‘Citizen Journalist’ Face Ethical Dilemmas

On Nov. 17, 2008, Mayhill Fowler of The Huffington Post reported on an Obama campaign event that was “closed” to mainstream journalists.  Fowler had been reporting on the Democratic presidential campaign, but this story revealed itself as her ‘big break’.

At the time, Fowler was a contributor to Obama’s campaign and was invited to the event as a guest, not a reporter. Fowler recorded the event and revealed the following quote:

“And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” – President Barack Obama

Fowler was unsure of whether to report this statement because of her contribution to the campaign.  Ultimately, she published her report of this event which led to around 200 angry e-mails. Obama campaign officials made no comment on this article.

Thinking about my code of ethics, I would not have reported on this issue:

1. The event was not open to reporters.

2. There is a very apparent conflict of interest. There is a serious problem with contributing to a campaign and then reporting on it. The bigger issue may be that Fowler had been following the Democratic presidential campaign trail while supporting one particular candidate.  I find it hard to believe that she was able to report fairly and accurately.

3. Fowler did not tell anyone that she was recording. I believe it is important to ask permission before recording an individual. This event is a slippery slope because President Obama is a public official which changes many rules. At the same time, this event was considered to be private and therefore, an ask should have been made.

I do believe that journalists are responsible for being the fourth estate and informing the people of what they need to know. Personally, I would not have written this story because of my code of ethics. This type of reporting is ultimately up to the individual.


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