The Most Important Ethical Issues in Journalism Are the Human Ones

Question: What are some of the most difficult ethical issues you've faced as a journalist?

Carl Bernstein:  The most important ethical issues and the most difficult ones are the human ones because a reporter has enormous power to hurt people.  And the best example I can give of it is not in Watergate, but one of the favorite stories that I have ever done that I really enjoyed doing was a huge takeout about a  group of people who are part white, part black, part Indian.  They are known as Tri-Racial Isolates.  And there are a couple hundred thousand people organized in tri-racial isolate communities in America.  And the particular group I wrote about were called the We Sorts.  And they lived in Southern Maryland.  And they had never been able, like most tri-racial isolate groups, to integrate with either the society at large, with blacks, or with whites.  So they had evolved.  And there are many of these communities, the Melungeons in Tennessee, the Jackson Whites in New Jersey, that We Sorts in Maryland which comes from an expression that "We sorts of people are different than you sorts of people."  And I wrote about this amazing community.  And little did I think that the children would be ostracized in school because they share their six core last names... there’s a lot of inter-marriage.  And children of these six core families were really ostracized in school.

And it really made me think.  As a number of other... I think more than anything, I always has a consciousness of how you have the power to hurt someone.  And therefore you’re obligation to be fair, to give people an opportunity to say, “Hey, is this really what happened?”  And to look at the consequences of what now.  Could I have avoided?  I don’t know what I could have done to avoid that hurt, but it was one of those things that made me very conscious.

Recorded July 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

A reporter has enormous power to hurt people, says the veteran journalist. Therefore you’ve got an obligation to be fair, to find out the other side of the story, and to consider the consequences of what your writing.

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