Prev | List | Random | Next
A few short years ago discussions of "ethics" in journalism seemed to center around some form of the question "Do journalists have a responsibility to report unbiased truth even if the impact of such reporting is negative/harmful?" The more cynical modern version might be "Do journalists have any obligation to tell the truth if it doesn't fit their personal/corporate agenda?" Or perhaps the more existential query "Is anything really true?" is more to point. Regardless of how the question is asked, most Americans perceive a problem with journalistic ethics today, part of which is traceable to a failure on the part of journalists as a profession to adequately define their answers to the older questions, to develop a real and tangible set of professional ethics.
This post will examine that hypothetical downward slide in journalistic ethics, but first, a bit of an illustration of how the blogosphere "works" is in order. (It satisfies the ethical requirement to reveal my sources, you see.) While visiting the Easongate blog today I learned that NZ Bear has a page devoted to tracking blogs covering the Eason Jordan. His page lists blogs that have reported on the story from largest to smaller. I bet myself a nickel I'd find something interesting at a site on the bottom of that list, and won that bet when I visited Values Voter and found a transcript of a panel discussion from a Columbia University-hosted symposium on Ethics in America.
The format is a moderated discussion of hypothetical situations. In this case from October 1987 the moderator presented a question to Peter Jennings of ABC and Mike Wallace from CBS. (Update: video here. Referenced section begins approx 33:45 point in video.)
Moderator: You are safely traveling with an enemy unit as a foreign war correspondent. As fate would have it the enemy unit you are traveling with is about to ambush an American unit.
Jennings: As a reporter you have to make the decision going in that there is a possibility that you may come upon an American unit. My feeling is that, as a reporter, you have to make that decision before you went. And that if you are in, you are in. I would live in fear of coming across an American unit.
Moderator: So if you made that decision you would then film the enemy unit shooting the American unit?
Jennings: (Long pause - thinking) No - I guess I wouldn't. I'll tell you now what I'm feeling rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with the enemy I would do what I could to warn the Americans.
Moderator: Even if it means not getting the live coverage?
Jennings: I don't have much doubt it would mean my life. I'm glad this is hypothetical. I don't think I could bring myself to participate in that fashion, by not warning the Americans. Some other reporters may feel otherwise.
Wallace: Some other reporters would feel otherwise. I would regard it simply as another story I was there to tell.
Moderator: Enemy soldiers shooting and killing American soldiers? Could you imagine how you would report that to the American people?
Wallace: Yes, I can. (Talking down to Jennings) Frankly, I'm astonished to hear Peter say that. You are a reporter. Granted you are an American. But you are a reporter covering combat. And I'm at a loss to understand why, because you are an American; you would not cover that story.
Moderator: Don't you have a higher duty as an American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of American soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting the fact?
Wallace: No. You don't have the higher duty. You are a reporter. Your job is to cover what is going on in that war. I would be calling Peter to say, "What do you mean you're not going to cover the story."
Jennings: I think he's right. I chickened out. I agree with Mike intellectually. I really do. And I wish at the time, I'd made another decision. I would like to have made his decision.
During the next few minutes of discussion Wallace attempts to strengthen his position by likening the battlefield situation to that of a murder in a major city. Through ethical analysis he concludes that if he had prior knowledge a murder was about to occur he would report it to the authorities to prevent the action. He then tries to transfer this analysis to the ambush situation on the battlefield and further confuses himself in terms of his initial response.Googling for the full text of the event I was unable to find the original post on topic, but did discover the Google cache. Turns out the transcript above was actually included in a paper presented at The Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics (JSCOPE) - "an organization of military professionals, academics and others formed to discuss ethical issues relevant to the military. The Conference meets each year in late January in Washington, D.C., to present and discuss academic papers."
Wallace: Now I'm going back and forth as I sit here. It's a hell of a dilemma to be in. Now I don't know what I think.
