Balancing editorial decisions with ethics | Dailytrust

Balancing editorial decisions with ethics

Editorial judgement is tricky.

We do not have prescriptive guidelines to assist editors in arriving at a fair, responsible and professional decision to publish or not to publish.

Generations of editors have had to trust their instinct and just hope that they get it right.

They don’t always get it right, of course, because they are, you got it, only human and have to contend with the imperfections of homo sapiens.

No two editors would render the same judgement on the publishability or otherwise of a story.

Each man would base his decision on what he believes would best serve the interest and satisfy the taste of his core readers.

The editor of a newspaper that caters primarily to top decision makers in government and the private sector would necessarily be high-minded in his editorial decisions.

On the other hand, the editor of what the British call shop a floor newspaper, our own equivalent is the soft sell newspaper, would be less high-minded in what he serves his core readers.

He can afford to publish junk.

Even among editors of high-end, also known as quality newspapers, editorial judgement is far from being uniform.

After all, variety is as much the spice of newspapering as it is of life.

While one editor would consider a story not worth publishing and spike it, another editor would consider it a gem; a story that merits page three in one newspaper might make the leap to the front page in a banner headline in another newspaper.

It is the way the cookie crumbles in the fourth estate of the realms and the republics.

None of the editors in the above scenario is professionally wrong in how he treats a particular story.

Editorial judgment is an interplay of forces within and outside the newspaper.

Readers believe they must be properly served.

An editor faces a major task in trying to decide what would please thousands or millions of his readers, none of whom he knows personally.

Tough. An editor must base his decision to publish or not to publish against the cardinal professional principle of both the need and the right of the public to know.

This is the toughest aspect of the editorial decision-making process.

It is the slippery slope and many an editor has slipped down the slope.

You may find this ironical but an editor derives his power from assuming the right to tell his readers what he believes they should know.

No editor could publish everything that lands on his desk.

As the world’s incontestable professional gate keeper, it is his duty to filter, pick and choose the stories he believes would make for a better society.

An editor asks himself three questions on every story he considers for publication, his own three-way test, if you like.

Is it professional?

Is it ethical and in good taste?

Is it in accord with the editorial policy, the ground norm in his newspaper kingdom?

Of these, let us consider the ethical or the good taste question.

The Daily Trust of June 23, 2023, promoted a very sad story on its front page with this heart-stopping headline: “Three-month-old Nasarawa baby stolen from mother’s bed, raped, fights for life.”

The story was reported in full on page 54 of the newspaper with the headline: “Saving the Adoga baby.”

It was accompanied by the photo of the mother with her face blurred out and that of the baby in the hands of doctors.

The decision to promote and publish this story was obviously based on the principle of the people’s right to know that a heinous and heart-breaking crime was committed in Nasarawa State.

It was patently professional.

There is a big but here.

Rape cases, even of adults, are treated with circumspection to protect the traumatised victims.

Neither the police nor hospital authorities would release the names of victims.

There is even greater need to protect their identities if they are minors.

The rape or more correctly, the attempted murder of a three-month-old baby must have presented the editor with a tough decision.

Should he let the public know about this crime to show how utterly depraved our country has increasingly become or should he have had some consideration for public sensitivity?

With the increasing cases of rape, it might be argued that a story such as this needs to be told to alert the public to one more critical challenge we face as a nation.

Our girls and women are now endangered species.

I invite our editors to think about the decision to promote and publish the story the way it was published.

Was it ethical and in good taste?

Was the professional decision to publish it balanced against the exposure of the baby and her family to the public?

Many readers of the newspaper must have found it all shocking and revolting.

Television reporters in Europe and the United States usually indulge in a feeding frenzy on tragedies that befall families.

They mine their trauma and grief.

They have since found that the public is not all that impressed.

They are now pulling back to show some sensitivity to grieving families and other victims of harrowing and mindless crimes.

Let us give some serious thoughts to this.

The Goofs

We do not have much space left for goofs in this column.

Let us consider just a few of them in the remaining space.

I was surprised to see that two issues I had dealt with in an earlier column surfaced again this month.

On page 44 of the June 23 issue of the Daily Trust, we find these two headlines: 1) “Man, 20, docked for allegedly defiling 5-year-old girl.” 2) “Man, 25, arraigned for allegedly stealing baby.”

The word allegedly does not belong in a headline.

It belongs in the body of the story.

If you take it out of the two headlines there is no damage done to them.

In the June 19 issue of the newspaper, we find this headline on page 6: “Darius accuses men of God for Taraba crisis.”

The governor of Taraba State is Mr Darius Ishaku.

I have once pointed out that it was wrong to use his first name.

Use his family name: Ishaku.

Accuses is also wrong in this context.

It should be blames.

On page 7 of the June 20 issue of the newspaper, we find this headline: “Uphold integrity of judiciary, CJN tells new Dongban-Mensam.”

Note the word new.

I could find no evidence that there was an old justice by that name.

Nor do I think the new president of the court of appeal became new on her assumption of office.

It is important to illustrate or accompany a story with a photograph because it makes for a visual appeal on the page and also reinforces the authenticity of the story itself.

But danger lurks here.

The inappropriate use of a photograph could be trouble for an editor because of something the lawyers call innuendo.

If you accompany a criminal story with the photograph of a man who has nothing to do with the crime, the lawyers slap you with a charge of innuendo.

So, consider this. On page 18 of the June 20 issue of the newspaper, we find this headline: “Uneasy calm as Dalung alleges theft of journalist’s sport initiative.”

The full-page story was accompanied by the photograph of O. Adekouroye, the world’s number one wrestler.

If you put it against the headline, it is instantly clear that the use of the photograph was inappropriate.

Our editors should beware of offending lady wrestling champions.

On page 8 of the June 19 issue we find this headline: “Kano police charge 42 rape suspects to court.”

This is a common mistake in the news media.

Suspects are not charged to court; they are charged in court.

The police take suspects to court and charge them in the open court.

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