A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Ethical questions to ask during wartime

By Quill

Should the media give the opposition fair coverage?

This includes not just terrorists and their supporters but also anti-war activists and the government’s political opponents. “When we include bin Laden’s videotape comments or we quote them in the newspaper, or bring the voices of other terrorism leaders to the public, we are helping citizens understand the issues and the complexity of what is transpiring,” said Robert Steele, senior faculty and Ethics Group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. “If we use the proper tone in how we publish or broadcast that material and if we use it in the proper proportion then I believe we fairly serve our citizenry. Is it possible that we feed the propaganda of a terrorist in some fashion? Yes. But the alternative to not give the public any of bin Laden’s thoughts or perspective to me is a much greater danger in a democracy.”

How much information about troop movements should be publicized, and when?

This includes local stories about units being deployed overseas – the Internet means that such stories can be read anywhere, not just by the local community, and could give opposition leaders insight into U.S. military planning. “When military men and women are in war games or mock deployments, it’s obvious that reports on such exercises are (or should be) different; no lives are at stake,” said Paul Rodriquez, editor of Washington-based Insightmag.com, a sister publication of The Washington Times. “But in actual war movements, it’s equally obvious that reports must be couched in fashion whereby lives are not placed into jeopardy; it’d be more than idiotic. It’d be irresponsible. That doesn’t mean censoring the news – hell’s bells, that would be wrong. Rather, as an editor who’s had to decide on many such stories, especially lately, it comes down to figuring out ways to tell the story without getting somebody killed. And it can be done.”

How much play should the anthrax story get?

Too much attention could result in panic and place undue burdens on the local medical system, and people with genuine medical emergencies may have problems getting the attention they need. “Every day, I ask my editors to put the number of people affected by the anthrax scare into perspective,” said Sue Hale, executive editor of the Oklahoman. “How many people today in Oklahoma City died in a car accident, a crime incident, of cancer? We still run the stories – we’re not trying to minimize the threat – but we are trying to put it in the context to which it belongs.”

How much attention should be drawn to security holes?

On the one hand, publicizing a security weakness could inspire action to solve the problem. On the other hand, it could draw the attention of terrorists, nuts, or copycats to a potential target. Journalists should also be wary of breaking the law in the course of their investigations. “Tests of airport security are certainly appropriate now, but one must question if committing potential crimes by slipping weapons through checkpoints is appropriate,” said Gary Hill, chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee and director of investigations for KSTP-TV in Minneapolis.