Conflict of Interest: What Does it Mean?

By Nancy Matchett

A reporter who covers town meetings wonders whether it is appropriate to pursue a relationship with a councilmember’s daughter.

A community activist learns that the editor of the local newspaper plans to run for town supervisor, and asks whether this is OK.

An editor discovers that one of her reporters is covering an issue he previously wrote editorials about, and wants to check whether her instinct to give the story to someone else is correct.

And a publisher posts a notice that “no anti-fracking info [is] welcome,” overturning the paper’s previous policy of printing flyers on both sides of the issue. This prompts at least one reporter to resign, and she wants to know whether we share her concern that the new policy poses a threat to journalistic integrity.

All of these AdviceLine cases raise the general question, “What counts as a conflict of interest?” Interestingly, the SPJ code is relatively silent on this.

It does say that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,”and “disclose unavoidable conflicts.” But the code does not provide further details about what would make a conflict unavoidable, nor does it offer a precise definition of what it means to say a conflict of interest exists.

This is not a criticism of the code itself; it is a reason why ethical professionals sensibly seek advice from time to time.

Conflict of interest is an example of an “open concept.” While it’s possible to give some textbook examples, there is no single definition that adequately covers all cases.

At best, there is what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance” among the various situations in which the concept is appropriately used. When dealing with an open concept, testing your thinking against other professionals’ reactions is one of the best ways to ensure that you have fully understood what the concept means.

Whether a real conflict exists will also depend on facts about the particular individual whose interests potentially conflict. All of us have different abilities to bracket off our emotional attachments and understand conflicting points of view. So while one reporter might be able to draw a bright line between objective reporting and editorial work, another might find it impossible to report seriously on the arguments made by those with whom he disagrees.

One of the things AdviceLine respondents try to do is make sure callers are attending to this kind of detail. But even when it’s plausible to say that only the journalist herself knows whether a real conflict exists (the first three cases above could be examples of this), the need to avoid perceived conflicts of interest remains.

Why should journalists avoid perceived conflicts of interest even when no real conflict exists? The answer comes from reflection about the profession’s societal role. The average citizen isn’t in a position to know which reporters and editors can fight which forms of temptation.

And even the most seasoned journalist occasionally might be mistaken about his or her own ability to resist. To protect the profession’s integrity, it’s better for everyone involved if journalists avoid anything that looks remotely like conflict of interest. Only then can journalists and readers alike be confident that the profession is fulfilling its broader obligation to seek and report the truth.

Ethics of Promoting Advertisers

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives

By Casey Bukro

An assignment editor for a New York television station said that management is directing the news staff to give favorable “news” coverage to local advertisers.

The AdviceLine adviser said management’s mandate clearly is unethical, and the assignment editor recognizes that. But what to do about it?

The assignment editor was hoping to contact “some sort of ethics police.”

AdviceLine is not in the ethics policing business, but wanted to help the editor decide where to go next.

The assignment editor clarified his question by explaining that, while the station’s advertising sales department does not actually write “news” stories about advertisers, they pressure editorial staffers into creating stories about advertisers. The sales department has veto power over anything said on the air about an advertiser.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics supports the assignment editor’s concerns, the adviser observed. The code says journalists should “deny favored treatment to advertisers.”

As for his next steps, the assignment editor was encouraged to contact the SPJ professional chapter in New York, which might be willing to pressure the caller’s superiors to stop promoting advertisers, or at least raise questions about it.

The assignment editor also wondered if there was any legal recourse. The adviser gave him the contact number for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, to check if they know of any legal recourse. The adviser also suggested checking Federal Communications Commission regulations.

“After this conversation about resources, we talked a little about his just leaving the job and about the ethical and practical issues related to whistle-blowing to competing TV stations,” said the AdviseLine adviser. The assignment editor “had begun to think about both of these things, even though he was hoping we could provide him with help in finding a less drastic way to address the matter.”

April Fools’ Journalism

From the files of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

The April 1, 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated magazine carried a story by the late George Plimpton saying that a New York Mets rookie pitcher named Siddhartha (Sidd) Finch could throw a baseball more than 160 miles an hour.

It was a hoax, and Sports Illustrated later admitted that the story was an April Fools’ joke. Plimpton was famous for taking turns as a Yankee baseball pitcher, a Baltimore Colts football player and boxing Archie Moore — then writing about the experience from an amateur’s viewpoint. It was an example of what today might be described as participatory journalism. Plimpton did a lot of that.

A sports publication journalist called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, saying he had an idea for an April Fools’ Day story in the Plimpton tradition, but wanted to know if that would be ethical.

The AdviceLine adviser remembered the story about fireball pitcher Sidd Finch, and was skeptical at the time he saw it in 1985.

