Journalists without ethics

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by Elpin Keshishzadeh, Opinion Editor

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The life of a journalist is a stressful one. Incredible headlines and story ideas don’t pop up like spam emails — in fact their rarity is what makes so many journalists today hungry for content and occasionally unethical in their methods. Everyone has a job to do and bills to pay, but when one chooses a career impacting the lives of those around them, there’s a lot more to be considered than simply reaching a quota.

As a public relations major and a fellow editor of this fine paper, I’ve covered both facets of the playing field. As an amateur of both professions, I can’t say I’ve seen and done it all, but I’ve seen and done enough to have a distaste for how some things work.

In recent weeks, my respect for a handful of San Diegan journalists has gone down the drain along with any credibility they had remaining. On Oct. 17, San Diego State released a statement, approved by the family of recently deceased Sara Stelzer, which stated they had said their farewells to their daughter in preparation to take her off life support.

It was later that same night when my phone started buzzing with frantic students updating their news feeds and news headlines. The U-T San Diego tweet read: “County now says meningitis patient Stelzer remains on life support. SDSU’s statement she had died was incorrect.”

You can imagine my gut-wrenching shock. How could the university, along with our very own paper, have gotten this so wrong?

Subhead: “University officials say announcement of student’s death was premature.”

At that moment in time, there was only one thought going through my head, it was of the family of this young girl. As they were coming to terms with the abrupt end to their young girl’s life with the support of the SDSU community, these new headlines were toying with the miracle of Stelzer’s fate. That’s exactly what these sensational headlines insinuated — that this young girl’s condition might be taking a turn for the better.

This same feeling of empathy was clearly not an issue for our professional journalists here in San Diego. As I read more into these articles, while being updated by officials at SDSU, it occurred to me not much had changed for the Stelzer family and their tremendously difficult emotional battle of losing their daughter. Farewells had been made and Stelzer was merely kept on life support a few extra days while potential organ recipients were identified as a match.

Now, imagine what the family of this young girl must have felt reading the headlines of major San Diego news outlets stating their daughter was alive. I may be the college student writing for a college newspaper, but the amateurs in this situation were the professionals.

To say this clarification and update on Stelzer’s status wasn’t a story worth covering would be biased and untrue. My judgments don’t lie with the fact it was covered, they lie with the way a tragic situation was sensationalized for clicks and shares.

There comes a time when everyone must, and will, make the difficult decision between doing their job and doing what’s right. If being a journalist makes this concept a moot point, count me out.

Unfortunately, Stelzer doesn’t stand alone in this recent premature headline debacle.

Timed coincidentally with SDSU’s meningitis scare, it was approximately two weeks ago when a student’s embellished story shut down a portion of Southwestern College with an Ebola scare. In light of the situation, the campus reacted quickly with precautionary and investigative measures to ensure the safety of students and the community — as any institution would with an Ebola scare.

However, the same lightning speed wasn’t required of the news outlets reporting the story like a game of telephone; as the story progressed from one outlet to the next, a little bit had changed. In a matter of 10 minutes, stories were developing from the student’s family being quarantined to her vomiting in class, while her classmates denied the incident all together.

Being first to report is impressive, but reporting accurately is imperative. Oddly enough, in my determined efforts to find the critic of all critic’s original headline on the Ebola scare, I came up short. After 15 minutes of clicks and social media stalking, I gave up browsing the U-T for their original headline when I came to the realization its “premature” declaration had been hidden away.

TMZ and US Weekly are always hiring if any journalists are looking for exaggerated and sensational story pitches. In the meantime, the words and stories being printed are impacting the lives, emotions and overall well-being of the entire community and individuals involved. Whether it’s a journalist hungry for a Pulitzer or a public relations professional desperate for publicity, ethical practices shouldn’t be tossed out the window for 15 minutes of Twitter fame.

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