all aspects of their life may be made public. (Hodgson, 2002).

Many will argue that even the lives of private citizens should be made public in certain situations. In September 2002, Madelyne Toogood of Indiana was caught on a surveillance camera in Kohl’s department store parking lot, beating and slapping her 4-year-old daughter. Authorities turned the video over to the news media in hopes of finding Toogood. The argument here is that this is an important event for the media to convey to help find Toogood and protect the girl. Prosecutor Christopher Toth argues, “What happened to that little girl really shocks the conscience and anybody who would not put finding that little girl before protecting the mother has really lost their soul.” (Tuchman, 2002).

Another way supporters argue for total truth in the media is that it is reality and the media should show it to us in the most precise possible way. This includes showing graphic photos or revealing a disturbing event disregarding the effect on the media. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Both photographs and graphics should represent reality as precisely and accurately as reasonably possible.” (www.presswise. Org.uk/Accuracy.htm-12/3/02) This was seen in the case of Princess Diana. After her death, Germany’s largest tabloid, Bild, ran a front-page color photo of the crumpled Mercedes surrounded by rescue workers trying to save the princess’s life. Bild, however, defended its decision to run the photo by stating, “A perfectly normal photo that anyone could have run.” The paper also defended the photo on grounds of public interest. Even though the picture was very disturbing in seeing the attempt to save the Princess’ life, along with the editor of Bild, many believe that it is reality and it was right to be in the paper. Also, we should be aware of everything that goes on and images such as the car crash only help to better understand reality and what is going on in the world.

The same is true for the Toogood case. The public was shocked at the broadcast of the video, which the little girl was seen getting beaten by her mother. However, many agreed with the media in airing the video because they were better able to understand the situation. Images and videos enhance the public’s ability to understand situations clearer. Images express and convey something which sometimes cannot be presented in textual form. “What you’ve got is a visually oriented society,” said El Paso Police Department Sergeant Scott Graves, supervisor of Crimes Against Children. “Most people just aren’t impacted until they see the act on TV.” (MacLaggan, 2002).

Besides arguments for the public’s right to know, supporters strongly believe that revealing the truth will help prevent and deter similar situations from occurring. For example, child abuse is a major concern in today’s society. According to Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline, every ten seconds a child gets abused and three die each day from neglect and mistreatment (Belsie, 2002). By showing this tape and similar situations nation wide will prevent or deter this problem and possibly save lives. By seeing this video, people will become more careful with knowing that someone might be watching. This will help people think twice before taking the wrong action. (Belsie, 2002). Recent child abuse cases, both locally and nationally, such as the Toogood beating have raised awareness of the problem and have prompted more reporting of abuse, experts said in the El Paso Times. “With all the kids who have died and the high profile of these cases, the issue of child abuse has been brought to the forefront,” El Paso Elementary School counselor Annie Salinas said. “People are thinking, ‘If I can prevent this by reporting it, then I will.'” (MacLaggan, 2002).

In 1994, a schoolteacher from Rhode Island died after four of her pap smears were misread by four different laboratories. The same holds true for this case. The broadcast of this undercover investigation prompted awareness this to the public and lab technicians became more cautious in reading pap smears for the benefit of the patient’s health. This will help prevent and deter this for future patients.

Despite all the arguments in favor of total truth in the media, there are many different views from the opposing side. Opposers believe that the media goes too far in revealing the truth. Not only do they go to far, certain laws or restrictions should be applied to the media in these situations. Many will argue that all the above situations mentioned involved situations in which the media has gone too far. In the case of Medical Laboratory Management Consultants, the media went too far in the use of hidden cameras. The cameramen went undercover without consent and used deception to about information for their story.

The use of surveillance cameras in the media is also a debated topic as that of in the Toogood case. Many are concerned at the limit of the images on video, extent of invading the public’s privacy and who controls the images taped. Although this case may prevent someone else from doing the same thing in public, they might just go home and do it (Belsie, 2002). Even though cameras may be helpful in fighting crime, it is against our rights for the government to collect knowledge of us without consent. (Sostek, 2002).

