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Do No Harm

Primum non nocere. In medicine, one of the principal ethical concepts is this: First, do no harm. It may seem presumptuous to compare my work as a journalist to the life-or-death work of a doctor, but I think the mantra of “do no harm” is an important one in both professions.

As journalists, we don’t treat life-threatening injury or illness. We don’t carry the political clout of elected officials, and we don’t make decisions about health or wealth or policy. But we are powerful. Our words carry weight; they influence the people we speak to — and those we speak about.

I’ve discovered this to be especially true of reporting in a small, close-knit community like Nome. On a small town scale, the ethics of journalism are no longer concepts to be debated in a lecture hall or applied in the abstract. They have a real and tangible impact on the lives of my subjects and my audience — who, by the way, are also my friends and neighbors.

And, frankly, being a reporter is an enormous responsibility. One I’m not always confident I deserve. I’m only human, and unfortunately I do make mistakes. I don’t always capture every side to the story; occasionally, I even misjudge where to point the microphone. Which brings me back to the topic of “do no harm.”

Determining what helps, and what harms, my audience is something that I think about every day.

I can’t promise to eliminate human error from my work completely, or to always present those I write about in a flattering light. I do, after all, believe that when public figures make mistakes they need to be held accountable — to my audience and to all the people they represent.

I also acknowledge that when I make mistakes, I am accountable for them as well. There are moments — whether I’m crunched for time, or I simply didn’t think to include an alternate viewpoint — when the story I’m telling isn’t told in the best possible way. And I have to live with and work to correct that.

So I guess I’d like to end with a message to my audience and my community: If you think I’ve missed something or told a story in an incomplete way, I always invite you to reach out and talk to me about it. I can’t promise that I’ll change a quote or delete a story, but I’ll always listen respectfully and work toward a solution. That way, together, we can progress from “do no harm” to “do a little more good.”

1 Comment

  1. Caitlin Whyte on June 17, 2015 at 8:08 am

    cool hat