“This was due to the very well-known reputation of Plimpton as a writer who went in for bizarre experiences and writing having to do with sports,” said the adviser, who also recalled that Plimpton and Sports Illustrated at the time “came in for little serious criticism once the hoax was divulged.”

Most readers thought it was “fun” in keeping with the kind of work Plimpton did during his career. But the adviser suggested that, just like fastball pitchers, not all writers can deliver a change-up:

“Without this background and past reputation, a true journalist risks his/her reputation and the reputation of his/her news media using this device. A direct answer is, the creation or promulgation of a known false story is unethical, Plimpton notwithstanding.”

Going Undercover for Drugs

From the files of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

An Arizona community newspaper staff is considering sending a reporter/photographer team out with a few $20 bills to do a story on how easy it is to buy drugs, but fear they might be arrested if they do that.

What are the legal and ethical implications? A staff writer asked in an email to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

AdviceLine does not answer legal questions, but from an ethical perspective, said an AdviceLine adviser, the marginal issue is that the reporter would be acting as a buyer and misrepresenting himself.

If they went ahead with the plan to buy drugs, the staff writer added, would they be compelled to report it to the police? The adviser answered that they would have been a witness to a crime, and “it seems to me they would be obligated to do so.”

The assignment sounds more like police work than journalism, said the adviser, and “while I applaud the motive and the courage of the reporter, have you looked at other ways to accomplish the same thing?”

One possibility would be to cooperate with police, instead of embarrassing them, which an article about an undercover journalist might do.

Also, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics discourages undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information “unless traditionally open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

The AdviceLine adviser summarized his views by saying: “First, the project is dangerous. Second, it should be left to the police. And third, as an alternative, contact the police and ask if a reporter might accompany an officer who might carry out the ‘bust’…”

The writer said he had not thought about working with police in that way.

Brian Williams, Virtue and the Culture of Network TV News

IMG_9935Correspondent and professor Mike Boettcher, left, with public TV anchor Dick Pryor and professor and editor Yvette Walker (photo by Collier Hammons)

By David Craig

Who’s to blame for Brian Williams’ exaggerations about covering the Iraq war? Clearly he’s to blame because they were his choices. But Mike Boettcher, a longtime foreign correspondent for CNN and NBC who now does work for ABC, had an interesting take on that question during a panel I participated in last week at a conference at the University of Oklahoma.

Boettcher, who is now my colleague on the faculty at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, said we can blame Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. “They became the biggest stars in television news” based on the history they built as war correspondents – Murrow covering the blitz in Britain during World War II and Cronkite flying combat missions in B-17s. Thanks to their work, being a war correspondent became a rite of passage in TV news, Boettcher told the audience at the midwinter conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

In our era, Boettcher said, anchors are developed “in a very accelerated way, and I think that’s partly to blame for what happened.” He said Williams was the weekend anchor at WCBS in New York and the head of talent recruitment at NBC had his eye on him. After he came to NBC, the network “began to build the narrative around him,” parachuting him into the sites of major stories so he could build his “promotional reel.” Boettcher said Williams “started believing that narrative that was built around him,” and may have felt pressure to tell stronger stories because he didn’t believe his were good enough.

The Williams situation and Boettcher’s comments make me think of what philosophers call virtue ethics, a line of thought that goes back to Aristotle. Many discussions of journalism ethics focus on ethical dilemmas – hard choices involving balancing of principles such as seeking truth and minimizing harm. But a key element of ethics is connected with character and traits such as honesty and courage that people develop as habits and reflect in their decisions.

Did Williams’ conduct reflect a character flaw? That’s hard to say without being inside his head or being around him regularly, but the evidence of a pattern of exaggeration makes me wonder. Surely a key part of NBC’s investigation will be to see whether more evidence of a pattern exists.

Alongside the idea of virtue ethics comes a concept from Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He talks about a concept he calls external goods – achievements that accompany practices (including journalism and other professions) but are not part of the substance of what these practices do. External goods – such as status, power and profit – have the potential to corrupt practices. They get in the way of virtuous conduct.

Did desire for status corrupt Williams’ pursuit of honesty? As with consideration of his character itself, that is a difficult question to judge at a distance. Regardless, though, his story is a cautionary tale for journalists and journalism students. That is particularly true in the age of celebrity journalism. Building one’s brand individually, and building a corporate brand and ratings, can overshadow honest and courageous pursuit of the truth.

Dick Pryor, an anchor on public television in Oklahoma who was on the panel with Boettcher, agreed it’s easy for anchors to get “wrapped up in who they are,” to start thinking they can’t apologize and to think they are “bigger than the news.” He said it’s important to use the “truth filter” and remember what you’re there for – not to make money or create a persona but to provide news and interpretation as a public service.

