Over the Fourth of July weekend I took a trip to the media’s shrine to itself in downtown Washington D.C., known as the Newseum, and was troubled by the fact that the exhibit on journalistic ethics took up less space in the seven floor building than the gift shop. Given the $20 admission fee, one might expect a little more attention paid to journalistic principles than to souvenirs like Newseum boxer shorts.
The exhibit featured various interactive computer displays that challenged visitors to test their judgement of real life ethical scenarios by choosing between different options of how to report a story. After answering, a screen would appear, showing percentages of how the general public answered versus how journalists responded.
In general, journalists tended to be more willing to take the questionable ethical course of action. However, one scenario was particularly disturbing. A picture was shown of an infant child in Africa lying on the ground starving, with a vulture a few feet away. The question was do you just report the story or do you try to help the child? About 70% of the general public responded by saying they would help the child, the same number of journalists, about 70%, said they would report the story without intervening.
While the Newseum deserves credit for a moving exhibit giving tribute to September 11 and one commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, the lack of representation given to journalistic ethics definitely detracted from the overall experience. Though the front of the museum proudly displays the First Amendment etched in stone, it would do well to remember the responsibility that comes with that freedom.