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Home > Reading Room > SAD Formula can turn happy ethical results

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SAD Formula can turn happy ethical results

By Fred Brown

SAD can make you glad — or at least more confident in your ethical decision-making.

When I started teaching a communication ethics course at the University of Denver, I inherited a syllabus used by Laura Ruehl, now at the University of North Carolina. The text is Ethics in Media Communications: Cases and Controversies by Louis Alvin Day, alumni professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.

It’s a rather gray book, but it does have a very useful way to approach ethical problems. Day calls it the SAD method, for Situation, Analysis, Decision.

My students seem to get this, and indeed it is an easily grasped procedure for reaching a defensible ethical decision.

Defensibility is important. To restore their diminished credibility, news media need to pay more attention to being accountable. They need to tell their readers why they do what they do. They should be able to defend their decisions and be as open as possible about the process they use to make those decisions.

When I telephoned Day, he told me it was all right to pass this along. Here’s a quick synopsis.

SAD is not a solitary operation. It requires feedback and consultation. Convene a meeting, even if it’s just a little meeting.

Situation: Start here. Identify who’s ultimately responsible for deciding a course of action. The discussion that follows will center on the perspective of that person or institution. In ethical jargon, that decision-maker is the “moral agent.”

Then identify the principles and values involved. In most cases, the essential media duty of truth-telling is a key principle. Minimizing harm is usually a major consideration, too. It also could be a matter of keeping promises, especially if a source has been promised confidentiality (a dubious offer, nowadays). It may involve conflicts of interest. There are many possibilities. Talk about them. Decide what’s essential.

The third step is to phrase the moral dilemma in the form of a question. It gives focus.

Analysis: This could be the longest part of the exercise, or it could be comparatively brief, if you’ve done a good job of identifying the principles involved. Weigh the competing principles and values against each other. For example, does your duty to tell the truth outweigh the good that might come of not being entirely forthcoming? What are the consequences? What’s the greatest good for the greatest number?

Consider the stakeholders and external factors. External factors might include an existing institutional policy, or an imminent election. Stakeholders might range from the general public to a subject who faces a life-or-death dilemma. Analyze how your decision might affect each of them, and all of them.

Then talk it out. Pit duties such as truth-telling against consequences such as “somebody might lose his job.” Look for a thoughtful balance, a middle ground that satisfies your basic instincts of doing the right thing.

Decision: Describe the best course of action for the decision-maker to take. Put it into a statement, a sentence, so you can be sure it has some logic to it. Defend that decision to the people who have been part of the discussion that brought you to this point. That will prepare you to defend it to your critics — and you can be sure that, in any ethically murky or controversial decision, there will be critics.

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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