The ethical bar is higher than ever today for anchors and for other journalists because, as with the soldiers who helped bring Williams down via Facebook, every member of the public can instantly question the truth of what any journalist does. As Yvette Walker, an editor for The Oklahoman who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma, put it, “Someone will find you out.” And as Boettcher said, there is a “new check and balance” where a little guy can bring down an anchor.

In the end, what NBC does with Williams will probably be driven by public feedback, said Todd Spessard, news director for KWTV in Oklahoma City. The “citizen ombudsman” helped create the situation, and “for better or for worse it will probably be the viewing public that in the end decides how this plays out.”

When Media Are the News: Brian Williams’ Mistake





  • Brian Williams under fire: Cartoons of the day
            Bob Englehart, Hartford Journal


By Casey Bukro

The news has been the news in recent weeks, starting with Rolling Stone, then Charlie Hebdo and now NBC’s Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.

Usually, journalists try to avoid being the story, although Williams demonstrated that television celebrities might see no harm in a little self-promoting embellishment even if it’s  untrue.

After challenges from military witnesses, Williams now admits he was mistaken or had “gone crazy” when he said that he was in a helicopter that was shot down in 2003 while he was covering the Iraq war. Williams often repeated that scenario, making himself look intrepid.

Whoops. It was another helicopter that was forced down by a rocket hit, not the one Williams was riding. Williams and military witnesses give different accounts of the incident.

Williams apologized.

Caught in a fabrication that was widely mocked on the internet, Williams said he was stepping down for a few days from his post as managing editor and anchor of Nightly News, a post which ethics expert Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute described as “the primary arbiter of the facts.”

Let’s get one thing straight: Williams was in a helicopter in a war zone, which was dangerous and laudable. Witnesses vouch for that. So I give the guy credit for doing a reporter’s job.

But he went a step too far and landed in the shoals of fabrication and deceit, which ended the careers of Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Janet Cooke of the Washington Post and Stephen Glass of The New Republic. Their careers crashed and burned.

Dan Rather left CBS News after 44 years for “a mistake in judgment.”

NBC management said they were considering “the best next steps.” They should consider the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. It says “journalists should be honest….” They also should not cast doubt on the credibility of other journalists working to gain the trust and respect of the public.

NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay.

For some people, Williams will be living proof that “reporters make it all up.”

Williams told the false story of his heroics often, and one unanswered question is whether NBC knew the story was fake and did nothing about it. Where were the editors? Or was Williams so untouchable that nothing he said could be challenged? Television crew members with Williams also witnessed the event. Did anyone bother to question them?

To complicate matters, Williams’ 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina also is being challenged since he reported seeing a body floating past his hotel room in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

A local newspaper reported that flood waters did surround the Ritz-Carlton where Williams was staying. And a former sheriff’s sergeant working with the anchor during the Katrina floods says he believes Williams.

Charlie Hebdo was a far more tragic story, in which two gunmen killed 12 people in or near the offices of the satirical magazine, which had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Two philosophers who are staff members of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists wrote blogs about the event. You can read their comments at

David Ozar and Hugh Miller agreed that no religion condones killing people over religious or philosophical differences.  But they saw the Charlie Hebdo massacre turning on the issue of offense, and what should be done to avoid offending the beliefs of others.

A step in that direction came when al-Jezeera English banned the use of certain words that could be offensive in other cultures, such as “terrorists,” “Islamists” or “jihad.”

Nancy Matchett, also an AdviceLine staff member, had this to say about Charlie Hebdo:

” I too think the most interesting and difficult issues raised by satire have to do with the concept of ‘offense.’  One thing I might emphasize a bit more (and here I would be paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line) is that no one can offend another person without that other person’s consent.

“That does not, of course, obviate the point that a person can, through deliberate malice or carelessness or even cluelessness, say or do things that are extremely likely to be taken offensively by specific others (and here again, I agree with both Dave and Hugh that such sayings and doings constitute ethical failings).

“It is just to note that the mere fact that one person ‘took offense’ does not, by itself, show that the purportedly offensive action was the result of a clearly blameworthy motive like malice, etc. Applied very briefly to Charlie Hebdo, it’s my sense that the magazine was trying to deliberately provoke (if not outright offend) in ways that make the taking of offense by various communities justified. But of course a murderous response to even the most highly offensive speech act is inexcusable in any context.”

And I would add one more thought about Charlie Hebdo. And that is to be true to your standards about giving offense. Think hard about it, and decide on your standards. Then stick to them. Charlie Hebdo intentionally offended. It was their standard. Journalists should decide where they draw the line.

Enough time has passed to show that Rolling Stone magazine clearly shot itself in the foot by reporting a story based on a single source, with no attempt at in-depth investigation, about an unnamed woman who said she had been gang raped by seven men at a fraternity party on the University of Virginia campus in 2012.

