Dealing with emotional pressure in journalism – scenario

Image by Media Helping Media released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
Image by Media Helping Media released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

How should a reporter respond when someone uses emotional pressure and threats to try to stop them doing their job? Every case will be different, but in this scenario we look at a situation where a reporter is begged not to cover a story, and then threatened with violence if they publish. What would you do in the circumstances?

Fair and accurate reporting of proceedings

You are a reporter working for the local newspaper in a small town.

One of the daily tasks is to cover the local courts.

The brief is to go along, read the daily case sheet, select those that you have either been told to look out for or which stand out as being particularly newsworthy, and then attend the hearings.

You will have learnt the rules for court reporting in the country you work in during your journalism training, and you will know what can and what can’t be reported under certain circumstances.

On this particular day you select three cases to cover.

One is a follow-up hearing to a case that your newspaper is already covering. The other two are new cases which you sense are likely to produce a few lines of copy (copy is the word used in the newspaper business for the text you submit to the news editor for approval).

Of those two, one turns out to be particularly newsworthy.

You take your seat in the press gallery along with reporters from other media outlets.

You have a clear view of proceedings, and of the pubic gallery where those with an interest in the case sit.

As you leave the court a woman, who you had seen in the public gallery, approaches you.

She is agitated and begs you not to write a news report about the case.

She says the incident her adult son has been charged with was “a set-up”, that he is innocent, and that if you publish the story it will “ruin his life”.

She tells you his wife has recently given birth and he needs his job to keep his family housed and fed.

If the story runs in the local newspaper, she says, “he will be finished”.

By this point the woman is becoming emotional.

A group of people has gathered around you both.

A man steps forward and prods you in the chest with his finger saying, “Don’t forget, we know where you live.” He then pushes you and you fall back against the wall banging your head in the process. Your colleagues from the other media outlets witness the scene.

What should you do?

1: You should listen to the concerns of the woman and, having been told about the negative impact your report might have, agree not to write about what you heard in court. You are working in a small town, it’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone, your by-line will be on the piece, and it will be much easier for all concerned if you just forget the hearing took place.

2: You should jot down what the woman is saying and question her more about her son’s family, the new baby, where he works, what he does, how he spends his leisure time. This is a great newsgathering opportunity, and she is giving you loads of quotes. The added excitement about you being prodded and threatened all adds to the piece. You could weave in what was said in court with what was said outside. You are already thinking up headlines to suggest to the subeditor: “Reporter assaulted leaving courthouse”, “Local man faces ruin if found guilty”. Try to take a picture of the woman if you can.

3: You should explain to the woman that it’s your duty to report back to your editor on what happened in the court. Tell her that you will report only that which is allowed under the court reporting rules, and that it’s up to your editor to decide whether the article will be published or not. If she has any issues with that she should take it up with the newspaper.

Which is the right approach?

Nobody likes to read bad news about themselves or their families in the local newspaper, so it’s not unusual for court reporters and newspaper editors to come under pressure from those who feel that the publication of information could have a damaging impact on their lives.

When I was a local newspaper reporter such pressure was common.

But your job is to produce a fair and accurate report of proceedings, within the rules set down by the courts.

The task you had been set by your editor that morning was to attend the court, read through the charge lists, select which hearings to cover, cover them, then report back.

It was not to discuss with relatives of any of the accused how reporting the facts as set out during the court proceedings might affect the lives of their loved ones.

I suggest option three is the right response. As a reporter you need to retain your integrity by dealing with situations in a fair and accurate manner. You must not be pulled or persuaded by interested parties.

All the scenarios on Media Helping Media are based on real events.