Abstract: Truth-telling and harm minimisation in editorial decision-making

This 2011 research study, titled “Truth-Telling and Harm Minimisation in Editorial Decision-Making: A Study of Four Journalists in The Trinidad and Tobago Print Media”, attempts to discover how various factors influence journalists’ editorial decision-making. I proposed three research questions:

  1. How do journalists describe the factors affecting their editorial decision-making?
  2. How do journalists describe the importance of the principles of truth-telling and harm minimisation in editorial decision-making?
  3. How do journalists describe their performance of truth-telling and harm minimisation in editorial decision-making?

I conducted an analysis of oral data collected in a series of semi-structured long interviews with a non-random, purposive sampling of four journalists practising in the Trinidad and Tobago print media.  Using an adaptation of Shoemaker and Reese’s (1996) Hierarchy of Influences as a theoretical framework, the study attempts to analyse the editorial decision-making environment on four levels: individual, organisational, institutional and social. Klaidman and Beauchamp’s (1987) Truth-Harm Diagonal provided a framework through which an understanding of participants’ interpretation and praxis of truth-telling and harm minimisation could be approximated.

Journalists appeared to perceive value in the journalistic imperative to disclose information, while the counterbalancing imperative to avoid harm was not always apparent among journalists’ considerations in editorial decision-making. Journalists’ testimonies did not reveal a tendency for ethical considerations to outweigh organisational realities and operational constraints in editorial decision-making.

This study does not attempt to make generalized claims about an entire population (Baxter & Babbie, 2003, p. 344) but attempts to explore the value system and lived experiences of selected journalists. A better understanding of how journalists’ self-perceived editorial decision-making competence is an essential prerequisite to any attempt to improve the practice of journalism in Trinidad and Tobago. No study of the domestic media has undertaken an in-depth analysis of the issues at play in editorial decision-making, a routine journalistic activity situated squarely at the crossroads of journalism ethics and media sociology. That journalists in Trinidad and Tobago must make editorial decisions is without question. What forces are at play when they do so is a matter worthy of investigation.

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