The linked paper is titled "Understanding Our Odd Bedfellow: The Trouble with Professional News Media Ethics - A Military Perspective", by Maj Kent Cassella, U.S. Army, and is of obvious applicability to our discussion of the current state of affairs regarding media coverage of the military. The entire document is well worth a read, but I'll highlight this passage:
Most professional journalists and those that study the journalism profession agree that journalists must be concerned about the elusive concept of truth. But most are also quick to suggest that there are different ways of defining and operationalizing that term, and whether other ethical concepts may be equally or more important. This results in the profession being divided between two general schools of thought. The first school focuses entirely on truth as both a necessary and sufficient condition for ethical performance in the media. The other suggests there are additional elements that must be considered, specifically, the concepts of accuracy and fairness (Gordon, 1996: p. 81).(On a side note: one can see a degenerative twist to the "accuracy and fairness distinct from truth and objectivity" school of thought in an early CBS response to the "Rathergate" forged Guard documents: "Fake, but accurate.")
The First School. Many hard-nosed reporters, in both print and electronic media, come at ethics from a mainly deontological or principle-bound perspective. A dominant principle for them is the presentation of a truthful, unbiased, and thorough account of an event. They believe that it is not only their professional duty to do this, but also their ethical duty (Gordon, 1996: p. 99).
The first school of thought believes that truth precludes any need for further ethical concerns in journalism. The key thought in this argument is that "truth telling is a first principle, to the point where if choices must be made, truth must be given primacy over any other ethical concerns." (Gordon, 1996: p.82). Following this key thought of truth as a "first principle" as fully as possible, journalists follow the spirit of Kant's categorical imperative. Ultimately, this argument concludes that everything starts with an emphasis on truth - which certainly should include some context as well as "unelaborated fact." If proper attention is paid to truth telling as a key ethical principle, the other ethical concerns will resolve themselves (Gordon, 1996: p. 83).
The Other School. The second news media school of thought revolves around the central idea that the social value of journalism requires high-quality practices reflecting ethical considerations that go beyond truth and objectivity and more toward accuracy and fairness. It argues that many journalists are wrong having accepted the concept of truth as a compulsory deontological standard and not as a consequentialist standard. The key thought is that if the media are, as is traditionally held, surrogates for the citizens in a democracy, providing information that is necessary in order for the citizenry to make valid and reliable decisions, then even standards of truth higher than those of the courtroom may be inadequate. Hence, the truth alone is not sufficient for the journalist to claim to be acting ethically (Gordon, 1996: p. 91).
Instead of relying solely on the concept of truth this school of thought suggest that journalists must meet two other aforementioned standards or factors, interwoven with but distinct from truth and objectivity - accuracy and fairness (Gordon, 1996: p. 95). They define fairness as the act of keeping an open mind, of the reporter or editor suspending individual judgement until enough information is available so that judgments or decisions validly can be made. It is impartiality, but not ignorance. The media are not merely a conduit, and have the responsibility to assess the validity or truth of the information they disseminate (Gordon, 1996: p. 96).
Major Cassella's paper is from August 2001; an academic discussion of journalistic ethics from pre-9/11. This is what makes it all the more jarring in a post-9/11 world - not four years later we are seeing evidence of a "third school" from an established media source - if not an outright abrogation of any established concept of journalistic "ethics". I'm referencing Eason Jordan's casual remark regarding US military members "targeting" journalists, of course, but such behavior on the part of an individual doesn't define the failure of a profession.
However, the response of CNN to the event does.
In a few short years we've gone from reporters discussing their individual responses to hypothetical situations where they admit to a willingness to forfeit American soldiers' lives for a "true" story, to a real situation wherein an executive for an American-based international news organization is alleged to have accused soldiers of intentionally killing journalists.
One might argue that the earlier behavior of journalists in expressing their willingness to let Americans die could conceivably lead to an event where a soldier would kill a journalist intentionally (or at least be more inclined to shoot first and ask questions later) but in fact, that's not the case.
