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Home > Reading Room > Asking right questions a key to minimizing harm

SPJ Reading Room


Asking right questions a key to minimizing harm

By Fred Brown

Minimize Harm. It’s one of the four major sections of the SPJ Code of Ethics. It’s also a major factor in moral reasoning and ethical decision-making.

Many ethical decisions, in journalism and elsewhere, are a struggle between doing one’s duty and being responsible about the consequences of that action.

The important thing is to have that debate — either with yourself or preferably with colleagues — and to ask the right questions. A key pair of those questions is this: Who gets hurt if we tell this story? And does the benefit to the public of knowing that truth outweigh that harm?

The heavyweight in this balancing act is the truth. Telling the truth is a journalist’s overriding duty. Considering the consequences is a tempering element — a smaller element, but nonetheless an important one.

In the simplest terms, minimizing harm requires being sensitive to the consequences of what you do as a journalist.

“Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort,” the Code of Ethics says, and remember that “pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

Before the Code of Ethics was revised in 1996, it didn’t say much about minimizing harm. Years ago, we were more confident in our righteousness. But while the older SPJ codes of ethics don’t actually use the words “minimize harm,” they do include some evidence of sensitivity.

The 1984 version is an interesting document. This Code of Ethics has one section, out of six, labeled “ethics.” It’s all about conflicts of interest — the principles that are now part of the Code’s “Act Independently” section. Of course, there’s much, much more to ethics than merely avoiding conflicts of interest.

There’s another section in that 1984 Code called “fair play.” Parts of it correspond to the “Minimize Harm” and “Be Accountable” sections of today’s Code. It says “Journalists at all times will show respect for the dignity, privacy, rights and well-being of people encountered in the course of gathering and presenting the news.” Journalists shouldn’t “pander to morbid curiosity,” it says, but should “make prompt and complete correction of their errors.”

The “Fair Play” section represents about one-sixth of that 1984 Code. By contrast, “Minimize Harm” is nearly a quarter of today’s Code. Add the “Be Accountable” provisions, and you’ve got close to a third of the whole thing.

There is some sentiment in the profession that journalists shouldn’t fret about consequences. It makes them timid. Throw it all out there and let come what may. Tell the story and run.

That attitude gives ammunition to journalism’s critics, and it helps to explain dwindling trust. Civic journalism’s response was to try to show the public that journalists do care, and to pay more attention to readers’ and viewers’ wants. The 1996 Code revision, with its inclusion of “Minimize Harm,” and “Be Accountable,” was in part an effort to recognize that new sensitivity.

“Minimizing harm” means letting your humanity show through. Show a little compassion for the people who are affected by what you write. Remember that, for many people, being part of a story is a rare, even once-in-a-lifetime experience. They live with the consequences of what you’ve written long after you’ve moved on to other stories.

Fred Brown, an SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at
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