The story began unraveling almost immediately after it was printed as times, dates, places and people mentioned in the story did not match reality.

The author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely,  said she had agreed with a request from the alleged rape victim to avoid interviewing anyone else who might have been involved, thereby violating a standard journalism practice to seek as many viewpoints as possible to check the validity of the allegations.

Erdely and Brian Williams have this in common: They should have checked their facts.

Rolling Stone editors later issued a statement saying that in light of new information, “there now appear to be discrepancies,” and the editors concluded their trust in the young woman’s story “was misplaced.”

“The truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story,” tweeted Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana.

The university and the fraternity mentioned in the story were seriously smeared by the allegations, and the legitimate cause of campus rape prevention was damaged.

Charlie Hebdo represented an assault on freedom of expression.

Brian Williams and Rolling Stone represent an assault on professional standards in journalism, and a subversion of simply telling the truth.





FOLO: Another Philosopher Thinks About Charlie Hebdo

The Battle of Algiers
Scene from “The Battle of Algiers” (1965)

By Hugh Miller

Many thanks to my friend and Loyola colleague David Ozar for his reflections on the Charlie Hebdo murders. My reflections here are meant as a supplement to his.

I agree pretty much completely with what Dave has to say. I agree wholly with his position on the first group of issues, that is those involving the morality of violent assaults upon persons to prevent such persons from expressing their views.

As to the second group — having to do with the issue of jihad as it is understood and practiced in Islamic contexts — I have nothing to say. I am myself neither Muslim nor sufficiently educated in the concrete issues to be able to say anything useful, not to mention edifying, about the matter. It is really for experts in Islam to make things clearer for us.

On the third set of issues — where the journalism-ethics rubber meets the road, so to speak — I think I also largely agree with Dave. His distinction between “needed information” and “valued information” is very useful. Satire clearly falls in the second category. But we should perhaps note that the division between the two is somewhat porous.

Clearly, one of the functions (or at least results) of the provision of “needed information” often involves being disobliging, to use a polite word, to those in positions of power or authority. As Murray Gurfein once famously said, “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press, must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the right of the people to know.”

The mission or aim of satirical humor, as commentators have repeatedly noted, is to cause readers or listeners to criticize the words and actions of their leaders, especially when those words and actions are absurd or harmful to those whom they profess to lead. (See an especially good piece about this by the British author Tim Parks in his New York Review of Books blog.)

The means employed by satire differ from those employed by “straight” reporting; but, in at least some respects, the ends are the same, or at least quite similar. The satirist Harry Shearer made a similar point recently on his radio show, Le Show: Genuine satire always involves critiques of those in positions of power and authority.

It is for this reason, I presume, that in so many newspapers it has been historically the tradition to place editorial cartoons in a different category, and indeed in a different physical location, in the newspaper from the “comics.” Indeed, editorial cartooning faces many of the same push-back pressures and intimidations from those whom it covers as do reporters writing articles. Columns and cartoons alike risk “spiking.”

What has been prompting my own reflections most, though, has been the problem of “offense” which Dave discusses toward the end of his post. And, really, his own reservations and hedging about the possibility of getting clear on the issue are to his great credit, and are more or less the jumping off point for my own ideas.

Philosophical debates about the Charlie Hebdo tragedy that I have read have tended to take various abstract positions. Some have voiced a full-throated support for “Enlightenment values”: for example that in a liberal democracy that practices the separation of church and state one has (or ought to have) a perfect right to say what one thinks, and to have that saying protected, if necessary, by state power — limited only by concerns of public safety, incitement to riot, hate speech, etc.

Others (in what might be called the “ethics of care” position) argue that we have a prima facie obligation to avoid knowingly giving offense to others, absent a very good reason for doing so. But what has struck me, and worried me, about many such positions has been precisely their abstractness.

Abstraction is at once the strong suit and the Achilles’ heel of traditional philosophical practice. In philosophy we tend to think that our job is to get to a position of general or universal conceptual clarity and logical rigor, and from such a standpoint to lay down canons of knowledge and action that (we think) ought to be shared and carried out by “the rational person.”

In doing so we commonly leave behind many of the concrete, historical, individual details of persons and situations, viewing them either as accidental or as something that can be accounted for by tweaking the theory later, once the basic ground rules have been agreed upon. First, we think, let us get our virtue-ethics, or utilitarian, or deontological, or communitarian systematic ducks in a row. Then we can take care of gender, history, power, etc., in a kind of cleanup sweep at the end.

Along with many other contemporary philosophers, I’ve come to think of such a philosophical practice as deeply problematic, if not fatally flawed. For once we step away from the concrete facts and situations and relegate them to the periphery of “accidents,” we seem unable to retrieve them later as anything but that, in fact—as inessential accidents.