Returning to the dialog from the ethics panel discussion at the opening of this paper - following the exchange between Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace the moderator turns to Colonel George M. Connell, United States Marine Corps, and asks his response to the dialog he had just heard.Yet another reason why military members invariably score much higher than journalists in opinion polls of perceived "trust". In fact, the example of Eason Jordan claiming "targeted journalists" may actually be projecting his own mode of thinking on a sort of person for whom such thought is not only contemptible but antithetical to everything they believe in.
Moderator: Colonel Connell, I can see the venomous reaction you are having in hearing all this.
Colonel Connell: (Angrily) I feel utter contempt. Two days later they (the reporters - Jennings and Wallace) are both walking off my hilltop and they get ambushed and they're lying there wounded. And they're going to expect I'm going to send Marines up there to get them. They're just journalists. They're not Americans. Is that a fair reaction? You can't have it both ways. But I'll do it. And that's what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get (grippingly) a couple of journalists.
What would happen if Eason Jordan were to provide the names and what circumstances he could surrounding the 12 journalists he's alleged to have claimed were murdered by American soldiers? That we can answer, without resorting to hypotheticals. Exhaustive investigations would follow. Military members aren't without sin, after all. To claim otherwise would be foolish. Here, some very real examples from last month:
Army Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr. was convicted Friday of abusing Iraqi detainees at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison in the fall of 2003. He was the first soldier to be tried on charges arising from the scandal, in which naked detainees were photographed in sexually humiliating positions alongside grinning soldiers. Seven other soldiers were charged in the scandal: Four have pleaded guilty, and three are awaiting trial.The US military doesn't tolerate the behavior Eason Jordan described at Davos. In fact, careers have ended for transgressions significantly less grave. Lying, for instance, is an offense that will get you kicked out of a Service Academy before your career even really begins.
Army 1st Lt. Jack Saville is awaiting a March trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault in the death of an Iraqi who is alleged to have drowned after soldiers forced him into the Tigris River. Co-defendant Sgt. 1st Class Tracy Perkins was convicted on Jan. 7 of two counts of aggravated assault, obstruction of justice and assault consummated by battery in the same incident, which took place in January 2004.
Army Staff Sgt. Cardenas J. Alban was convicted Friday of murder and sentenced to a year of confinement for the alleged mercy killing of a severely injured Iraqi teenager. Alban is the second soldier convicted of shooting the wounded 16-year-old as U.S. forces battled an uprising in Sadr City in August. Staff Sgt. Johnny M. Horne Jr. pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
The Navy's top SEAL is deciding whether a SEAL lieutenant should face court-martial for assault, maltreatment and conduct unbecoming an officer for his handling of detainees at a U.S. military base in Iraq in 2003. Prosecutors said the lieutenant, who has not been identified, posed in degrading photos with a handcuffed and hooded prisoner who died a short time later. In all, nine SEALs and one sailor who served with them were implicated. Two received Article 32 hearings, one is awaiting court-martial and the rest received nonjudicial proceedings known as captain's masts.
Marine Maj. Clarke Paulus was convicted in November of dereliction of duty and maltreatment in a case stemming from the death of an Iraqi prisoner who was dragged out of his holding cell by the neck, stripped naked and left outside for seven hours in June 2003. Paulus, who commanded the Marine detention facility Camp Whitehorse in southern Iraq, was dismissed from the service.
Marine Sgt. Gary Pittman was sentenced to 60 days of hard labor and demoted to private after being convicted in September of abusing inmates at Camp Whitehorse. He was cleared of two other charges, including abusing a 52-year-old Iraqi man who died in custody.
Army Capt. Rogelio Maynulet faces court-martial in Germany for allegedly shooting and killing a man who was gravely wounded when U.S. fighters opened fire on his vehicle south of Baghdad. A fellow officer told a preliminary military hearing that dispatching the wounded man was "the compassionate response" on Maynulet's part.
