A Journalists Dilemma: Don’t Go Soft

Question: Describe an ethical dilemma you’ve faced.

Matthew Bishop: Yeah, I think the thing about journalism is, I mean, the ethical rules are actually fairly clear because I think you have to be very clear in journalism because the trust of your readers is so important. And so, we have a lot of clear rules on conflicts of interest and on what hospitality we can receive and that kind of thing. And I suppose where the difficult decision come in and part of the challenge of a journalist is you need to get to know the people that you are writing about and there is always a danger that you might get to know them and sympathize with them to the extent that you feel that you don’t want to embarrass them when you discover something that is difficult about them and you might think, well I just don’t want to hurt them. And I don’t think – I can really think of any particular situation where I have felt very torn in that way, but I am very conscious that that is something I have to say to myself is, am I going easy on this person because I’ve got to know them?

Question: Have you ever worried about being too soft on someone?

Matthew Bishop: I think professionally, journalists, I mean as they look at their fellow journalists they are very worried about being seen as being soft on someone, as being seduced in some way. And one of the criticisms that reviewers have had of philanthrocapitalism has been that we have become cheerleaders for the rich. Now, I think that’s completely unfair. I mean, if you read the book, about all the criticisms that are being made of these various philanthropists and how they are going about their work. The criticisms are all there in the book and we’ve given them a chance to answer those things. The book is fundamentally positive because we believe that this is a positive trend this philanthrocapitalism, but many people have said, oh they’re just kissing up to – Mattie’s got a crush on Bill Gates, or something like that one reviewer said. And you professionally feel inside, oh, I don’t want to be seen as being soft, but I think the duty of a journalist is to be honest and fair. Fox calls it fair and balanced. I’m not sure that’s what I mean, but I mean that’s why the term is so powerful because actually that is as a journalist what you are supposed to be is fair and balanced. And I think you will always feel that you need to have something that is a balancing negative comment if you are writing a piece that is positive equally you ought to have some balancing positive stuff in a piece when you are being negative. And I guess there is also a danger in journalism that we go in these sort of mood swings. That there’s times when there’s a great appetite. During the internet bubble for example, there was this huge appetite for stories about some guy in a garage who’s going to change the world with some amazing website, and then it all went bang and suddenly you couldn’t get a positive story in the press about anyone doing anything good. They all had to be about how they were all secretly crooks who were lying to the public.

Recorded on:  September 24, 2009

Matthew Bishop’s ethical dilemma involves the journalists’ fine line between hitting interviewees with hard questions and maintaining friendly sources. The demands of news editors often conflict with the feelings of journalists towards their subjects.

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