A Personal Ethical Dilemma

Many of my batch mates consider investigative journalism or J 105 as the most difficult journalism elective. They shy away from it because of its demands and requirements, not to mention its reputation as the ultimate test of one’s journalistic skills.
Aside from these demands, however, my experiences in last semester’s J 105 highlight an often overlooked aspect of the subject— the challenges of journalism ethics and values that come with it.
In fact, I consider our final investigative piece—a study on the decline of the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC)—as a product not only of research, interview, analysis and data-presentation, but also of a semester-long struggle with ethical dilemmas.
In every phase, our group wrestled with the ethical issues of data verification, biases in information-gathering and presentation, and the framing of interview questions, and responsibility and accountability to sources.
These ethical issues conflicted with the values of truth-telling or accuracy, justice, including fairness and balance, and stewardship.
The sensitivity of the issues in ROTC caused doors to close and interviewees to decline. Because of such, our group struggled with single-sourced information. Using them would strengthen our case but it meant risking factual errors. Dropping them would free us from such errors but could send the study to a standstill.
In the end, we chose to exhaust all resources to corroborate the information. We dropped those that were unsubstantiated and wrote our story using only the confirmed ones.
Early in the investigation, we struggled with loaded and bias interview questions because we were pressed on proving our initial hypothesis—the ROTC cadet officers are abusing their scholarship and privileges. After two weeks, however, it became clear that the research was leading to a 180-degree turn. Though it meant dropping many of our findings, we took the turn because we could not continue with bias questions just to support our hypothesis.
Connected with our first ethical dilemma is stewardship or our responsibility to our sources and the information they gave us. A number of interviewees refused to go on-the-record, but gave crucial pieces of the investigation. We were torn between respecting their decision and pressing them to reconsider. At one point, we were also tempted to name them or to use a part of the information they gave.
In the end, however, some agreed to be named with our requests. Others agreed when we asked them if we could use only parts of the confidential information they gave us. We respected those who refused and deleted the confidential information from our story.
In responding to these ethical struggles, we went to the basics. We asked ourselves, “What is right, true and honest?” We also considered the trust given by our sources and our professor. “What could happen if we break their trust? How could it affect our credibility?” We also considered UP’s rules on academic dishonesty. On top of these, we relied on our deeply held values and ideals. I and one of my group mates profess to be Christians, so we cannot mock our faith and make ironies of ourselves.
After the semester, I am happy with how we acted in the face of these ethical struggles. Though we may have produced a stronger story with the other information we have, I believe our decision to be ethical made us better journalists. If I will face the same ethical issues now, I will still replicate what we have done. A hard-earned story will surely be praised, but one that is also within ethical bounds is far more fulfilling.
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