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Cooperating with the Government

WHAT: Describe the situation. Assemble all relevant facts, list all the angles. In other words, do the reporting. Put the ethical dilemma in the form of a question. Write it down to be sure it makes sense.

It began on Jan. 18, 2005, and ended two weeks later after the longest prison standoff in recent U.S. history. Two inmates at the Arizona prison complex near Buckeye armed themselves with homemade weapons and took over a prison guard tower. They held two correctional officers hostage, releasing one of them, a male, a week into the standoff and the second, a female, before surrendering two weeks later, on Feb. 1.

The governor’s office telephoned news executives around the state and urged them not to reveal certain basic information. The governor explained that the state feared for the safety of the two prison guards and didn’t want further trouble at the prison. The state would not release the names of the hostages or the names, criminal histories or disciplinary records of their captors until after the siege ended.

As the standoff and blackout continued, authorities said they were worried that publicity would reach the inmates and foil negotiations.

The question: Should your media outlet go along with the state’s request not to release the information?

WHO: The principals (people) who will make the decision and those who will be affected by it. First, decide who is responsible for the decision. The managing editor? News director? Does this go all the way to the top? Then list the major stakeholders, ranging from the subjects of the story to the general public. Remember that not everyone will be affected to the same degree by what you decide to do.

In the Arizona prison standoff, it could be argued that there’s not one “decider,” but rather a collective decision to be made. Each individual broadcast station and newspaper, and the executives charged with deciding at each, would want to know what the others are going to do.

As for the stakeholders, they include those with the most to lose — the guards held in captivity — and the prisoners who took them hostage. Working down the list in terms of their stake in the outcome of your decision are other prisoners at Buckeye, the families of the guards and prisoners, prison officials, other state officials, your media outlet (and its reputation) and then members of the public. Maybe you can think of others. And consider the range — from the guards (who could be killed) to the public (who might just shrug off the story).

WHY: These are principles (standards) you will use in deciding what to do. In most cases, it comes down to a balance between telling the truth and minimizing possible harms. Identify these and other moral responsibilities. The best moral decision is the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number of stakeholders.

In the Arizona case, there are some key principles you need to question: Does our primary obligation to tell the truth outweigh the potential harm of dead guards and renewed prison unrest? How does keeping this information from the public stop this from happening? Should we be cooperating with officials whose shortcomings may have led to this situation? There are other questions to be asked. Ask them.

One newspaper editor warned that a blackout “creates an atmosphere that feeds off of suspicion and rumor” but also said “We trust that the state is taking the safe road...” A radio news director said, “To me the lives of those two guards are more important than getting any story on the air.” Many news executives were not happy with the state’s request, and their reporters were more than upset.

HOW: This is your decision — how do you achieve the outcome you’ve identified as the best? How do you answer the question you raised in the first step? Again, if you write it down, you will have a better idea of whether it makes sense. Also, write down your rationale, and consider making it part of your coverage. Articulating your reasoning will help you answer the questions you’re bound to get.

In Arizona, all of the major news organizations agreed to wait until the standoff ended before publishing many details or any names they might learn from other sources. They held off on interviewing relatives of the inmates they suspected might be the captors. Media were not allowed within half a mile of the prison; the airspace was closed to helicopters. After the standoff, the inmates were charged with kidnapping, aggravated assault, escape and sexual assault, which gives you some idea of what went on during the standoff. The names of the guards weren’t made known until some time after they were released.

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