In my editing classes, we’ve been discussing and debating an ethical dilemma: whether to link to a terrorist group’s videotape in a hypothetical scenario involving the beheading of an Iraqi leader and the kidnapping of American journalists. Here’s the full assignment (it’s a Word .doc download). I thank Bill Mitchell, director of Poynter Online, for the scenario.)
And it truly is a dilemma, because each option presents potential dangers and a different list of pros and cons. The dilemma pits several core journalistic values and ethical imperatives against one another, including journalistic independence, maximizing truth, minimizing harm and serving the public interest.
To reason our way through the dilemma, we relied on Steele’s and Poynter’s Ethics Tool, as well as a Principles of Linking document (Word download), also from Poynter and which I highly recommend. (Poynter really does tremendous work providing resources for journalism educators. I am very grateful.) In fact, the main emphasis of the assignment was to consider ethical decision-making as a process rather than thinking of ethics as a set of moral values you either possess or don’t possess. I wanted us to see ethics as a process and a skill that can be learned. So I looked in their rationales for process, for systematic thought and for a step-by-step application of the Poynter tool to the circumstances.
The students did a really good job considering the core values and thinking through which ones demanded priority, as well as how to articulate both the decision-making process and justification for their final decisions to their hypothetical readerships and viewerships. (We hypothesized ourselves as editorial teams for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WSB TV in Atlanta and CNN.)
In particular, most students really did think through what it would mean in this scenario to maximize truth AND minimize harm, what information they were compelled to provide in service to the public’s interest, and what information other considerations suggested they withhold. Most considered the potential harm to the five still being held by Sunni terrorists.
A few, however, were far too willing to capitulate to U.S. government officials asking media not to air the videotape or link to the terrorist Web site. The disregard or lack of consideration of allegiance to journalistic independence and, therefore, to journalistic integrity is troubling, disturbing. What government officials think a news organization should do is a concern, but it is not the most important one; it is not even a very important one. A news organization can and should weigh for itself the affected stakeholders’ interests in the decision and the potential threats to national interests, and then to consider them against the obligation to maximize truth and to inform.
A related danger I saw in more than one rationale is the impulse to treat readers or viewers as children, to act paternalistically in “protecting” them from violence and the horrors of insurgent warfare. Oh, no. It’s in some ways the twin danger of conspiring with government to do the government’s bidding. Journalism is to afflict the comfortable every bit as much as to comfort the afflicted. Yes, we put a very high value on sensitivity to the families of the journalists kidnapped and to those very same journalists themselves, their lives hanging in the balance. But we consider every bit as important our obligation to inform those paying for this war, many of whom with sons and daughters in the war. They are adults, and they deserve every shred and shard of information we can conscientiously provide them.
Oddly no one mentioned Muslims in this country as stakeholders in this decision. Sunnis assassinated a Shi’ia leader for particularly Sunni aims. What of Muslim reactions in the United States? What of the potential to inflame passions here? It should at least be a consideration. Of much less importance would be the family of the dead prime minister, who likely do not watch WSB TV or read the AJC.
To my students, I ask one more thing in this quest to develop our skills as ethical decision-makers. React or respond to this post by answering one question, in an attempt to take this exercise one step further and to develop the conversation between us: Tell me about one thing you learned in this exercise, one thing you did not know or perhaps did not adequately appreciate before this ethics workshop.
Jessie was kind enough to pass along her model rationale, which I post here (it is a Word .doc download). Jessie takes one view; in her very different rationale, Caitlin Carroll takes the opposite view. Both are models, both earned full points.