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War Journalism Resources
Resolving Ethical Conflicts in Wartime

Journalists face unprecedented ethical pressures during times of war. Popular patriotic passions, the demands and strategic interests of the government, cultural and national sensitivities and traditional journalistic responsibilities are often on a collision course. The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists advises journalists to “Seek Truth and Report It” and to “Minimize Harm” — obligations that are frequently in conflict, as are the other two major obligations in the code: “Act Independently” and “Be Accountable.”

Here are some questions — many of them overlapping — that journalists might consider in resolving ethical conflicts on issues ranging from disclosure of troop positions to publication of disturbing photos to evaluation of government demands to suppress “enemy propaganda.”

Assessing Our Motivation in Publishing or Suppressing Information or Graphics
Assessing the Government’s Motivation in Seeking Suppression
Assessing the Reliability of the Information
Balancing the Importance and Harm of Publication
Considering Alternatives

Assessing Our Motivation in Publishing or Suppressing Information or Graphics

— Why do we believe the public needs this information, aside from the fact that a journalist has gotten wind of it?

— Are we trying to draw attention to our own news organization, to create a “buzz,” to gain an “exclusive”? If so, how much has that factor influenced our decision-making?

— Is our primary motivation informing the public? Or is it entertaining the public, exciting emotional responses, responding to government pressure or “branding” an image or idea?

— If we believe we are trying to perform a public service by publication, what precisely is the nature of that service, and how credible, useful and important is it to the public?

— Is patriotism a primary factor in our decision? Would we consider it important to publish or suppress the information if we had no national allegiance?

— Is the contemplated “play” of our coverage commensurate with the news value of the story? If not, what other factors have entered into our decision?


Assessing the Government’s Motivation in Seeking Suppression

— What are the government’s reasons for asking us to refrain from disclosure? Will officials discuss the reasons, even confidentially, or are they asking us to take the request on faith? Are their reasons credible, detailed and to the point?

— Is the action requested the least restrictive means of responding to the government’s asserted rationale?

— Is this a one-time request? Is there a history of cooperating with journalists to keep the public informed, or is this part of a pattern of indiscriminate and inappropriate secrecy?

— Are government officials willing to negotiate a compromise that would respond to their concerns by other means than those they propose?

— Do the grounds for requesting suppression appear to be designed to affect public attitudes — for example, to instill patriotism or insulate the American public from “propaganda” or perception of government mistakes, incompetence or mendacity — or do they have a legitimate basis apart from such attempts to influence public attitudes?


Assessing the Reliability of the Information

— What are the motivations of the sources from whom we got the information, and how do those motivations reflect on a request to keep the information secret? Based on past experience, how reliable are the sources? Is our coverage skewed by using too many sources from one institution or ideological perspective?

— Are there grounds to suspect that the news media are being used for the purposes of “disinformation” — by our government, by the “enemy” or by other interested parties?

— Is it our choice to frame an issue or event in the way we are contemplating, or did it seem to drop into our laps readymade — and if the latter, are we being used to further someone else’s impression or agenda?

— Might the subject matter be interpreted differently by those of other nationalities or cultures? If so, are our decisions being made by editors representing a broad spectrum of cultural backgrounds?

— Can we gain any insights into our unconscious partisanship or bias by comparing our coverage with that of the foreign press or the ethnic or other special-interest news media in this country? How is our coverage viewed abroad?

— How broad or narrow is our base of sources?

— Is the commitment to one’s own reporters or a wire service or other source or news-gathering technique tilting the nature or emphasis of the coverage and fostering unintended misrepresentation? Is anyone in the news organization detailed to step back and ask this sort of question?


Balancing the Importance and Harm of Publication

— How critical is the information in helping the public understand crucial issues, make informed decisions, influence policy or evaluate the performance of government?

— How credible or speculative is the danger or benefit of publishing the information or illustration? To whom would harm be done, and how? Who would benefit, and how?

— Is the information already available from other sources? Is it known to the “enemy” but not to the American people? Have foreign or Internet news outlets carried the same reports? Is there media consensus on the need to publish such information?

— Has similar information been suppressed by the press historically, and on what grounds? Were the grounds the same as those being cited now, and were the circumstances comparable? What were the consequences of past suppression?

— With especially disturbing or contentious photos, illustrations or other graphics, is the content at issue or the emotional impact of the specific form of presentation?

— Does it make a difference in how we view our decision if we consider journalism ethics “nation-blind” — equally applicable in our own country and any other?

— Could unanticipated consequences flow from the decision to publish — or not to publish? How harmful are they, and how likely are they to occur?


Considering Alternatives

— Are there ways to report the information while accommodating legitimate government interests — by delayed release, omission of some details, etc.? Would some such technique satisfy the government’s stated objections, even if the government persists in opposing publication? Would the primary public interest still be served despite such an accommodation?

— What would be lost if the information were withheld for future publication? Is there a time limit on the danger of releasing the information or graphics? Would the offensiveness of the content diminish with the passage of time? Would the information or graphics have significant social, policy or historical value if published or broadcast at a much later date, and if so, what is it?

— Is there a way to obtain the information without ethically questionable techniques such as breaking the law, omitting critically important information or otherwise putting ourselves in a compromised position? What is lost and gained by using alternative techniques?

— Should our information be shared with the government, either in addition to or instead of publication, and should such cooperation be disclosed publicly? Does collaboration risk immediate or long-term danger to journalists’ lives and/or independence? Is that risk outweighed by specific, credible, life-and-death consequences if the information is not shared?

— Does the story suffer if a disturbing graphic or photo is omitted, and if so, how? Is the reader or viewer compelled to view the graphic? Is there a way to show the same graphic only to those who wish to view it — as with a warning on a voluntary web link?

— Are there academic or unaffiliated experts or participants beyond our usual sources who can help us gain new perspectives on emotional or conventionally conceived issues?

— Have we explained to the reader, listener or viewer the general nature of the information omitted and the reasons for the omission — or the reasons why we have chosen to disseminate information that others feel should be withheld as harmful or unpatriotic?

— Can we get some guidance on our proper response by comparing current circumstances with those of non-wartime issues, such as past policies and practices on naming gang members or rape victims or revealing the details of a kidnap in progress?

— Peter Y. Sussman, member, SPJ National Ethics Committee (with assistance from workshop participants and other contributors)


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