This column is based on calls to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a partnership between the Chicago Headline Club and Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Ethics and Social Justice. The phone number for the AdviceLine is 312-409-3334. Advice is given by people at Loyola who either teach ethics or are trained in ethics. Most questions are answered within 24 hours.
Lending aid and comfort to the enemy in wartime is considered a traitorous act. Sometimes even impartiality might be considered disloyal. At such times, there are demands for patriotism – outward displays of love and loyalty or zealous support of one’s country.
Times like now, when government officials say the world does not understand America and suggest that the media should join in the propaganda effort – or at least go easy on reports that might reflect poorly on the United States, such as civilian bombing casualties. A Time magazine report on Oct. 22 said: “More than most wars, this is a media war,” a “battle for hearts and minds.” These issues are clearly on the minds of journalists and budding journalists, as reflected in recent calls to the AdviceLine.
Most calls to AdviceLine are from professionals pressed for answers to touchy ethics questions while under deadline pressures. Two recent calls touched directly on the war against terrorists. AdviceLine’s confidentiality policy forbids identifying the callers without their permission.
The first caller asked if journalists have a duty to withhold information on a terrorist organization if that information helped the terrorists, making journalists “an arm of the terrorists.”
Dr. David Ozar, director of Loyola’s Center for Ethics and Social Justice, pointed out that journalists have obligations as professionals and as citizens to protect human lives or provide information useful in saving lives.
Journalists must seek the truth, Ozar pointed out, and that could include seeking guidance from governmental agencies on reporting activities of terrorist groups. But Ozar also noted that governmental agencies have a tendency to say little or nothing to the public.
“One of the most important checks on this tendency in a democratic nation comes from journalists and journalist organizations resisting the tendency and pushing to make public matters that they judge valuable, or at least useful, for the public to know.”
These matters should be weighed in public, he said, “so the whole community can know what is being weighed and why. For that reason, for example, the manner in which the journalist community and the government decided how to deal with the tapes coming out from Osama bin Laden after 9-11, in which the dialogue between the two parties (government and media) and the nature of the compromise they reached was well-reported in the media, seems very appropriate.”
The second question dealt with whether a journalist is compromised by wearing a patriotic symbol such as the American flag. James Burke, who teaches business ethics and strategic management at Loyola, said there is nothing wrong with a journalist wearing a patriotic symbol, and nothing wrong with a news organization suggesting its employees avoid wearing such symbols, unless it threatens a journalist’s employment.
Burke also noted that the SPJ Code of Ethics urges journalists to avoid conduct that compromises journalistic integrity or damages credibility.
We know that journalists can be divided on this question. The Associated Press in September reported that the news director of News 12, a New York-area cable TV company, ordered a ban on employees displaying the flag, causing public consternation.
“We are patriots at News 12, but we don’t want anyone to get the false impression that our patriotic emotions cloud our reporting of the truth,” declared the news director, in responding to public backlash over the ban. CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC all have displayed flag graphics on their screens during coverage of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
But symbols are not the main issue. The real issue is the conduct of journalists during war, and this is what Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics at Harvard University, wrote Oct. 11 in The Washington Post: “Journalists perform the highest act of patriotism and operate on the highest levels of professionalism when they subject all government handouts and pronouncements to the sunlight of honest and truthful inquiry – and then fearlessly report the results. That is their job, during times of peace or war.”
Casey Bukro is co-chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee and works as a night editor at the Chicago Tribune.