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Dilemmas and Difficult Choices image

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 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