Broadcast, Broadcasting

How to Navigate Ethical Dilemmas in Broadcasting

Do you own a radio station that covers news? If so, there may be that rare time when you'll encounter an ethical dilemma in your journalism andill have to decide how to proceed. An ethical dilemma is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two courses of action, either of which entails transgressing a moral principle.

An ethical dilemma can mean choosing whether or not to make a source anonymous in order to protect their integrity, or deeming a story too private to report on. (In general, public figures like government officials and celebrities enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than the average citizen.) The choices you make in your broadcast journalism can have lasting consequences for yourself, your subjects, and your brand as a whole – so you must proceed with caution!

In this article, we'll be diving into the nature of ethical dilemmas and how to make the right choices about them for your station. Please know that you shouldn't be scared of them...ethical dilemmas are a completely normal part of journalism, and oftentimes the most newsworthy, impactful stories come with ethical risks. This topic is certainly more serious than the ones we cover in our typical broadcaster articles, but nonetheless a real consideration when you run your own radio station.

How to Handle Sensitive Topics

So you've got a juicy, controversial, or tender-but-important story you'd like to tell. How do you go about telling it without damaging yourself or your subject? It may be a crazy place to start, but we recommend considering the worst case scenario of broadcasting your story before you even begin to form it. Could you face legal consequences for telling this story? Could your source get in major trouble if a certain someone found out about it? Could your audience criticize your brand for taking a specific stance when reporting the story? You must weigh the pros and cons. If you choose to go with the story, then you take actions to safeguard you as much as possible from those cons.

We recommend following a couple rules when reporting on sensitive topics. First and foremost, do the work. Double down on research and gather as many different and accurate sources as possible. Be mindful of the language you use when reporting on the topic. You're not looking to offend your audience, get innocent people in trouble, or present a story in a way that isn't objective. If you must, present the story with a certified expert in the subject field. Warn listeners beforehand that the upcoming story contains sensitive topics. Overall, you must treat your sensitive matter in a sensitive way – with caution, care, and respect.

Additionally, don't neglect your own feelings and your brand when dealing with sensitive stories. Do you feel comfortable talking about the subject matter, and the consequences you may face for doing so? If the answer is 'no,' then it's probably best to avoid reporting on the story. Here on the Live365 blog, we even have to be mindful and make decisions about certain controversial music news or topics we choose to make content on. For more advice on reporting sensitive topics over radio, we recommend reading's write-up on sensitive issues on-air.

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest

What if you have to report on a story about someone you have an existing personal relationship with, whether it’s positive or negative? How should a station cover alleged misconduct by an advertiser that has previously sponsored their shows? These are two examples of where conflicts of interest are present.

In general, it's best to avoid reporting on these kinds of stories altogether. However, there may be times when the story is just too big to ignore, or you have something new and relevant to offer to the story other news sources miss out on. In those cases, you'll have to report on the story objectively without letting your own personal feelings/opinions gleam through.

When reporting on conflict of interest stories, focus on separating the conflict from the subject. If it helps, you can even pretend you don't know the person or brand on a deeper level and are just reporting on the facts of their situation! You have to learn how to put your self-interest aside. It's not about you and what you're gaining from telling the story – it's about your subject. It's also about your audience and what they're learning from hearing the story. Focus on simply INFORMING them, not persuading them in any way.

Maintaining Journalistic Integrity

DON'T GOSSIP! Okay...maybe maintaining journalistic integrity is a bit more complex than that. In the same vein as handling sensitive topics and avoiding conflicts of interest, you want to make sure every piece of news content you broadcast is objective, unbiased, and factually correct. Being a journalist with integrity means understanding that your conduct can make or break a story and the people within the story. It also means reading up on the SPJ Code of Ethics.

Writer's Digest puts it best: "Journalists should always treat sources with dignity and respect and never make promises they cannot keep. Compassion, patience, and understanding are traits all journalists must possess, especially when dealing with vulnerable populations, juveniles, and victims of crime and abuse. Of course, when covering crime and sensitive issues, some people involved need to remain anonymous for their own protection, including minors and victims of sexual assault."

Consulting Your Peers

Making a tough decision with someone else is far safer than making one alone. Say you're conflicted about telling a story due to a specific ethical dilemma. If you're not running your radio station by yourself, use the opportunity to consult your peers when it comes to navigating through the ethical dilemma.

What do they think about the story and the angle you're telling it in? Getting honest insights from other people on your side can help you develop strategies to telling your story more effectively. It could also be a mini preview of what your audience as a whole may think about your story. Before you report, consult a cohort!

Look at Your Business Practices

While navigating ethical dilemmas can be tricky, they do come with a great upside: they help you build up your identity as a business.

Before, during, and after dealing with an ethical dilemma in journalism, there are several questions you can ask about your brand. How will you handle sensitive issues as a company? What about issues within your own company? What is your company's mission statement and what do you stand for? Figuring out the answers to these queries will help you and your broadcasting team more easily deal with future ethical dilemmas. And that makes your company stronger!

We hope the advice in this article helps you out in your quest to deliver high-quality broadcast journalism. We wish you good luck, and happy broadcasting!

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Article Image: A woman holds up a microphone in front of a blue backdrop. (VitalikRadko via DepositPhotos.)

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About Kathryn Milewski

  • New Jersey