White Lies: Our Struggle with the Ethics of Journalism

I moved the mouse cursor over the ‘send’ button, and hesitated before clicking. I bit my lip. I was anxious.

The email was directed to Carl, a 24 year old Australian we’d been volunteering with the week before at a child-care institution in Cambodia. The message contained the manuscript of the story we had written about it.

Well, more like written about him.

You see, Carl didn’t know he was the principle character in our story, and we had never told him we were journalists. I had no idea how he was going to react.

I took a gulp and hit send.

We had met Carl when we arrived at SCAO – the Save the Poor Children in Asia Organization. We were there to write an article about Cambodia’s orphanages, knowing that 71% of the kids aren’t actually orphans. They have living parents, and so we wanted to understand why parents send their kids away to live in centers like SCAO. In the United States, orphanages and child-care centers are typically seen as a last resort option. In Cambodia, the trend is the opposite. We smelled a good story.

So Morgan and I signed up as volunteers. We figured it was the best way to dig deep into the issue. But it quickly raised an ethical dilemma: we weren’t just there to volunteer. Should we disclose the fact we’re journalists?

“Man — it’s so great having you two here this week!” Carl said. “I know the kids will really like hearing about your bike trip.”

We decided against telling anyone. Our reasoning was that we wouldn’t get an accurate picture of what life was like at the center if we did. More importantly, we didn’t think that people would really open up to us if they knew we were journalists. The orphanage issue is very sensitive in Cambodia – especially given recent, high profile scandals of centers mistreating children. People are on guard, and even though SCAO has made it clear it is not an orphanage but a care center, we figured dropping the J word would stop us from getting candid opinions from volunteers, or having access to the children. We only had one week to get a story, and we didn’t want to be barred from our only lead.

“So what do you guys do besides bike?” someone asked us at dinner.

Uhh – we write stories”

“Like on a blog?”

“Yeah…among other places.”

By day three, the situation was becoming complicated. We had vaguely mentioned we’d write a story about SCAO, but between our volunteer work teaching English classes and organizing science experiments, we were really searching for a few characters to drive our story. We honed in on Carl.

Carl was the perfect candidate because it was his last week volunteering at the center, and because he presented a compelling case of how foreign volunteers often substitute for the children’s Cambodian parents. When we noticed his close relationship with one child, Seyma, we decided to look at how the boy would react to Carl’s leaving, and whether Carl and SCAO were doing a better job raising him than Seyma’s mother could.

But not telling Carl was tough. Suddenly our story wasn’t so much about SCAO; it was about an individual. Even though we weren’t going to say anything damaging about him, we knew how disconcerting it can be the first time you see your name published in a magazine. Especially if that information was given in the confidence of a friendship.

“Chris, Morgan – we’re all going to see Iron Man 3 in Phnom Penh tonight. Wanna come?”

Carl became our friend. We went out drinking together, to play pool and sing karaoke, and went to his rooftop goodbye party. We exchanged stories about our pasts, and Carl talked about the mistakes he’d made running away from home. The more he disclosed, the more uncomfortable I became. Still, I didn’t say anything. I knew doing so would formalize our relationship, inhibiting our ability to ask him about his role volunteering, and his relationship with Seyma.

Then one night, as we were sitting in front of a convenience store drinking canned beer, he struck a nerve.

“I really appreciate you guys being here – I can tell you’re only in it for the kids.”

I squirmed in my seat. Then Carl followed up with the real clincher.

“You’ve totally changed my perception of Americans. You’ll be the first ones not to fuck me over.”

The next morning Morgan and I powwowed. We needed to let Carl know about the story before publishing. We owed it to him both professionally, and as a friend. That’s when we decided to send him a copy of the manuscript before sending it to editors, so that he could correct any mistakes we might have made. At least Carl could ensure that everything printed about him was factually correct.

After sending the email, it only took one day to receive his response. My heart raced as I clicked open the bolded, unread message.

“Hey Chris [and Morgan]. Don’t really know what to say. I feel really privileged and honored that you would write those things about me and the school and seyma. I never realized how much you guys really listened to everything I said. I thought I was just chatting and it turns out you guys were absorbing and storing all this in your memory for later and I think you guys have done a really great job. You should congratulate yourselves on the fact that you really give people your time and attention and care when people talk from the heart. Honestly you guys couldn’t have done a better job. Really. Thank-you”

I couldn’t have felt more relieved. We got the story without betraying a friend.

Yet it was a reminder. The ethics questions of the SCAO story highlight how often we run into these grey areas as journalists, and oftentimes it’s difficult to know the right or wrong answer. In this case, I think Carl’s reaction showed that we were wrong. We should have disclosed earlier. He was willing to work with us, and the situation would have been far less shady had we been upfront about it. We have a tendency to think people will overreact, but most of the time they are reasonable if clearly presented our intentions and all the facts. Frankly, Carl would have been justified had he felt betrayed.

I’m glad this happened though, because similar situations will surely arise again. We can always think back on Carl for guidance.

Journalism, , Permalink

One Response to White Lies: Our Struggle with the Ethics of Journalism

  1. anand says:

    This is a great story. Love it.
    The thing i like most here is the honesty you guys put in your writing and stories. Its not reporting only, also gives a insight to your minds. Simply great. Love reading postulate one.
    I think there is no need for me to say what I think you guys should do in a situation like this. You guys know it all and at the end, you have to take a stand on question of ethics and journalism. But, I wanna say this- the honesty of this article is gonna help me make a decision is a similar situation.
    Best wishes

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