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Home > Publications > Quill > Share your ethical cases so everyone can learn


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Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Share your ethical cases so everyone can learn

By Fred Brown

Those who endeavor to teach ethics to budding journalists are always looking for case studies. Unfortunately, there seems to be no shortage of ethical problems facing today’s media.

The Society of Professional Journalists would like to serve as a repository for some of these cases. We have a few on our Web site; a couple of others are ready to be added. We could use many more.

So consider this an invitation to submit your own ethical scenarios for addition to this small archive. We have some newspaper examples. We need more from other media — television, the Internet, etc. — and from freelance reporters.

To keep some sort of consistency in these case studies, here’s a format that works pretty well. It’s based on several models used in college-level communication ethics, including those developed by Bernard Gert of Dartmouth College and Louis Alvin Day of Louisiana State University.

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.

If, for example, you were considering the furor over publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, you’d want to assemble all pertinent facts about:

The original motivation for publication.

Why it took so long after their initial appearance for the images to cause such a violent reaction.

Differences of opinion in the Islamic community, including over whether any depiction of the Prophet is considered blasphemy.

Think of all the questions you can, and try to answer them. The case study on SPJ’s Web site, for example, does answer many of these questions, but there’s not room here to include all that information.

And so you’re ready to pose the question, a pretty basic one:

Question: Do we publish the cartoons or not?

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. 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.

The decision-maker here most likely would be at least at the managing editor level at a newspaper; perhaps the news director at a television station.

The stakeholders include the local Islamic community, Muslims around the world, people at sites that might be targeted by riots, your newspaper or TV station and its reputation for truth-telling and fairness, and readers and viewers — who have an interest in seeing what is driving such outrage. You may be able to think of others whose interest in the outcome of your decision should be considered.

WHY: These are principles 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 decision is the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number of stakeholders.

There are several principles at issue in the case of the caricatures. Is it freedom of expression? Or is it unnecessary provocation? Is there an acceptable middle ground between showing the blunt truth and minimizing the harm of insult?

Consider the principles that may have motivated the principals, and then consider your options. At the extremes, they could range from publishing all 12 cartoons on the front page, or show them with riot scenes on your newscast, to the other extreme of simply describing a couple of them. Or you could provide a link to a Web site where they could be viewed.

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 using your decision-making as part of your coverage. Articulating your reasoning will help you answer the questions you’re bound to get.

A good case study for the SPJ archive will include the decision the decision-makers made: “We decided to publish only one cartoon because …” In this case, different media made different decisions. Whatever the decision, it’s important to have a serious discussion and a good reason for it.


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 fbrown@spj.org

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