Earlier in the linked paper, a discussion of the panel discussion:
This brief exchange highlights a recurring problem the news media profession has in dealing with complex ethical situations. When a case such as this is presented to a media ethics seminar for discussion, the students usually argue passionately without making much headway. Analysis degenerates into inchoate pleas that the (victims) deserve mercy or into grandiose appeals to the privilege of the press. Judgments are made on the evocative, expressive level - that is, with no justifying reasons. There seems to be no agreed upon ethical framework for the practicing journalist or editor to use in such instances. As a result, too often communication ethics follows such a pattern, retreating finally to the law as the only reliable guide (Christians, 1995: p.2).The media now faces an ethical crisis - one they must address if they wish to remain viable. For something else has changed since 2001 - an alternative has risen. And the rise of the blogosphere is nothing if not further evidence of the existence of this crisis in media ethics. For the record - I think blogs and traditional media can coexist. But as I've demonstrated repeatedly here, milbloggers and Iraqi bloggers have done a far better job of reporting ground truth from Iraq, and such superiority is possible elsewhere too. The bottom line is that blogs are here to stay - the survivability of the mainstream media is still debatable, at least for now.
The lack of a prescribed framework poses a significant problem for the media professional attempting to deal with tough ethical issues. More importantly, the lack of prior preparation, in terms of considering possible complex ethical issues and painstakingly thinking through them prior to being confronted by them, leaves the journalist in a dangerously vulnerable position of unpreparedness (2).
Upon closer review of the virtues to which media professionals profess one can conclude that this lack of preparedness results from the very ideals upon which the foundation of the profession is built. Although the belief in a free press is sincere and of critical importance to a democratic system, it often plays tricks on the media's thinking about ethics. Ethical principles concerning obligation and reckoning do not find a natural home within a journalism hewn from the rock of negative freedom (Christians, 1995: p.28).
Update: Sarah at Trying to Grok writes "Hawk, I have written about this PBS series numerous times, called "Ethics in America: Under Orders, Under Fire". I would highly recommend that you watch it when you return from Iraq. The full series can be found here.
(The episode referenced above can be found here.)
Greyhawk - I have enjoyed your blog for awhile now. In this piece I may have missed it but you did not say that media ethics are different from all other ethics. There have been some glaring examples lately but one of the worst was a few months ago. I wrote an Open Letter to AP and posted it on my blog. While researching it I found the code of ethics for AP on the web and pointed out to the management that they weren't doing a very good job. That is why you and others like you are so important. Keep the MSM's feet to the fire!Posted by Don Black at February 10, 2005 12:20 AM
Newt Gingrich was on that panel discussing ethics. His response is classic and right on the money:
"The military has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have."Posted by elgato at February 10, 2005 01:41 AM
Greyhawk -- Thank you for a very informative piece. I, and many friends not yet reading blogs - though they should be, are fed up with editorials and reports which endanger the troops and are outright lies.
During WW II not a single news editor would write what is read in newspapers today. They supported the troops every way they could. It's outragious that the mainstream media is not objective, much less poisoning the minds of readers with political nonsense. They write as if only Democrats are their readers and others will have to start their own media -- which has happened! BLOGS!
We have two kinds of insurgents to fight and we can destroy both in time.Posted by Jim Martin at February 10, 2005 01:50 AM
Today I honestly suspect many US journos, from oldtime elitists to typical PC leftist parrots, in their hearts would be rooting for the enemy. Their hate for Bush, the military and America would rule.Posted by Steve at February 10, 2005 01:51 AM
If you are safely traveling with an ENEMY (of your country) UNIT then the ethics question has already been answered. Just being there is aiding & abetting the enemy in my opinion.
Allowing U.S. Soldiers to be ambushed would be treason. That you would do nothing to warn your fellow Americans of imminent danger and cost them their lives is... I can't come up with a word that adequately describes how I feel about this. That doesn't happen often! I don't think a degree in journalism dismisses the reposibilties that go with the rights of an American citizen. Am I missing something? I don't think so.
Well, at least these two haven't changed,
Jennings is still a worm and Wallace is still an asshole!
Journalists do have a code of ethics. Please see the above. Unfortunately, very few reporters either have read or have been exposed to their code of ethics. Again, the concepts of Duty, Honor and Country seem to be lost on those that feel the need to advance their liberal agenda at the expense of their humanity.
