AS A YOUNG reporter, I spent many hours—many of them quite boring—sitting through countless sessions at the local magistrates’ court. There was an endless parade of usually petty offenders in the dock, accused of everything from theft to arson. Their stories did not make great headlines, but some were the stock-in-trade of a local newspaper.
One morning, I was stunned to arrive and find a former friend in court. We’d been very close for a time, though our paths had diverged in the past couple of years. With a bandaged right forearm, he was appearing to face a charge of vandalism, having put the resultingly-damaged limb through the window of a pub after a night of drinking.
I’ve made some accidental mistakes during my career, but this morning I erred deliberately: I left the court before my friend was called up. No one checked up on me when I got back to the office.
In the years since, I often tried to rationalize the weight of this wrong of mine. After all, we didn’t report on every court hearing, just because it happened; we chose those that we considered to be more newsworthy. This situation involving my old buddy was very minor league stuff.
Additionally, it was only a brief initial hearing at which the case would be adjourned to a later date. There’d be no evidence or details of interest—just the basics of the charge. And if I had tapped out the relevant paragraph or two, there was no guarantee it would even see the light of day, depending on the demand for space for more pressing articles.
But all that is waffling. Those calls were not mine to make. I should have done my job and let the chips fall where they may. Or at least called back to the office, asking if I could recuse myself and they could send someone to replace me. I failed in my responsibility because I felt caught between divided loyalties.
My youthful failing came to mind recently when the issue of journalistic ethics made headlines as veteran and venerated writer Gay Talese found himself at the center of a debate over his long silence in a situation involving an alleged murder.
The bizarre scenario itself almost seems to come from the realm of fiction, but it highlights an everyday reality for those bringing the news. That is, they often draw on relationships they have with others to get the information they want. “Contacts” who help with stories are friends at some level. Many times they may have their own agenda in providing information, but there’s some level of trust in the relationship.
Things can get murky pretty quickly. At times like this, it’s important to have a strong inner compass so that you don’t wander. I’m reminded of an Old Testament news carrier with an unwavering commitment to telling the story, regardless of the consequences.
When Absalom died in the rebellion he had incited against his father, King David, Ahimaaz volunteered to take the news on foot to the monarch. He was warned that delivering the report would not make him popular, but he insisted, “Come what may, I will run” (2 Samuel 18:23).
I wish I’d had the strength of character to run the right way back then, rather than running away.
Photo credit: Matt E Leach via Foter.com/CC BY-NC-ND