Lastly, the media is said to have gone too far in the life of Princess Diana. The media was constantly following the Princess around to get any information possible. Whether it was public or private, the media found a way to get all the latest news on her. The media obtained videos of Diana during a gym workout and tapes of a provocative phone call with a male friend. This is where many will argue that the media goes too far. These are private events and should be kept out of the public eye. In an article from Capitalism Magazine, the author argues, “The fact that celebrities make millions for being popular doesn’t mean that they forfeit these rights and become “public property.” Each person’s life is his own — celebrity or not; the private details are his to reveal as he sees fit. Neither Diana nor anyone can pursue their life, liberty and happiness so long as “the public” believes it has a right to every detail as brought to them by reporters and photographers who hound, intrude and harass.” (Woiceshyn, 1998).

Not only should celebrities and public figures be respected for their privacy but their reputations and images she be taken into consideration as well. Many believe that exposing the truth will sometimes hurt or even damage a person’s reputation. For example, when ABC exposed the frequent errors occurring in the Phoenix medical laboratory, the plaintiff’s attorney, Neville Johnson, said the broadcast drove his clients out of business. (Fishcer, 2002). Broadcasting the Toogood incident nation wide also destroyed her image as well as her family’s.

In 1989, the National Enquirer published transcripts of an illegally recorded conversation between Princess Diana and her friend, James Gilby as she described life with her husband as “real real torture” (www.msnbc.com/news/ 799373. asp?cp1=1-12/2/02). This not only hurt her image in the eyes of the public as the Royal Family “Princess” and that whom is happily married to the Prince, but it destroyed the relationship between her and her husband.

Another problem that occurs is the loss of trust in the media. On accepting a 2002 Payne Award for ethical decision on reporting, Mark Trahant from the San Jose Mercury News explained, “I believe deeply that newspapers and journalism are public trusts–that public trust at its essence involves ensuring that the American people are well-informed.” (http://flash.uoregon. edu/S02/payne.html-12/2/02). With the use of hidden cameras, surveillance cameras, and the paparazzi feeding frenzy, the public will tend to lose trust in the media. Many will argue that hidden camera reporting involves some level of deception and deception is about causing someone to believe what is not true. This produces a problem since the media is in the business of pursuing truth and when they use some form of deceit to pursue the truth (Steele, 1998).

In my opinion, the media has a responsibility to provide fair and accurate information, enabling the public to make well-informed choices. It is very important for both sides to be presented for both fairness and accuracy of the story. I also believe it is highly unethical to make up something in order to enhance a story. Anything affecting large amounts of people must be carefully submitted with proof and evidence to back up results. Before running a story, there are many ethical decisions needed to be taken into consideration. First, how important is the information to the public. Second, will the decision to present the information change or even shatter a person’s public image or disturb their private lives. I feel these are the two most important criteria in the media for running a story. I don’t think the media should destroy a person’s reputation for the sake of the almighty dollar.

In the case of the Phoenix Medical lab, I strongly agree with the quote, “the end justifies the means” and I think the situation was justifiable. This case definitely falls under the category of public’s right to know. I highly agree with the court’s decision in this case. I don’t think there should be “privacy” in a medical lab that holds the lives of many people in their hand. When lives are at risk, it should hold supreme to any privacy law. Although there may have been alternative ways in getting the information, the use of hidden cameras was probably most effective. If could the reality of the situation and contained actual conversations with the owner.

When situations such as these arise, I think that the undercover journalist performed a justice to humanity. It will not only save lives now but also for future patients to come. As a woman I feel that going undercover in the lab was a great leap of self-justice by the media. There should be no privacy in something of this nature. Privacy is for personal situations, not a life altering one. I commend the efforts of ABC for uncovering this tragedy. I feel it will help in preventing or deterring similar situations from occurring again. I also feel that the public’s health is a much greater concern in this situation rather than the destruction of the medical lab’s reputation.

The Toogood case also involves major controversy. I feel that the media once again made the right decision by showing the video nation wide. The major concern in this case was the health and safety of the child. I also think this situation will help promote the awareness of child abuse and contribute to helping this nationwide problem. If by showing this tape nation wide helps deter this problem and possibly saves children’s lives, then it should be ethically acceptable by all. Although we cannot control what goes on inside the home, we can have some control of wrongdoing in the public and a better way to protect citizens. I also strongly believe that parents sometimes don’t realize how harmful or abusive they are with their children until they actually see it.

