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Weighing ethics, patriotism

ST. PETERSBURG – The media has faced a new challenge in reporting since Sept. 11, making decisions that some may say are unpatriotic.

On Monday at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, members of the local media talked about their coverage on the war and journalism ethics. The panelists discussed how coverage of the current war in Afghanistan differs from war coverage in the past. They also expressed opinions about patriotism in journalism.

Some discussed that the media is being kept out of the war actions such as interviewing troops in Afghanistan. One panelist Bob Dardenne, a journalism professor at USF St. Petersburg, said that the media in the past had too much freedom during war time, and since Vietnam every war has tightened that freedom.

“Now the public is supporting the government,” Dardenne said. “Rather than supporting the media.”

Bob Steele, senior faculty and leader for the ethics group at The Poynter Institute, said this war is different than any other because of the way journalists are covering it.

“The media is challenged because of restricted access in Afghanistan,” Steele said.

Eric Deggans, TV critic for the St. Petersburg Times, said media coverage is more difficult in war now because a majority of Americans are supporting the government.

“That scares the media,” Deggans said. “Americans believe it’s the worst thing to be labeled unpatriotic.”

Deggans discussed a recent ethical issue for journalists of whether it is appropriate for them to wear an American flag pin, an issue that he opposes. He said the controversy expanded after Sept. 11 with more than 100 e-mails from the public objecting to news anchors not wearing the pin. Deggans said the news anchors afterward began wearing the pins.

“At some point a journalist must question what the government has done in the war,” Deggans said. “If we call ourselves patriotic, it’s hard to challenge what the government has done. And we are setting ourselves up for a fall.”

However, Monica Yadav, a news anchor for WWSB-TV, an ABC affiliate station in Sarasota, said when she and her colleagues were told to put on an American flag pin, they did not question.

“We’re just humans, and we automatically put it on,” Yadav said. “But as we thought about it more, we thought maybe we shouldn’t be wearing them.”

The panelists also spoke about the pressure of media convergence that influences decisions to be made in the news.Deggans said local networks can often be a problem in news coverage because it is not a 24-hour news source. Deggans said that another problem is the confusion in distinguishing journalism as a source of entertainment or information.

“The weird thing about the American media is it’s both (entertainment and information),” Deggans said, “particularly in TV because the audience is appealed to a news aspect constantly.”Deggans said TV is active in drawing a crowd to the news, such as when CNN recently hired Connie Chung.

“The struggle with newspapers is less,” Deggans said. “Newspapers are not as in your face as TV has to be.”

Dardenne said before Sept. 11 the circulation of newspapers was down because different news sources were available.

“Now the public can go to the Internet,” Dardenne said. “They are getting news in ways they couldn’t get it before.”

Yadav said when TV news ratings decrease, the news anchors often feel it is because the public may not trust them. But people also have their daily routines, Yadav said, which interferes with watching the news.

“It’s not always a matter of competing with other news sources,” she said.