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Thursday, October 22, 2015
Ethics Toolbox

Mass shootings bring a mass of ethical questions

By Andrew Seaman

Nearly 1,000 shootings involving four or more people have occurred in the U.S. since 26 people – including 20 children – were killed in Newtown, Conn., by a gunman in December 2012, according to the crowdsourced Mass Shooting Tracker.

While estimates suggest gun violence is less common today than decades ago, there are an increasing number of questions submitted to SPJ’s Ethics Hotline with every new mass shooting that gains widespread attention.

At the time I’m writing this, questions surrounding the reporting of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., are still rolling into the Ethics Hotline days later. Specifically, people want to know if journalists should name shooters. They also want to know whether journalists should approach eyewitnesses on social media.

In both cases, people – especially members of the general public – cite the tenet of SPJ's Code of Ethics that tells journalists to “minimize harm” as reason to avoid those two actions. The rationale is that leaving the name of the gunman out of stories may prevent future shootings at the hands of people seeking fame. Meanwhile, many argue not approaching eyewitnesses will protect against additional mental anguish.

What I tend to quickly point out is that the tenet “minimize harm” includes a built-in disclaimer showing that journalism comes with inherent harm, which ranges from minor anxiety to more serious issues like the loss of employment and other personal consequences. The judgment journalists need to make is whether the benefits of an action outweigh the harms it causes.

Another important point to make is that there is rarely one correct, all-encompassing answer to questions about journalism ethics. The answer is rarely yes or no. Often, the answer is that it depends on the situation.

Editors and news directors at two news organizations can come to two very different decisions but still be considered ethical journalists.

For example, the News-Review in Roseburg appears to have mostly stayed away from naming Chris Harper-Mercer as the gunman who killed nine people at the local community college. As the outlet that most intimately covers the community affected by the tragedy, it’s certainly understandable to focus its attention on the victims during the shooting’s immediate aftermath.

Eventually, as the News-Review continues to follow the investigation, its leadership will probably find it necessary to use the gunman’s name in their stories. An editorial in the paper suggests they understand that to be true. “As the days pass, more questions will be raised and we can’t answer them without knowing a bit more about Chris Harper-Mercer,” noted one editorial after the shooting.

A community paper like the News-Review may also not need to approach eyewitnesses on social media. The paper’s journalists should have local sources to provide in-depth accounts of the events.

However, national news organizations like NPR and the AP may not have sources within the community. Those organizations tend to serve a national audience outside the affected area. Large outlets will also move onto other stories after a few days or weeks.

Journalists from those large organizations, who are probably entering this community for the first time, will need to report using their best resources, which now include social media like Twitter and Facebook.

Also, those large organizations will likely publish or broadcast a handful of stories on the shooting. The brief coverage window makes it necessary to include the names and suspected motives of gunmen as crucial elements to the stories. In both cases, news organizations may come to different decisions, both of which can be supported by the SPJ ethics code.

Journalists and those involved with making editorial decisions must also keep in mind that being ethical goes beyond deciding whether to simply say a person’s name or contact someone on social media. SPJ’s Code of Ethics says pursuit of news is not “a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” Furthermore, it says that journalists should “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

Journalists should ask themselves how they would feel if their actions or the news stories they’re about to publish or broadcast were about them or loved ones. Can they say the pieces treated the events and people involved fairly?

Ultimately, journalists should be able to defend their decisions using the profession’s best practices. Including that explanation in coverage will also help readers understand the decision process.

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