Also, if there is more awareness of surveillance cameras, this may help deter all criminal acts. If society feels like they are being monitored they may think twice before committing a crime. They may be discouraged by the thought of their behavior being broadcasted nation wide. I also feel that if you’re not doing anything wrong, then there is nothing to worry about. However, I do think there is a limit to the use of surveillance cameras in such places as dressing rooms, bathrooms and locker rooms. These places should be private and contains no information that is essential to the public.

Although I have mainly supported the ethical decisions of the media, I feel they have gone way too far in the life of Princess Diana. The media clearly passes the limit when they drive a person to their death. In my opinion, I think the media pursues the lives of celebrities a little to the extreme. It many cases, it is the public’s right to follow the current actions and movements of people in the public eye. But personal facts and events such as private telephone conversations and who’s dating who should be kept confidential. Although this is what the public wants, whose life is it anyway? Does the public really need to know every detail about the private lives of public figures and celebrities? If their private decisions have nothing to do with their public activity, then is should be kept out of the media and away from the public.

Not only did the media pass the limit of constant invasion of Diana’s privacy, but once again went to far in publishing the actual picture of the accident that caused her death. Some things are just better left unsaid or not to be seen at all. The feeding frenzy that followed the Princess constantly published misinformation in competing for the truth and disregarding the validity. Whenever a fragment of a celebrity’s life is reported, it becomes part of their public persona regardless of whether it is true or not. Also, the public has difficulty in separating the mainstream from the tabloid media. In my opinion, this will hurt a person’s public and/or private reputation as well as the eventual loss of trust in the media.

If I were the editor of a television station and faced with either the situation of the Toogood incident or the Phoenix Medical lab, I would decide to broadcast both of the videos. When a situation occurs that could affect millions, it is vital for the public to know. In these cases I wouldn’t worry about ruining anyone’s reputation because obviously they don’t care if they hurt others. The hidden cameras from the lab had an immediate effect on saving women’s lives and warning women to get re-examined. The Toogood video might not have an immediate effect but I think it will in the long run. I think it will eventually contribute in the helping of child abuse prevention.

In conclusion, I have learned the media has a very difficult job in making ethical decisions in which some are much harder than others. Overall, I feel the media does the right thing in conveying and communicating the important information to the public. Although the media sometimes goes too far, I think it’s only a matter of time before stricter laws are enforced and the media will be under more control.


Belsie, Laurent. “Child Abuse Video Reveals How Often We’re on Camera.” The

Christian Science Monitor. September 2002. www.csmonitor.com/2002


Hodgson, Jessica. “Celebrities ‘Entitled to Privacy’.” Guardian Newspaper.

March 2002. Media.guardian.co.uk/Print/0,3858,4382839,00.html-


MacLaggan, Corrie. “Local, National Incidents Spur Child Abuse Awareness.” El

Paso Times. September 2002. www.borderlandnews.com/stories/ borderland/20020930-27114.shtml-12/2/02.

Sostek, Anya. “Here’s Looking at You: Electronic surveillance systems make

some law-abiding citizens feel safer. They make others very nervous.”

Governing. September 2002. http://governing.com/8surveil.htm-


Steel, Bob. “Hidden Cameras: High-Powered and High-Risk.” Poynter. October

1998. www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=5612-10/3/02.

Tannenbaum, Wendy. “ABC Wins Appeal Over Hidden Camera Investigation of

Medical Lab.” Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. September

2002. www.rcfp.org/news/2002/0924medica.html- 9/30/02.

Tuchman, Gary. “Attorney: Videotaped Mother to Turn Herself In.” CNN.Com.

September 2002. edition.cnn.com/2002/US/Midwest/09/20/video.


Woiceshyn, Glenn. “Who Killed Princess Diana?” Capitalism Magazine.

September 1998. http://capmag.com/articlePrint.asp?ID=194.

“Ethical Topics: Accuracy.” PressWise. August 2002. www.presswise.


“Payne Awards Honor Ethical Decisions in Reporting.” Flash: Newsletter of the

School of Journalism and Communication. Spring/Summer 2002.


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