When citing ethical conflicts in journalism, many of my Professors have been quick to reference Joe McGinniss, author of the true-crime, Helter Skelter-esque novel Fatal Vision. Some necessary background information: Fatal Vision tells the story of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Green Beret. In 1970, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two children were murdered. McDonald became the lead suspect early on, in spite of his reports that he and his family had been attacked by armed intruders.
MacDonald’s murder case went to trial in 1979, and the defendant hired McGinniss to write a book proclaiming MacDonald’s innocence. MacDonald granted McGinniss unfettered access into his life and the most intimate details of the case. As was customary, McGinniss required that MacDonald sign a release prior to the book’s
writing and publication.
However, as the case went on, McGinniss came to suspect MacDonald’s guilt. Therefore, rather than writing a declarative book on MacDonald’s innocence, McGinniss actually theorized how and why MacDonald murdered his family. All along, during the research and writing process, McGinniss pretended that he believed his subject was innocent.
On the one hand, MacDonald very well may have killed his wife and children– he was convicted in August 1979. Yet, this deceit on behalf of McGinniss is suspect, and a breach of journalistic ethics. Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer” explores this point in greater depth, and posits
that morality and journalism do not intersect in a traditional sense. She writes, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
So, what do you think? Is McGinniss in the wrong for his actions? Aren’t all individuals, even convicted murderers, entitled to certain rights? In this case, isn’t it within MacDonald’s purview to sue for breach of contract? Fatal Vision was, after all, supposed to prove his innocence to the general public. Instead, McGinniss wrote that MacDonald slayed his family in an amphetamine-fueled psychotic break.
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