We also absolve ourselves too quickly of responsibility for thinking through ways in which our vaunted theories have been applied historically. “Duty,” for example, is a compelling idea, and as Kant articulates it, a powerful foundation for moral judgment. But it is also the key idea deployed by those for whom by obedience to commands is the dominant imperative of moral life—and rigorous obedience to commands can carry us very far indeed from moral behavior.

More generally, “Enlightenment values” were born and developed over a long period in which huge historical moral catastrophes like slavery, colonialism, racial segregation, totalitarianism, capitalist exploitation, the oppression of women and environmental degradation have been dominant facts. Are we to say that those values have no real relation to such events—that they have been only meant to correct such failures? If so, they have been unsuccessful.

What this means is that, for me, and for others who think like this, moral reasoning must be contextualized and made concrete, every step of the way. Out first responsibility is to think critically, especially self-critically, of what we claim as our values and how we claim to be able to apply them to a situation. We must first investigate the concrete details thoroughly. We must listen—really listen, not just record facts distractedly while our real attention is directed to our theories—to the parties involved.

We must learn the history, the details, the particulars, and especially the relations of power and powerlessness that mark and have marked the participants. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, that means looking at the status of the various Muslim communities in France, at the very least since the Second World War and the Algerian struggles for independence.

What of the young disenfranchised Muslim youth in the banlieues of Paris and the other great cities of France? How are Muslims treated in France, now and historically? What effect has the struggle over the public ban on the wearing of the hijab been on the Muslim community?

For that matter, what is the historical tradition of polemical satire, like that of Charlie Hebdo, which is common not only in France but in many countries in Europe? Is such polemical satire really a blow for freedom, as its (current) defenders insist, or also an instrument of ridicule of oppressed and discriminated-against minorities, women, etc.?

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, there have been a number of incidents (for example, in 2006, 2011 and 2012) where publication of provocative and offensive cartoons have caused both foreign governments and French leaders themselves to call for restraint and greater sensitivity to offense. Simply to continue to plump for a rigid application of an exceptionless liberty of expression in such conditions seems not just insensitive but the height of moral obtuseness.

I don’t mean to say that there are no universal moral principles. But I do think that there are no meaningful or useful moral principles that do not arise from a careful critical engagement with the concrete facts of the situation. In particular, they must arise from a committed engagement, by all sides, genuinely to listen to each others’ stories, to criticize their own presuppositions and privileges, to attempt to see others’ points of view, and to assume responsibility for their own thoughts and actions, and even for the thoughts and actions of others.

I think it especially important to make this point in the light of an impassioned plea on January 26th by the Moroccan journalist and activist Zineb El-Rhazoui, who worked for Charlie Hebdo, for all of us to support free speech. (She escaped being killed because she was in Morocco at the time the massacre occurred.)

At an interview in Montreal she appealed to the West to stand up against Islamic fundamentalism. What was interesting about her argument was that it was not based upon a claim of the cultural superiority of western secularism to Islam (even though she admitted she believed in that superiority, and embraced it).

Rather, she said, there was a subtle, paternalistic racism implicit in those who urged sensitivity to Muslim outrage. Those who claim that we should leave Muslims to their own culture and not criticize them, lest we be called racists, she said, are in essence saying, “Those people are not capable of universalism, that they don’t deserve it, that the only thing they deserve is to be ruled by [medieval] rules.”

Those who have read Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism (1978) will recognize the argument: the West has culturally patronized the Arab/Turkish/Persian/African “East,” both elevating itself against that “East” and demeaning it as unworthy of Western values.

My point is that we must understand El-Rhazoui’s position as well: many women (in particular) have found liberation and protection from their experiences of gender discrimination by seeking refuge in exile in the West.

We must listen to their voices as well. But we must situate their claims in a larger context, and recognize that their experiences do not mean that we must abandon our sensitivity to the many other situations of cultural conflict, domination and discrimination. Of course, no one is incapable of, or unworthy of, “universalism.” But the question remains: when one adopts “universal” values, what comes along with that adoption? And what might be left behind?

This is a lot of work. It is easier to formulate a code and then just to apply it, even if it means having to bang the square pegs quite hard to wedge them into the non-square holes on the moral playing board.

But that is hardly a decent way to proceed. The ethics of publications like Charlie Hebdo have to be worked out now, going forward, in an atmosphere of respect, of listening, and of mutual concern. That would not be censorship. It might, in fact, be the birth of a kind of satire that would be genuinely liberating for all concerned.

A Philosopher’s Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo


  • Cartoonists pay Tribute to Charlie Hebdo attack victims - 25 Cartoons

By David Ozar

I am a philosopher and ethics professor.

