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Friday, April 3, 2015
Ethics Toolbox

‘Minimize harm’ trumps need for digital speed — always

By Andrew Seaman

As a car show was getting underway in Northeastern Pennsylvania in 2009, one of the cars turning into the parking lot burst into flames after it was hit from behind by another vehicle. Trapped inside, the car’s only occupant — a 64-year-old man — died.

A journalist from one of the local stations happened to be at the scene when the accident occurred. The journalist caught the fire on tape.

Over six years later, I still remember the footage of a small blue car engulfed in flames on a rural road. While viewers saw thick black smoke in the car, its driver was not visible. The story was clear though: People were watching a man die.

When journalists contact SPJ with questions about ethics, the discussion often ends up touching on one of the often-overlooked tenets in the Code of Ethics: minimize harm.

Instead of being overly specific, the wording under the core principle of "minimize harm" suggests journalists take a holistic approach when evaluating their practices. Journalists must think of everyone involved, including their sources, their subjects, others close to those involved, the public, their colleagues, their organization and themselves.

The station that aired the gruesome footage of the car fire did not consider those entities. The station aired the footage at the top of newscasts and posted it on its website. Eventually, the video was removed from the website at the family’s request.

Not surprisingly, harm had already been done. The man’s friends and family had to go through the painful experience of watching the gruesome footage. Many people in the public did, too.

Journalism is likely to cause some discomfort. People tend to get anxious if someone starts asking about sensitive subjects. The justification for creating that discomfort is that it’s outweighed by the benefit of the information in the resulting story.

Essentially, journalists should ask whether what they are about to do — whether reporting or publishing — justifies the harm it creates.

In the case of the car fire, the video added nothing to the world except harm.

Now, more than ever, journalists need to spare extra thoughts (and time) to consider the harm their reporting and stories cause. Information is being created at faster speeds than ever before. The risk of unnecessary harm dramatically increases, too.

SPJ's newly updated Code of Ethics is crafted with that speed in mind.

For example, when Nina Davuluri won Miss America, several organizations began publishing posts from Twitter that accused the winner, who is of Indian decent, of not being American, and of possibly being a terrorist.

Essentially, the organizations’ journalists searched Twitter for keywords and published the most offensive posts. The Twitter posts were horrible, offensive and mostly made by people with few followers online.

One question that should be asked is: Why did the organizations pluck those posts from obscurity? The emphasis on those posts likely caused emotional harm for Davuluri and many Americans of Indian decent.

Additionally, the people who made those posts likely never expected for their comments to reach beyond their small group of followers. Instead, they were on the receiving end of other hurtful comments, and many had their names published on websites.

With that in mind, the newest version of the Code emphasizes that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. What’s more, the Code continues to discourage journalists from “pandering to lurid curiosity.”

What’s more, the newest version of the Code stresses that journalists need to be aware of the sustained reach of stories. People no longer need to look up old copies of newspapers. Stories are mostly all archived online to search with the stroke of a button.

If the video of the car fire remained online, or if racist Twitter posts come up whenever people search “Miss America 2014” online, harm continues ad infinitum.

Journalists need to take responsibility for the harm their work creates. That harm should be minimized, as the Code says. The harm — in any way it’s present — should also be justified and explained.

More than anything, journalists should remember that journalism is about human beings who always deserve respect.

Andrew Seaman is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a reporter for Reuters covering health. Contact him at andrew.m.seaman@gmail.com or on Twitter: @andrewmseamanandrew.m.seaman@gmail.com

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