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Home > Publications > Quill > On the Edge of Ethics

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Monday, April 6, 2015
On the Edge of Ethics

Rising journalism issues call on all of us to be more responsible, more human and more honest.

By Mónica Guzmán

As vice chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, I get a lot of questions from journalism students who want feedback for their assignments.

"How would you define 'ethical journalism'?"

"Have you ever been in an ethical situation?"

I recently got this one:

"How can journalists avoid running into ethical problems?"

I winced. Avoid ethical problems?

I thought for a moment, then tapped out a reply:

"Journalists can't avoid running into ethical problems. They are always out there, and more ordinary than you might think. The trick is to be constantly aware, and never too confident."

Too many people think ethics is a reactive thing. A don't-get-in-trouble thing. An occupational hazard. A personal defense. They assume ethical dilemmas are big, ugly and clearly labeled, and that the choices they force are not all that hard to make.

This is the view unwittingly supported by the media on media, which reverse engineers how journalists get themselves into messes worth studying with a confidence that obscures the complexity of a situation. Case in point: Brian Williams.

Ethical problems don't gallop in on a dark horse. They walk in and sit, looking innocent, until you acknowledge them — if you ever do.

But more importantly, journalism ethics is not about problems. It's about a bunch of people trying to do good journalism in an increasingly noisy, messy, distracted world.

We face ethical questions every time we think differently, every time we take a risk.

Avoid ethical problems and you linger in the status quo. Take on ethical questions and you might just push journalism forward.

What if the edge of ethics isn't scary, but thrilling? What if it's not a place to fall off of, but to build on? If we choose to see ethics this way, won't that do a lot more good?

Here are three rising issues at the edge of ethics, and how we can confront them to strengthen our craft.

To Publish?

Maybe you went hunting for juicy information relevant to your story. Maybe you found it unnoticed in some digital corner. Or maybe you stumbled on some small group discussing it feverishly with only hours to go before somehow, some way, it breaks into a wider conversation.

"Journalists have been told for so long to post documents and information as quickly as possible that they’ve forgotten to consider downstream consequences," SPJ Ethics Committee chairman Andrew Seaman told me over email.

The trickiest ethical questions, I've realized, exist in the conflicts between ethical principles that, alone, seem straightforward.

Ethical journalists should "share primary source material whenever appropriate," reads one guiding line in the SPJ Code of Ethics. But ethical journalists should also "balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort," according to another.

Back in the fall — football season — the police department in Bellevue, Wash., announced that Seattle Seahawks star running back Marshawn Lynch had been cleared of assault allegations. The allegations had come from a woman who the police believed should be charged for fabricating them.

A Seattle reporter tweeted the first page of a probably-cause document against the woman that included her name and address. "Wanna know WHO accused Marshawn Lynch of assault?" she wrote.

When her followers objected to her having shared the woman's personal information with a city of rabid football fans, particularly when the woman had not yet been charged, the reporter pointed to the document's accessibility as its own justification.

"The name of anyone investigated for a crime becomes a matter of public record. The public should know this," she tweeted.

At the edge of ethics, this perspective gives journalists more power while reducing their responsibility. It dismisses the brutal ways information can spread as new features on the information landscape, rather than game-changing shifts that compel us to new standards.

It also models a mob mentality toward the spread of information: I may be responsible for information I release, but never for information I pass along.

You want to live in that world? I don’t. In that world, journalists are followers, not leaders.

A stronger journalism acknowledges that there are new ways that shared information can cause harm — ugly ways that we must take into account.

Kelly McBride, head of academic programs at the Poynter Institute and a leading voice on ethics, pointed to the case of Justine Sacco. Sacco tweeted about AIDS in Africa before she took off on a fight to South Africa. When she landed, she discovered that thanks to a post by a journalist, her tweet that had been shared with a couple hundred followers had gone viral. The shame hurled at her was more than she deserved, and it cost her dearly.

"Once a mob gains traction online, most journalists don't even ask if they should report on it, or how they should report on it," McBride told me over email.

The journalist who started that pile-on ended up regretting his decision. And the reporter who published the personal information of the woman who falsely accused Marshawn Lynch later deleted the tweet.

The important thing isn't that these journalists "messed up." It's that they learned. When information has more power, we who wield it must take more responsibility.

Let’s not forget that.

Should I Admit This?

You're on a social media site. Facebook, Twitter, whatever. You've drafted a post in which you reveal a point of view on a timely issue, e.g. same-sex marriage or vaccines. Your finger hovers over the button that would add this post to the story you tell about yourself — as so many others do — online.

Again, something seems to have changed in this equation.

Conventional ethics demands you stay neutral on issues where your credibility as a journalist might be compromised.

But what about your credibility as a human being?

In the course of sharing your life with large networks of people, as so many human beings have made it a habit to do, you run into one or another of these issues regularly — not as an activist or politician, mind you, but as a participant in an increasingly participatory world.