Some of what has been said about the murder of staff at Charlie Hebdo has seemed to me to make very good sense; but some of it has been muddled by treating together a number of ideas that are very different from each other. There are at least three sets of ethical or social-ethical issues that these events put on the table for careful reflection.

I began writing about these issues because I was pretty sure that drawing a clear conclusion about one of these issues does not lead us to clear conclusions about the others.  I offer my reasons for this point of view here in the hope that they will help others think carefully about these issues and, if I am correct, avoid muddling them together.

One set of ethical issues raised by the events at Charlie Hebdo focuses on whether killing people to prevent them from speaking their views is ever morally/ethically justifiable. Very few people in the world believe it is.

No philosophical and theoretical position, Islamic or otherwise, that affirms every human being has a value that does not depend on what the person believes or how he or she acts would ever support such killings as morally/ethically justifiable.

Clearly, committed terrorists of any religious stripe or of no religion view humans differently.  But I am assuming the fact that there are people who hold other views about human beings is not counter-evidence enough for the rest of us to withhold judgment about the value of a human being, or a reason to view terrorists as anything but profoundly mistaken and dangerous enough to the rest of us that ethically extraordinary measures may be necessary to prevent them from acting on their views.

But as I said, I don’t think being clear about this set of issues provides clarity to the other two.

A second set of issues concerns what is or is not required of Muslims who seek to act faithfully in accord with the Koran.  The fact that the jihadists we are dealing with say they read the Koran as justifying acts of terrorism — and let us assume this is genuine and not strategic posturing for the sake of grabbing power or whatever, though their being genuine in this is also something that would need evidence for us to be sure — tells us nothing at all about other strands of Islam and nothing dependable about the Koran and surely provides no evidence about Islam in general or Muslims as a group.

I have no detailed knowledge about Islam and its many varieties and all the Muslims I have known personally have been good people whom I would be happy to call my friends. My guess is that there are as many strands of Koranic interpretation as there are regarding interpretation of the Judaic and Christian Scriptures; and the news about the Paris massacre has evidenced many devout Muslims who condemn terrorist acts of all sorts as being clear violations of Koranic teaching.

In fact, while these terrorists and ISIS do use the word “jihad” to describe their efforts, this probably tells us nothing specific enough to draw conclusions about jihad itself as this idea occurs in the Koran or is understood by Muslims generally.

For I do not know – and we would need to listen carefully to Koranic scholars to draw any conclusions – whether the notion of jihad in the Koran or in various Muslim traditions of interpreting it always requires terrorism. Religion-based wars have been fought — by partisans of many different religions — without resorting to terrorism. That is, in accord with the rules of ethical war (articulated for example, but not exclusively, in the West’s understanding of “Just War Theory”). There could just as easily be Islamic traditions that interpret jihad this way rather than seeing it as requiring terrorism.

And ethical/moral questions about what justifies acts of mortal violence under any circumstances, much less circumstances having any relevance to the present situation of various peoples in the Middle East, is a huge set of questions I am not even attempting to say anything about here.

Anyone wishing to understand the ethical issues involved in justifying war’s violence will find a good, careful discussion in Michael Walzer’s book, Just and Unjust Wars. A good example of a discussion of the ethical issues involved specifically in addressing the threat of organized terrorism that our country learned it must deal with in the events of 9/11 is Jean Bethke Elshtain’s book, Just War Against Terror.

The third set of ethical issues raised by the events at Charlie Hebdo concerns journalists and their various appropriate professional roles.  In an essay entitled, “An Explanation and Method for the Ethics of Journalism,” which I co-authored with another philosopher/ethicist, Professor Deni Elliott, I proposed an answer to the question “What Values Do Journalists Bring About For Those They Serve (i.e. in their designated social role in our society)?”

The book is: Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach edited by Christopher Meyers, pp.9-24. This is a central question to reflect on when asking about the professional ethics of any profession.

I argued there that Needed [by the public] Information comes first and Valued [by the public] Information comes second.

Clearly the creation and publication of humor, and more narrowly of satirical humor, is not part of the role of journalists to provide the public with needed information or even information which the public does not need but values having for one reason or another.

I argued that the other kinds of good that journalists can do may well be ethically appropriate to their professional role, at least in Western societies, and I think that producing humor is one of these, either as entertainment or as something valued for other reasons, perhaps including thoughtful social criticism.

But I take it for granted that every profession’s ethics are the product of a dialogue between that group and the specific larger society in which it functions. So I think that, in today’s world where the products of journalists’ work go far and wide, it is a complex question to know whether societies where other things besides these two are not part of journalists’ social role are ethically justified in those societies.  This is a question I will not try to comment on here, but which would make a great topic for discussion by those who care about journalism’s professional ethics in today’s digital world.

