Several issues are at play when a teacher is accused of sexual abuse. First, the school has to strike a balance between the safety of the children and the rights of the accused teacher. Second, there is the issue of free press versus fair trial.
The sexual abuse of children is a public concern, and newspaper reporters cover the news that a teacher has been charged with allegedly committing a sexual abuse crime. At the same time, the criminal justice system has a job to do, and the teacher faces a criminal trial.
The court has to be aware of pretrial publicity and take precautions to ensure the teacher has a fair trial. Third, there is the issue of privacy versus a reporter’s access to information. For example, if a reporter receives a telephone call from a parent saying a teacher has been accused of sexual abuse, and the information is only available through a school because the school has not yet reported it to the police, a reporter would have a difficult time obtaining the information. In most locations, state law exempts schools from having to disclose personnel matters.
The reporter may have to resort to accessing the information from sources other than the school or police, which are “official sources.” A reporter may get the news from a parent who does not want to be named. Many journalists would agree that contemporary journalism operates in the context of the “social responsibility theory of the press.” News media have a responsibility not just to readers, listeners and viewers; there is a responsibility to the community, and even to the society as a whole. However, it is important to note that virtually no media system is governed by one pure theory of the press, nor does practice always follow what seems the appropriate theory.
Media ethics links itself strongly to the normative social responsibility theory. Social responsibility has been in the marketplace since the Greek Peripatetics. It was applied to the press in the report of Robert Hutchins and his commission of scholar. Although journalism still has no uniform code of ethics, the principle of public service has come close to being a collective norm. Many newspapers do have a voluntary professional code of ethics, which is a byproduct of the movement toward social responsibility. Surveys show that about 60 percent of newspaper journalists at all levels publishers, editors and staff members favor written codes of ethics.
The postulated link between ethics codes and journalistic behavior has rarely been examined. However, there is a growing assumption that ethics codes help shape the decisions journalists make in situations that raise ethical issues.