Case Study Three
The Society of Professional Journalists has developed a unique approach to analyzing ethical dilemmas. The approach comprises several sections that are aimed to examine the dilemma in its context, raise an ethical question, and answer it. At the heart of this ethical analysis, there is the case of stealing a video tape with the evidence that a popular gangster runs an illegal dog-fighting business linked to organized crime. The main question to be answered is whether the television station should air the video tape that was stolen from the gangster's house and whether such actions can be qualified as aggressive reporting.
For a long time, a Midwest Television Station was involved actively in investigating the gang activity of Tony Sapato. The latter was suspected of running an illegal dog-fighting business with links to organized crime. The police searched Sapato's home more than once, but no evidence to confirm that he was involved in dog-fighting business was found. The station was looking for Sapato to comment on the recent police allegations. They needed an exclusive interview to regain and retain their public ratings. Fred Denby was sent to Sapato to interview him and make up a dramatic story.
Denby was an experienced journalist, and he did not have any difficulties persuading Sapato to invite the reporter inside his house. During the interview, Sapato went outside to answer the call. When Denby saw a videotape on the kitchen counter with a handwritten label "Session No. 4," Denby immediately decided that he had to steal the videotape while Sapato was busy speaking on the phone. Back at the station, Denby watched the videotape that showed Sapato training pit bulls to attack other dogs and humans. Sapato's 5-year-old son was also there. Denby was convinced that the television station had to air the videotape, in order to uncover the hidden facets of Sapato's personality. Nevertheless, the news director Dawn Staples was not sure that stolen property was a good thing to be used in a news story. However, this is not the first time newsmakers use stolen property and information to make breaking headlines. The New York Times has already used stolen materials in the Pentagon Papers case. The main question is whether the television station should air the stolen video and whether the news organization has any obligations to law enforcement agencies in terms of the videotape.
The final decision will be made by news director Dawn Staples. However, the role played by Fred Denby should not be ignored. He was sent to Sapato's home to make a dramatic story, and his view on the ethical dilemma should be considered. Still, much more important are the effects, which the decision will have on various stakeholders. This decision will inevitably affect Tony Sapato and his family, the television station, law enforcement agencies involved in the process of criminal investigation, as well as the audience. Tony Sapato's figure will fall under the public scrutiny, but he will have all chances to avoid the legal claims on the premise that the evidence of his illegal activities was obtained illegally. The image of the television station may suffer because it will have to confess that its reporters are thieves, who are willing to break the law for the sake of breaking news. The audience may lose its trust in the television station, whose popularity depends on the number of people watching it daily. Eventually, the decision will affect the image and professionalism of the law enforcement agencies that were involved in the process of crime investigation but failed to find any relevant evidence to prove Sapato's involvement in dog-fighting business.
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It is necessary to understand which principles will guide Dawn Staples's decision with regard to the stolen videotape. In the discussed case, it is the principle of utilitarianism (or consequences) that will govern the process of making the final decision. The main reason why these principles are ethically justified is because they help to create a complete picture of the events and happenings that will follow the decision. Moreover, even the most ethical means do not always justify their ends. By considering the consequences, Dawn Staples will find a reasonable balance between telling the truth and minimizing the harm both to the television station and the law enforcement agencies involved in the process. Moreover, it will help to determine the most ethical course of action and anticipate the most unexpected unethical outcomes.
Based on the principles of utilitarianism, the best thing to do is to avoid airing the video. This decision is ethically justified for several reasons. First, the videotape was obtained illegally and could not be regarded as a valid source of information. The U.S. law is extremely strict in terms of the evidence that can or cannot be used in law enforcement procedures. In a similar vein, the television station cannot rely on the information and evidence that was stolen from the gangster's house.
Second, the station should not air the stolen video because; otherwise, it will have to admit that its reporters are unethical enough to steal the proofs and evidence to support their public position. It is difficult to imagine that celebrities will want to see Midwest Television reporters in their homes, knowing that they can steal their property and share it with the public. Most likely, the audience will also lose its confidence in the news, thus damaging the station's public reputation.
Third, if the television station decides to air the stolen video, it will hardly help the law enforcement agencies in their efforts to prove Sapato's criminal intentions. On the contrary, it will make them look incompetent and unprofessional. In order to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, the television station should report its findings to the law enforcement agency and develop a collective strategy to expose the truth to the public while minimizing any possible harm.
Fred Denby mentions that The New York Times have used stolen materials in the Pentagon papers case. He believes that airing the stolen video is a good example of aggressive reporting. In reality, Denby's actions and decisions can hardly be interpreted as aggressiveness in reporting. ‘Aggressive journalism’ is a popular term used to justify journalists' actions when they sacrifice ethical means to achieve ethical ends. Aggressive reporting usually comes in two different forms. The "ambush" type of aggressive journalism comes into play when journalists confront those people who do not want to speak with journalists and ask them unexpected questions. The "gotcha" type of aggressive reporting implies conscious manipulations of information and facts to create the desired image of the matter. Both types of aggressive reporting raise ethical questions, but the case of stealing the videotape does not seem to fall under any of these categories. Theft is not simply unethical, but also illegal. It undermines public trust in journalism and mass media. As a result, television stations look as if they are willing to sacrifice the fundamental ethical principles for the sake of popularity. Denby's actions are not even close to aggressive journalism because they violate the fundamental principles of journalism. Stealing does not require any talent or ability to ask controversial questions. It is an act of crime that can have far-reaching legal and ethical consequences.
In conclusion, given the vulnerable public position of the television station, it should not air the video that was stolen from Sapato's house. Otherwise, the consequences of such actions can be pervasive, both in ethical and legal terms. The best the television station can do is report its findings to the law enforcement agencies and develop a cooperative strategy to expose the truth while minimizing any possible harm.