With that as background, I can pose the key question about journalism’s professional ethics that is at stake here: Is satirical humor sufficiently socially-ethically justifiable within the social-ethical role of a professional journalist or professional journalist organization that such humor continues to be ethically justifiable when it is highly offensive to large numbers of otherwise reasonable, not-fanatic, peace-loving and neighbor-caring people?

This is a very complex ethical question.  What a person finds offensive is, for want of a better word, painful to them, it hurts.  And in general we think hurting others’ feelings ought to be avoided unless there is a good reason for it. In addition, it is rare that we judge hurting someone’s feelings, offending someone, for no other reason than to entertain other persons (besides the one who is hurt) to be something that is morally/ethically justifiable if the situation is one in which the hurt party has little realistic opportunity of avoiding the hurt.

The great American philosopher, Joel Feinberg, determined that his examination of rights should include a careful discussion of the extent to which offense can ever be morally/ethically justified and if there are circumstances in which it should be legally prohibited.

The work ended up taking him a whole, complex book to sort out. [The book is: Joel Feinberg, Offense To Others.]

So it seems to me that well-thought-out answers to the question I just asked are going to take time and effort to sort out, especially in an international digital world in which “news” of all sorts is flashed on screens, billboards, etc., at least in many parts of the world.  For that means that the ethical issue is not resolved by just saying, “Well, if you think it will be offensive (or even know it because they said it would be), just refuse to buy Charlie.”

That is not a realistic answer to the opportunity-to-avoid question in a world where the line between information, entertainment, and advertising has been blurred so thoroughly (although this blurring has not been solely the result of the changes in journalism in recent decades, but on the other hand journalist organizations have certainly played a part in the process).

So I think there is a lot here that is worth discussing, especially if we are willing to assume that short, quick answers are almost certainly going to be too simple once we get past the “do not kill” part of the matter.  That’s my ‘two cents” on this. Well, to be honest, it’s quite a few cents! But then I am a philosopher and I am unwilling to pretend complex ethical things are simple !

Dilemmas and Difficult Choices

By Nancy J. Matchett

Professionals wrestling with ethical issues often describe themselves as facing dilemmas. But in many situations, what they may really be facing is another kind of ethically difficult choice.

In a genuine ethical dilemma, two or more principles are pitted head to head. No one involved seriously doubts that each principle is relevant and ought not to be thwarted. But the details of the situation make it impossible to uphold any one of the principles without sacrificing one of the others.

In a difficult ethical choice, by contrast, all of the principles line up on one side, yet the person still struggles to figure out precisely what course of action to take. This may be partly due to intellectual challenges: the relevant principles can be tricky to apply, and the person may lack knowledge of important facts. But difficult choices are primarily the result of emotional or motivational conflicts. In the most extreme form, a person may have very few doubts about what ethics requires, yet still desire to do something else.

The difference here is a difference in structure. In a dilemma, you are forced to violate at least one ethical principle, so the challenge is to decide which violation you can live with. In a difficult choice, there is a course of action that does not violate any ethical principle, and yet that action is difficult for you to motivate yourself to do. So the challenge is to get your desires to align more closely with what ethics requires.

Are professional journalists typically faced with ethical dilemmas? This is unlikely with respect to the four principles encouraged by the SPJ Code (Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently, and Be Accountable and Transparent). Of these, the first two are most likely to conflict, but so long as all sources are credible and facts have been carefully checked, it should be possible to report truth in a way that at least minimizes harm. Somewhat more difficult is determining which truths are so important that they ought to be reported. Reasonable people may disagree about how to answer this question, but discussion with fellow professionals will often help to clear things up. And even where disagreement persists, this has the structure of a difficult choice. No one doubts that all principles can be satisfied.

Of course, speaking truth to power is not an easy thing to do, even when doing so is clearly supported by the public’s need to know. So motivational obstacles can also get in the way of good decision-making. A small town journalist with good friends on the city council may be reluctant to report a misuse of public funds. It is not that he doesn’t understand his professional obligation to report the truth. He just doesn’t want to cause trouble for his friends.

This is why it can be useful to resist the temptation to classify every ethical issue as a dilemma. When facing a genuine dilemma you are forced, by the circumstances, to do something unethical. But wishing you could find some way out of a situation in which ethical principles themselves conflict is very different from being nervous or unhappy about the potential repercussions of doing something that is fully supported by all of those principles. Accurately identifying the latter situation as a difficult choice makes it easier to notice — and hence to avoid — the temptation to engage in unprofessional forms of rationalization. That doesn’t necessarily make the required action any easier to actually do, but getting clearer about why it is ethically justified might at least help to strengthen your resolve.

