Jeopardising Journalism

Most journalists often avoid talking, and especially writing, about journalism ethics due to the fear that admitting the subject matters will destroy their story. Malcolm dives in and tackles the topic by focusing on the lawsuit filed by convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald to sue journalist, Joe McGinniss.

Joe McGinniss is the author of the best-selling book, Fatal Vision, in which he wrote about the conviction of Jeffrey MacDonald for the murders of his wife, two daughters and unborn child. McGinniss had exclusive access to MacDonald, his legal team and the murder trial allowing him to interpret the case as he wished.

After Fatal Vision was published in 1983, MacDonald sued McGinniss for misleading him to think he believed his innocence, but writing him as a “murderous psychopath”. Janet Malcolm analysed the MacDonald-McGinniss case within the book which teaches journalists a valuable lesson, and other readers how journalists should not be trusted.

The way in which Janet Malcolm tells the true story constructs it somewhat like fiction. The people feel like characters, the case seems unreal and overall the horror is unbelievable. Joe McGinniss is a journalist who deceived his subject and Jeffrey MacDonald is a convicted murderer. Strangely, the reader can’t help but side with the betrayed murderer as he is not the one on trial and is part of the prosecution.

The book is intelligent in the way that it compellingly compares journalism to psychology. Malcolm’s comparison of a journalist’s subject to participants, in Milgram’s psychological study of Obedience to Authority, suggests people look at journalists as authority figures who they can trust with their deepest darkest secrets. In the research subjects were asked by an authority figure to shock the learner every time they answered a question incorrectly. Results showed that many participants shocked learners to what would have been a painful level of shock if they would have been real. Malcolm describes the “experience received by the subject of the Milgram experiment when he was debriefed” to be “comparable to the dislocation felt by the subject of a book or article when he first reads it”.

Now published by Granta Books, with only 163 pages most would assume the book is an easy read but after reading the book the audience will discover they have been on a deep, dense and controversial journey, teaching journalists the necessity of honesty. However, as each sentence is complicatedly structured holding a dense amount of information, this is not a book to read without full concentration, or you may find yourself re-reading the same line twice or even for a third time.

The book’s fictional feel, knowledgeable comparisons and analytical critique takes readers on a remarkable journey through the MacDonald-McGinniss case. The book is a captivating read which allows the audience to make their own decision on whether the writer or subject is in the right. It may additionally teach journalists crucial lessons of the trade, however, it will cause any reader not interested in journalism to bore extremely quickly due to its repetitive nature.


Title: The Journalist and the Murderer

Author: Janet Malcolm

Publisher: Granta Books

Price: £9.99

Published: 7 June 2012 (Third Edition)

ISBN: 9781847085344


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