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A Perfect Storm: Politics, Babies, Bloggers and a Hurricane
In Denver, the Democrats nominated the first African-American candidate of a major party, while orchestrating a clockwork convention designed to show unity after a divisive primary campaign.
Barack Obama had hardly given his acceptance speech in a rock-star setting in front of 75,000 supporters before John McCain grabbed the headlines and surprised the world by picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the first woman for a top slot in the GOP’s history.
Oh, yes. A major hurricane bore down on New Orleans. Gustav disrupted the script of the Republican convention, revived memories of 2005′s Katrina and the devastation of a great American city and reminded many of the damage the response to that storm did to the reputation of the Bush administration.
Then on Monday, in a development worthy of a soap opera, the McCain campaign revealed that Palin’s 17-year-old unmarried daughter, Bristol, was pregnant, in an announcement intended to knock down rumors by bloggers that Palin faked her own pregnancy to cover up for her child.
The story raises a number of ethical issues for journalists, which is why I’m writing today.
First, an introduction: I am Reuters’ newly named Editor for Ethics, Innovation and News Values. One of my missions is to lead discussions on ethics and standards wherever journalism is practiced at Thomson Reuters — and the Palin story seems a good place to start. It raises important issues for journalism: the right of public figures’ families to privacy; the mainstream media’s relationship with bloggers and other media; and the relationship between journalists and the people they cover.
The pregnancy story — like many stories now — got its start in the blogosphere, with liberal bloggers, such as those on the Daily Kos discussing rumors that the governor’s fifth child, born in April, was in fact her daughter’s. Conservative blogs, such as Townhall.com launched furious rebuttals. The McCain campaign chose to reveal Bristol’s pregnancy on a major U.S. holiday, at a time when much of the public’s attention was still focused on barbecues and beaches and the media’s attention was focused on Hurricane Gustav.
But the story was neither overlooked by the public nor overshadowed by Gustav.
There was instant debate over whether Bristol’s pregnancy was anyone’s business but hers and her family’s; whether candidates’ children should be off-limits (Obama thought so); whether GOP delegates would stand by Palin (all signs are that they are); and whether the McCain campaign’s vetting process had been less than thorough.
So let’s have some debate (or at least discussion) here. What do you think of the media’s coverage of this story?
–Does the public have a right to know whether Sarah Palin’s (or any candidate’s) daughter is pregnant or not?
–Should the private lives of family members of presidential and vice-presidential candidates be off-limits?
–How aggressively should the mainstream media pursue allegations and rumors in the blogosphere and tabloid media?
–Should journalists have reported the Palin pregnancy story before the McCain campaign’s announcement?
I’m looking forward to your views on this story -and on other stories in the future. Reuters and other news organizations don’t operate in a vacuum. We wouldn’t be in business were it not for you, our customers, clients and users.
Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Values
(Photo credit: REUTERS/Matt Sullivan)