Hawk, I have written about this PBS series numerous times, called "Ethics in America: Under Orders, Under Fire". I would highly recommend that you watch it when you return from Iraq. The full series can be found here:
Save that link!!Posted by Sarah at February 10, 2005 07:00 AM
Thank you for an excellent "tutorial". Dan Rather was discussing "ethics" and "truth"? It was like reading Alice in Wonderland, everything all upside down and contradictory. The "ethics" of journalism do not put "getting the story above all else" above living an honorable life. In fact, ethics is supposed to the expression, through action and words, of simple honor. If Rather and Jennings had been killed by American forces that fought off the hypothetical ambush, would journalists consider their deaths "ethical"? Would Rather and Jennings? No, there would be an outcry. Because the outcry itself would then become the story for journalists who confuse ethics with career advancement.. And ethics and honor would have been discarded by journalism and left to the soldiers to save and carry off the field of battle.Posted by Peter Hughes at February 10, 2005 08:13 AM
Thank you so much for posting that partial transcript. At the time these shows aired, I was a dyed in the wool NY liberal and I watched this episode --the moderator was Prof Miller from Harvard Law--about a dozen times and it never lost its importance. it showed me that mike wallace HATEs the US military and its people and that Peter Jennings is a fool and a coward. It also proved to me that officers in the USMC are proud, but also smart and articulate. Lt Col. Connell sat right next to to Wallace and as he gave his venomous appraisal of 'journalists' Wallace shrank metaphorically and almost physically: my read, for all his fame and fortune Wallace knew he was sitting next to a better man. NOTHING HAS CHANGED in 17+ years.
That series, plus other things, made me an ex-liberal. When I saw that liberal icons were intellectual and ethical frauds and the USMC and conservatives saw the world as it was and were honest in their beliefs, well it got me to thinking. When one thinks these days one is a cnservative and respects and supports our soldiers, sailors and especially Marines.
It has been pointed out to me (by my better half)
that worms, while slimy and wiggly do in fact help mankind in our gardens and we are all aware of the vital contribution to our health the particular body part I called Wallace performs. With that in mind I offer my apologies to the worms and to the particular body part mentioned.
Seriously though, even after sleeping on the subject of the post I am still angry that their answer wasn't " I wouldn't have been with the enemy unit in the first place". The best that can be said is as long as there are people like these two there will be a need for the rest of us to continue our conversations and dicussions and exchange of ideas. Forward, march!
So, if he were covering a school picnic, and 2 little girls were in the road, and he saw a big truck about to run them down, he should start reporting immediately. He is of course there to cover the story, not save little lives. Now I understand.Posted by RC at February 10, 2005 04:03 PM
The very same panel discussion was shown in my junior-year Air Force ROTC course. I wonder how often it's shown in a journalism class. I venture to guess that the answer is something along the lines of "almost never."Posted by Smith Lilley at February 10, 2005 05:12 PM
Note to RC
What an excellent analogy! You are correct but to take it one step further I would add:
How would he spin the story to place the blame on the little girls?
Journalism and ethics in the same Sentence??? Not even in the same paragraph much less the same ROOM. I would suggest from what I have seen jounalist don't know what good ethics mean.Posted by Linda at February 10, 2005 11:59 PM
General Sherman on journalists:
Newspaper correspondents with an army, as a rule, are mischievous. They are the world's gossips, pick up and retail the camp scandal, and gradually drift to the headquarters of some general, who finds it easier to make reputation at home than with his own corps or division. They are also tempted to prophesy events and state facts which, to an enemy, reveal a purpose in time to guard against it. Moreover, they are always bound to see facts colored by the partisan or political character of their own patrons, and thus bring army officers into the political controversies of the day, which are always mischievous and wrong. Yet, so greedy are the people at large for war news, that it is doubtful whether any army commander can exclude all reporters, without bringing down on himself a clamor that may imperil his own safety. Time and moderation must bring a just solution to this modern difficulty."
Great post, Brett. Thanks
If he were here today , he could add the blogs to " time and moderation"