Ethical dilemmas are more likely to arise when professional principles conflict with more personal values. Here too, the SPJ Code can be useful, since being scrupulous about avoiding conflicts of interest and fully transparent in decision-making can mitigate the likelihood that such conflicts occur. But journalists who are careful about all of this may still find that issues occasionally come up. As the recent case of Dave McKinney shows, it can be very difficult to draw a bright line between personal and professional life. And the requirement to act independently can make it difficult to live up to some other kinds of ethical commitments.

Whether this sort of personal/professional conflict counts as a genuine dilemma is subject to considerable philosophical dispute. The Ancient Greeks tended to treat dilemmas as pervasive, but modern ethics have mainly tried to explain them away. One strategy is to treat all ethical considerations as falling under a single moral principle (this is the approach taken by utilitarianism); another is to develop sophisticated tests to rank and prioritize among principles which might otherwise appear to conflict (this is the approach taken by deontology). If you are able to deploy one of these strategies successfully, then what may at first look like a professional vs. personal dilemma will turn out to be a difficult choice in the end. Still, many contemporary ethicists side with the Greeks in thinking such strategies will not always work.

If you are facing a genuine dilemma it is not obvious, from the point of view of ethics, what you should do. But here again, it can be helpful to see the situation for what it is. After all, even if every option requires you to sacrifice at least one ethical principle, each option enables you to uphold at least one principle too. In addition to alleviating potentially devastating forms of shame and guilt, reflecting on the structure of the situation can enhance your ability to avoid similar situations in the future. And if nothing else, being forced to grab one horn of a genuine dilemma can help you discover which values you hold most dear.

The Steve Kroft Affair



By Casey Bukro

We here at Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists sometimes clash over what is ethical or not.

The Steve Kroft affair is the latest example.

The veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent admits he had a three-year fling with a New York City lawyer, though both are married.

“I had an extramarital affair that was a serious lapse of personal judgment and extremely hurtful to my wife and family, and for that I have nothing but regret,” Kroft said in a statement to the New York Post. Both the Post and the National Enquirer published salacious text messages between Kroft and his lover, proving once again that anything on the internet is not private.

A CBS spokesperson said “It’s a private matter.”

Soon after the scandal broke, an AdviceLine colleague wrote: “Are personal values/ matters the same as professional matters? Should I teach my students that I don’t care what they do in their personal lives as long as they make good ethical choices in their professional ones? Personally, this Kroft story does not interest me. His professional work does.”

Kroft is one of the most high-profile journalists in America. He has been a CBS newsman for 31 years, 26 of them as a correspondent with “60 Minutes,” which specializes in asking the high and mighty tough questions about their personal lives, their entanglements, their dalliances and the quality of their professional judgment.

Here’s what I say to my AdviceLine colleague: What people do in their personal lives reflects on their credibility and integrity. I don’t think you can separate personal and work lives that easily.

By your reasoning, we should have ignored Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, as we did with JFK and his affairs. Looking back on JFK, journalists are criticized now for turning a blind eye to his dalliances. Now we’re more inclined to think about accountability.

Kroft is a very public figure by virtue of his role on “60 Minutes.” Part of his job is exposing the conduct of public officials. I would buy your argument if he were not a public figure. That is why, in ethics, we draw the distinction between public and private individuals.

Also, there is the issue of blackmail. Anyone involved in something he or she does not want the public to know is subject to the possibility of blackmail and manipulation.

Tell your students that they have to be smart enough to recognize that ethical values apply to all facets of people’s lives, especially to public figures, and that they, themselves, become public figures when they become very visible journalists. Think Woodward and Bernstein.

That’s why, these days, we encourage publishers and editors to avoid becoming involved in civic organizations, a practice that once was common, and to a degree still is. There is the public perception that if a publisher is an official on the board of a civic organization, he will favor that organization and give it favorable publicity. He also is seen likely to keep bad information about the organization out of the news.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics warns journalists to avoid conflicts or interest, real or perceived.

All of this is in the realm of accountability, an issue we take more seriously these days. People with ethics issues should not be pointing fingers at others with ethics issues. “60 Minutes” sets very high standards and its correspondents should measure up to them.

Personally, I always thought my role as a journalist meant that I was forbidden from doing things others could do. When I covered finance, I avoided buying stock in companies I covered. I did not join organizations I covered. I did not take part in political campaigns.

You can argue that any American citizen is entitled to do those things, and you would be right. But I always believed that anything I did should be above reproach. Being a journalist was paramount. It is an honor, a privilege and a duty to be smart enough to avoid any activity that could tarnish my reputation, and the reputation of the journalism organization I worked for.

Too often, the public complains that the media gleefully write about the transgressions of politicians and others, while keeping silent about the transgressions of journalists. The “old boy” syndrome. They say we cover up for each other. It’s a double standard. We should report on the transgressions of journalists as vigorously as we do about the transgressions of others. It’s only fair.

Comments are welcome.