Ethics 101

In some jobs, ethical dilemmas are as common as office fridge theft. They are definitely part of the variety delivered by working in a journalism school (ask my colleague who was offered new equipment by the parent of a disappointed student). What we don’t know is when they’re going to turn up in the inbox. Or, as happened this week, when the admin person is going to receive a phone enquiry and, looking up, see that it’s me walking into the building. Clearly, I’m the one to help.

So in a spirit of ambassadorial goodwill, I dial the number. A journalist seeks a stamp of approval from a reputable journalism school that she can write coherent stories. So coherent, in fact, that the South African government should allow her to immigrate. I smelt no ethical rat; there are academic journals that require qualified editors to certify that article writers are proficient in English.

But then the correspondence arrived: a slew of columns and articles and a draft letter from the hopeful immigrant’s lawyer. I was permitted to modify the letter to some degree but certain aspects of it were mandatory. Then I had to print it on a J-school letterhead, sign it, and mail it back to the hopeful immigrant. The rat wriggled; this time I smelt it.

I mulled over my reservations. Regarding the journalist’s work, these were:

  • Content: She worked in an area way out of mine, making it difficult to assess the articles’ excellence.
  • Genre: Most franchised magazine titles conform to a tight editorial formula; I have no way of knowing what governs the editorial agenda of this title, and therefore how original these articles might be.
  • Writing quality: Fluent enough but given to cliché (I would have graded a senior student handing in this work with a 60).
  • Editing quality: Blessedly clean copy. However, if a student were submitting this, I would have returned it ungraded with an invitation to rethink sub-heads trumpeting something about “ladies”.

Regarding the lawyer’s letter, my reservations were more personal:

  • The letter was written by a lawyer and not by me; no amount of modifying on my part would alter that achingly obvious fact.
  • The instructions were clear that the letter had to emphasise that this journalist was “extraordinary”. The word “extraordinary” had to appear in the letter and its use had to be unequivocal. I don’t believe I have ever told a student she was extraordinary, even the one who scored 100% for one assignment.
  • The signature had to be supported by my designation (writing & editing lecturer) and institution (Rhodes University).

Regarding the entire enterprise, my reservations were ambivalent:

  • I would love to think I live in a country hospitable to fluent journalists who were not born here, but
  • What kind of government is so impressed by the word “extraordinary” that they would grant immigrants a home on the grounds that a total stranger has been persuaded by a lawyer to use such a word?

And:

  • It unsettles me that had it been the Nik-Nak man who walked past the admin department as the hopeful immigrant’s call ended, things might have turned out better for her.

I declined to help the hopeful immigrant. But I find I can’t stop thinking about the emails I received from this non-South African journalist, and the one I wrote to her. South Africa could do with people who love this place and who want to live here so much that they’ll work here. They should be allowed to prove their value to this society by doing so, not by hiring a lawyer to compose ludicrous statements that simultaneously abuse and mock the power of language.

Also, if I were a journalist, I’d think: story!

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