Ethical Debate

This is a conversation/short debate by e-mail I had one recent morning with a concerned viewer about reporters and newspeople wearing American flag pins and other patriotic insignia. If you care to share, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue- if you were in mid-Missouri after 9/11, you might remember this. Anyway, here it is (some parts, such as names, have been edited to protect privacy):

The Original E-mail
I have been told ABC issued orders forbidding reporters to wear lapel pin American flags or other patriotic insignia. The reasoning for this was that ABC should remain neutral about "causes". I need to verify the validity of this story. As a 24-year veteran in our nations armed forces, I am keenly interested in your response.
(Writer's Name), USAF Retired

My Response
Mr. (Writer's name)-
As a follow-up to your e-mail...I thought I'd let you know that back in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the news director at KOMU, the NBC affiliate here in Columbia, told his staff not to wear American Flag pins or red/white/blue ribbons on their clothes while on the air or reporting. His reasoning for that was just like you said, that journalists and news reporters need to remain neutral and independent of "causes."

When I first heard about that, my reaction was much like yours appears to be- how can patriotism and love of country be a "cause?" However, as I thought about it, it made some sense. After 9/11, there was a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country (as a sad result of a lot of misunderstanding), and for a Muslim American, imagine how it might feel to see everyone, even the news people who claim to be objective, wearing American Flags and insignia. KOMU's director felt the best way to be a credible and trustworthy news media outlet to everyone was to remain aloof from the wave of flag pins and insignia, even as many other NBC affiliates were allowing their reporters to wear them.

I know the news director at KOMU very well and have an immense amount of respect for him both personally and professionally, and I'm confident he wouldn't have made that decision unless he felt it was the best and most proper way to act. As an epilogue, though many people reacted with anger and frustration at his decision, his decision has been widely recognized by many in the journalistic community as a very ethical and proper one.

I apologize if I got long-winded hope this clears things up- I don't expect to change any opinions or feelings you have, I just felt obligated to give you all the information I know, and in saying this was, again, a decision by KOMU, not KMIZ or ABC.

Thanks for your interest and concern.


His First Response
Mr. (My name):

While I can appreciate your position and your compliance with the corporate decisions made in your organization, I continue to find it very frustrating when these same organizations and staff members continue to openly support "causes" of various sorts throughout our country. It remains a mystery to me that these organizations readily approve of staff members visibly and openly supporting eco causes, gay causes, political causes, illegal immigrant causes, abortion causes, gun causes, global causes, etc., while steadfastly insisting they can't openly support patriotism or being Americans since it might offend someone. These same individuals can appear in public, with the approval of the corporate officials, stating their support and soliciting others to support a cause, but find it wrong to wear a flag lapel pin? Look around your corporate parking lot and I would guess there would be many ribbons, stickers, personalized license plates, etc., attached to vehicles supporting many of the causes cited above and others.

And then you wonder why many Americans are slowly but surely moving away from print and broadcast media for their information and looking to others who don't question the "correctness" of supporting America and Americans.

I truly feel sorry for those of you who feel you must downplay your Americanism or patriotism in order not to offend. I guess you will continue to condemn those of us who are openly proud of being American and continue to believe that when labels (such as African-, Mexican-, Asian-, Latin-, Russian-, German-, Irish-, Native- and Polish-) are placed in front of "American," we are all worse off for it. In looking to the future, perhaps the movement of people away from print and broadcast media won't be so bad after all?

(Writer's name)

My Second Response
Mr. (Writer's name)-

KOMU's director's decision was not about personal beliefs- he simply felt it was inappropriate, while on air and visible to the public while reporting the news, that it was best to remain neutral from any side of any issue. I would certainly disapprove of any journalist who used his or her position as a journalist to support or push for any agenda other than the promotion of objective news coverage. That's not saying he or she can't be active in supporting a cause or political campaign or what have you, but as a representative of the news media, he or she should avoid such things.

I have an American flag window sticker on my car, and openly support our government's efforts in the Middle East. My employer will not and can not (legally) say what I can or can't display on my personal vehicle. But they may not want me using my car for job-related things, as people may see the car and think, "That's what the station wants him to represent, so that's how they think." Instead, my boss would prefer that I use a station car, which is unmarked by any political or otherwise issue-related insignia. You will never see a "pro-abortion" or "anti-gay rights" sticker or anything of the sort on any piece of KMIZ or KOMU or KRCG property, and I'd wager the same goes for any news media outlet who is truly striving to be fair and objective. You said corporate officials approve of their staff openly campaigning for or supporting candidates or causes: I can't speak for the non-journalism world, since I've never worked there, but here in the news media, any credible and honest organization who is trying to be fair and objective would never do such a thing. Having worked at both places, I can say that you will never see such a thing from KMIZ or KOMU.

Personally, I cringe when I hear that media outlets such as newspapers endorse one candidate or another. That immediately takes away their credibility in covering that race. They may be fair, but it will be hard for readers or viewers to see it that way, since they've announced their endorsement.

You also said "I truly feel sorry for those of you who feel you must downplay your Americanism or patriotism in order not to offend." I can't speak for others, but I feel many of us in the world today get too offended. I am not one to hide my beliefs or my convictions just so I don't hurt anyone's feelings. The views and beliefs of my particular church have sometimes caused people to see us as unfair, rigid or unaccepting. While I am hurt that people may see me like that, I will not change my views or deeply held beliefs to accomodate their feelings.

At the same time, I feel that many of us offend too easily as well. Going back to 9/11, I would not have liked to be a Muslim in the days after that tragedy. Not only were many Americans country blaming Muslims for the attacks (not understanding that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peace-loving and devout people who contribute greatly to the American Way), but some Muslims were likely bristling at the anti-Islam sentiment and wanting to "return the favor," so to speak- not in a violent way, but in sticking to their own and avoiding those they saw as intolerant. So what is a Muslim in America to do? Embrace the country they love at the risk of alienating friends and family both here and abroad, or band with other Muslims for support and comfort at the risk of facing the ire of AMericans still angry and scared over the World Trade Center or Pentagon?

No, I don't think anyone should compromise their personal beliefs for the sake of anyone's feelings- such would be a person of weak convictions in the first place. But there is a time and place to set those feelings and views aside, if only in their intensity, in order to be a figure of trust and integrity. It may sound corny or hoakey, but journalists, true journalists, try to be just that kind of figure.

We're not perfect, but we're working on it.

Again, I apologize if I seem long-winded, but I want to thank you for being so concerned and attentive to an issue that we both clearly care so much about. I'm open to further discussion and welcome further dialogue. Thank you again, Mr. (Writer's name).



Tamara said…
did he ever write back again? When was this? ... more details please!!

Great combacks...very longwinded like you say...but great points!
Beckie said…
Very well spoken. You actually sound smart. I know this must be a shock to all who know you. I'm kidding of course, but I think you handled this situation perfectly. Someday we need to talk about objectivity in journalism, as we had a recent issue with that concerning the Washington Post.
J.Ammon said…
Ethics? Journalism has ethics?

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