Does admitting to a point of view on any issue weaken your journalism, or can it sometimes humanize — and possibly strengthen — it?

If there's any ethical issue for which I think we've failed to have an honest discussion, it's this one.

Look at the Facebook pages of your journalist friends. Look at your own. Have all of you stayed 100 percent neutral to your hundreds or thousands of "friends" about race after Ferguson? Gun control after Newtown? Vaccines after the measles outbreak?

I'll bet not.

"As we document the most meaningful events of our lives," McBride wrote me, "we are going to be increasingly public about our political opinions."

Without coming out and saying so, many of us have already decided that blanket neutrality in an expressive world makes less sense than it did in a private one. There are lines we hesitate to cross — financial interest in a cause, political action, etc. But we have not begun to articulate what new parameters there are, maybe because the rules seem too inflexible, and the judgment too harsh.

Even those hard lines are beginning to blur.

McBride brought up the example of Diane Rehm. The public radio host, syndicated nationally on NPR, faced criticism after a media site revealed that she was slated to speak at fundraisers for an organization that advocates the expansion of physician-assisted suicide.

As a journalist, Rehm moderates panel discussions on the right-to-die debate.

As a human being, she watched her husband, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, intentionally starve himself when his doctor would not grant him a less painful way to die.

"Diane is better and more human by being able to share that. Every journalist is for their own experiences,” McBride wrote. "Yet we still insist on neutrality for most."

When NPR’s ombudsman criticized the extent of Rehm's advocacy she agreed not to attend any more right-to-die fundraisers and pledged to be transparent about her position when covering the issue on air.

But the journalist is not abandoning her cause.

“This should be a right for me and should’ve been a right for my husband,” she told The Washington Post.

To what extent do journalists stand with the public, and to what extent do we stand apart? How does our role change when so much moves forward through thoughtful, open expression, and when journalists can model responsible expression better than anyone else?

Some of us think we have the answers already, that we’ve had them for a long time. But because we haven’t been honest about how it feels to be a journalist in a participatory era, I don’t believe we do.

This is a foggy spot at the edge of ethics. It won’t clear up until we keep talking and experimenting. Want to help? Speak to your editors. Share your experiences. Try some transparency.

Journalists must be disciplined, professional, responsible. But that doesn’t mean we always have to hide.

Should I Be Satisfied With This?

You've got a story to report, and you want to be done quickly. You could think of some people to talk to, or at least email, but you’ve already got the press release, and after a couple of Google searches you find some blog posts and tweets that give your story just enough weight to publish.

You rationalize this as what you needed to do to meet the needs of a speedy media age.

But what about the needs of the public?

"If a journalist only gets sources from the Internet or social media, they’ve already eliminated a significant portion of the population. I think that verges on unethical behavior," Seaman wrote me.

Like my previous point about staying neutral in an expressive age, I know many journalists have done this. I've done this. Again, ethics isn't about Big Ugly Problems that get you in serious, career-ending trouble. It's more about the little habits that, over time, either evolve journalism or weaken it.

Journalistic practices that pick the lowest hanging fruit are more dangerous now than ever. We know the Internet doesn’t represent the “diversity and magnitude of the human experience,” to quote the SPJ Code of Ethics. But its size and activity seduce us into thinking that doesn’t matter.

This hurts. The lazier we get about finding stories in harder-to-reach places — for more and more of us, that’s anywhere that isn’t online — the easier it is for the communities we cover to forget themselves

“To be a journalist is to collect, filter and distribute information that serves as social glue for a community,” David Cohn, founding editor of news curation app Circa, put it to the Columbia Journalism Review in 2013.

When we leave out the voices, we leave out the glue. Different people fail to see how they’re connected. So they divide.

I wish I had a clear example of this, but these consequences are subtle.

It’s much easier to call out journalism that got something wrong than journalism that doesn’t get enough right.

This makes finding a diversity of voices one of the most critical and most difficult challenges at the edge of ethics.

So start with yourself. If all you’ve got is what the Internet served, shut the laptop and think: "Who did I miss?" Go find them.

Be Courageous

There is so much more to talk about. So many more habits and temptations everyday journalists are picking up that, in this participatory, noisy era, challenge how journalism operates and demand that it operate better.

If there's one principle we should look to first, it's that ethical journalism must be courageous. It doesn't cower, hide or pose. It doesn't bend to outside pressures. When so much about the craft seems uncertain, ethical journalism finds steadiness in its service of the public.

Even at the edge.

"If you are ever in any doubt about something you are doing, if something feels off," I wrote in my response to the student, "talk to someone you trust."

How do we avoid ethical problems, the student asked? By courageously confronting ethical questions.

What are we afraid of? Let's talk.

Mónica Guzmán is a tech culture columnist for GeekWire and The Daily Beast. She writes an ethics column for the Columbia Journalism Review and serves as vice-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee. Reach her at and interact on Twitter: @moniguzman

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