Tough Calls in Journalism

Nick Kristof dedicates his column today to a discussion of the difficult decisions journalists often face when covering events where the truth is swathed in shades of gray.

He first offers an apology to scientist Steven Hatfill, who was initially fingered in the anthrax investigation. Kristof called for greater scrutiny of Hatfill as a suspect; he was later exonerated. The case of Hatfill was a subject that needed to be treated sensitively; yes, the government needed to pursue all its leads diligently, but the media also thrust an innocent man into the spotlight.

Kristof also suggests some hypothetical situations for discussion: how would you handle covering “a new suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey case,” “a local high school girls’ basketball coach has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct,” or that “police have seized barrels of chemicals from a group of young foreign men living in town”?

Regardless of whether or not you may agree with Kristof’s handling of the Hatfill case, or his answers to his own hypotheticals, the act of offering readers a chance to understand how journalists grapple with difficult decisions, and that they do in fact grapple with them, is a solid step in providing a better understanding between readers and the journalists who serve them.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.