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The Ethical Issues in Journalism in Absence of Malice, a Film by Sydney Pollack

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Absence of Malice is a film released in 1981 that deals with ethical issues in journalism. The story revolves around a murder case in which Michael Gallagher, a deceased criminal’s son, is the main suspect. In the film, there are various ethical issues with regards to how anews reporter, Megan Carter, reveals pertinent allegations about the case. More so, her initial source about the case is of unethical nature. One major ethical issue in this film involves Megan Carter and Teresa Peron, Gallagher’s friend. With this regard, a brief overview is given about this part of the movie before an analysis of the ethical issue surrounding is given. The analysis is done through the use of Bok’s Three Step Model.

In this particular part of the movie, Peron tries to help out Gallagher due to his suspicion of being a murderer by providing an alibi for him. She turns to Carter and confides to her about the whereabouts of Gallagher during the alleged time that he committed the murder. Peron tells Carter that she spent the weekend together with Gallagher since she was having an abortion out of town. However, since Peron is a staunch catholic, she requests Carter to protect her anonymity and not reveal any information relating to her abortion as this is against the beliefs of Catholicism. Nevertheless, the story is released by Carter, which results in Peron becoming so ashamed to the point of committing suicide. The ethical issue, in this case, revolves around Carter’s decision to reveal private information about Peron. Concerns raise include the assumed right to privacy in Peron’s case. More so, there is the wider question of whether the right to privacy of an individual trumps the right of the public to be informed.

According to Bok’s three-step model, the first step is to consult my personal conscience with regards to my feelings about the actions that occurred. Personally, I feel sorry for the loss of life that resulted from the release of Carter’s news story. Nobody should have to die just to save face and avoid the embarrassment that comes with certain details of a news story. On one hand, Peron confided in Carter in good faith with the hope of exonerating Gallagher from the public onslaught he was facing as the main suspect of a murder case. She went out of her way to reveal actions she had taken, which were not in accordance to her Catholic beliefs. Her aim was to convince Carter that her earlier report was not true. However, even after requesting that the details about her abortion be left out, Carter went against her word and released the story anyway. Thus, she betrayed Peron’s trust in her. On the other hand, I feel conflicted since as a journalist, Carter was also obliged to give the public any information that was tied to the case. It is a pity that unforeseen events occurred due to her actions.

The second step under Bok’s three step model is the seeking of expert advice and exploring of alternatives.Two major philosophical principles come to mind with this regard. One of them is Kant’s categorical imperative, which purports that demands cannot be subjected to situational factors. There are two premises with this regard: (a) universality, in which the choices made by an individual might turn out to be the universal law, and (b) respect for other people’s autonomy while not using them as means to a certain end (Plaisance, 2007).From this principle, it is clear that a journalist has to put him/herself in the shoes of others when reporting news, which calls for transparency in all matters pertaining to the case, such as the source and its credibility. Carter revealed her source as Peron and gave all pertinent details about her in a bid to portray the credibility of the story. Anotherimportant principle that is applicable in this case is the Golden Rule, which calls for one to treat other individuals as he/she would like to be treated by them, which means any judgment made on reporting news has to be under the influence of compassion, the consequences of releasing the information,and intellectual honesty (Glasser, 2000).In this case, Carter should have weighed the benefits of releasing information about Peron’s abortion. She should just have stated in her news that Peron and Gallagher had gone away for the weekend for the sake of Peron’s safety. If details of this weekend getaway were required in a court of law at a later date, then it would have been Peron’s prerogative to release the story to the public and not Carter.

The final step of the Bok’s three step model is the conduction of a public discussion with all the relevant parties involved. If both Peron and Carter were to have a discussion after the release of the story, they would both have conflicting points of view. Carter would probably point out her duty as a journalist to reveal all pertinent information that she had discovered, which could have a large bearing on the case’s outcome. On the other hand, Peron would be mad that Carter had betrayed her act of confiding to her and revealed personal information that hurt her feelings and put her into shame. The general public would also be conflicted in the release of the story. There would be those who would back up Peron with her right to privacy. On the other hand, there are those who would back Carter with her right to report, in addition to the right of the public to know any relevant information of the case.

From this analysis, I would behave in a different manner if I found myself in a similar scenario. If I was in Carter’s shoes, I would not have revealed information about Peron’s abortion. I feel that Carter had double standards in herpractice as a journalist. For instance, she did not reveal her first source for her story. Therefore, she would also have done Peron a favor by not reporting about her abortion. This information would be left to Peron to reveal it if need be in case she would have been called to testify in a law court. On the other hand, if I was in Peron’s shoes, I would not have gone into too much detail pertaining to matters of abortion. I would just have said that I had a doctor’s appointment out of town, which could have saved Carter the trouble of having to decide whether to betray her trust or not. Overall, there is an ethical dilemma in this case, which is not easily solvable. Carter was obligated to report news as she found it, and it is unfortunate that someone had to die as a result.

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The Ethical Issues in Journalism in Absence of Malice, a Film by Sydney Pollack. (2018, October 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from
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