By Casey Bukro
EthicsAdviceLine for Journalists
When professional journalists contact the EthicsAdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics, AdviceLine advisors don’t tell them what to do.
That’s not how AdviceLine works. Journalists engage in a phone or online conversation with experts in journalism and professional ethics who lead the journalists to their own conclusions about the right course of action. The goal of that conversation is to assist the journalist in making ethical decisions that:
- Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.
- Take account of the perspectives of all parties involved in the situation.
- Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.
AdviceLine is a free service to professional journalists.
Exactly how this works can be shown through an actual case report on a call from a Massachusetts editor-in-chief. Her newspaper is doing a story on a local bank robbery. Her reporter learned a lot about the robbery through police and court documents, including the name of the person charged, the charges against the defendant and the amount allegedly stolen, about $5,000.
Bank officials begged the reporter and the newspaper to refrain from reporting the amount stolen; they feared disclosing that amount might encourage more bank robberies.
The editor-in-chief asked AdviceLine if the newspaper would be acting unethically by publishing the amount stolen?
Here is the exchange that followed:
AdviceLine advisor, Hugh Miller – This was all obtained from public documents, correct?
Editor – Yes.
Advisor – Is this information newsworthy?
Editor – It certainly surprised me when I read the figure.
Advisor – Then it is certainly newsworthy. If you were surprised, the public will almost certainly be. And the primary ethical mission of journalism is, after all, to report the news to the public. The material is fair game; but you might want to consider the responsibility to “minimize harm.” (Mentioned in the SPJ code of ethics.)
There might be circumstances under which it would be the ethical thing to do to withhold otherwise newsworthy and publishable facts. But, according to the code, and as a general rule, those circumstances should be few and tightly circumscribed. For example, private citizens and especially minors should be treated with greater consideration for their privacy than public individuals, government organizations, or even corporations (which are, after all, chartered creatures of law). Does the bank seem to fall into one of those former categories, or something like one of them?
Editor – Doesn’t seem so to me.
Advisor – In light of the recent controversy about the NSA (National Security Agency) and whistleblowing, are any state secrets or matters of grave national security at stake?
Editor – (Laughing): Hardly.
Advisor – So, what do you think?
Editor – I think we’re good to go with it. Thanks very much!
In his written report on the call from the editor, the advisor added these comments: “I don’t think much of the bank’s reason for asking the newspaper to sit on the figure involved. I think they’re merely trying to minimize embarrassment, and possibly prevent customers from suspecting that their security measures aren’t all they should be, and transferring their accounts to another, presumably more prudent bank.”
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.