After learning about the different ethical theories during the time I’ve been in college, I most closely associate with the ethical theory of utilitarianism. This theory ultimately comes to the conclusion that the decision which benefits the most people (or the “greater good”) is the correct decision to make. I feel that this is extremely applicable to the field of journalism because our job is to hold people accountable and expose injustices/wrongdoings. Oftentimes that means publishing something about an individual that may be damaging to his/her reputation but ultimately provides the public with important information that benefits more people than it harms.
In the case of citizen journalist Mayhill Fowler, there are a few ethical dilemmas presented. Fowler first made headlines in 2008 when she reported on then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s remarks on the Democratic campaign trail. He made a comment regarding small-town Americans and how they “cling to guns or religion” to deal with job losses. Fowler published these comments and Obama received a considerable amount of criticism. What was so interesting about this situation is that Fowler only heard these comments because she gained access to an event that was only open to mainstream journalists. As a citizen journalist, she technically wasn’t allowed to be at the event. Following the publication of her article some questioned the ethical implications of what she did. Despite the fact that she wasn’t supposed to be at the event, her article forced bigger news organizations to take notice of and report on what Obama said. In a way it made the mainstream media look even worse since they were at the same event but no one decided to report on the comment.
Fowler made headlines again when she recorded Bill Clinton denouncing a Vanity Fair reporter for an article written about him. Although Fowler said that she had her recorder out in the open, she did not disclose her status as a journalist at any point during her conversation with Clinton. Not only do I think Clinton wouldn’t have said what he said if he knew he was being recorded, I also believe that the way in which Fowler asked the question was leading. She referred to the article as a “hatchet job,” obviously leading Clinton to believe that she was simply someone who also disliked the article and wanted to have a casual conversation about it.
In terms of ethics, I feel better about how she obtained Obama’s remarks as opposed to Clinton’s. I think making it so only certain media can attend events is ridiculous in the first place, because it makes it so only certain interests are represented. Most in the mainstream media would be afraid to report on anything controversial which was obviously illustrated in this case because Fowler was the only one who reported on the comments. It was only after a citizen journalist brought it to light that mainstream media felt it was important to address. Since Obama was already aware that he was in the presence of journalists and still said what he said, I think it’s fair game for Fowler to use the quotes. She didn’t prompt him in any way. With Clinton, I don’t think he knew that he was talking to a journalist. In addition, the way Fowler framed the question was prompting him to say something negative that she could then use against him. She should have made more of an effort to frame the question objectively. Although I think citizen journalists are important, I think it’s possible for these journalists to unfairly use anonymity to their advantage which can create an ethical gray area.