A funny thing happened on the way to writing this column. I looked, but could not find much written about my topic – the ethical questions raised in the coverage of military action during a time of war.
Now, I confess right up front, I didn’t conduct a very exhaustive search of journalism literature. But I was still surprised that three texts I looked at and a number of codes of ethics, including ours, make no mention of the ethical dilemmas facing journalists when their own country goes to war.
Now I’ve heard lots of journalist talk about this subject at conferences and during newsroom chatter during my 23 years in the business. There’s a generally accepted proscription against reporting on your nation’s troop movements during time of war. Should such an important exception on our Code’s admonition to “Seek Truth and Report It,” be added to the Code? How do we square patriotic instincts with the Code’s “Act Independently” standard? What’s the ethical way to handle propaganda (assuming you can figure out the definition of “propaganda”)? Should our code provide any additional guidance on how to “Minimize Harm” to combatants, ours or theirs?
I asked fellow members of our Ethics Committee whether they believe the Code of Ethics needs to say anything more specific about coverage in time of war. Their answers suggest to me a reluctance to make changes to the Code, but some acknowledged that a deliberate evaluation of such questions is worthy of a wider discussion among our membership in the months ahead.
What’s at issue here, it turns out, is as much about the role of the ethics code as the specific topics it covers. For Nerissa Young, who’s our national Project Watchdog Chair, the Code is a foundation document, akin to The Ten Commandments, from which “the whole of criminal law is ultimately derived.” Jay Black, who was a central figure in the drafting of the Code, sees it as an “ideal standards” document and worries that some of the answers to questions I raise amount to “minimal standards” of ethical behavior. Black points out there is currently one – and only one – such minimal standard: “Never Plagiarize.” But Black also believes “we should begin rewriting our code just as soon as we had adopted it, because the rethinking/revising process was an extremely healthy one.”
Black also asks if the Code is a guide to the behavior of journalists or “a PR gesture.” Could it be both? I’ve always thought the drafting of the Code was an exercise in examining our professional behavior, and work on amendments or re-drafts continue that examination. But as we succeed in disseminating the Code it becomes, for a wider public, an advertisement of our ethical principles.
Jerry Dunklee at Southern Connecticut State suggests it may be more appropriate to take on these particular, ethical questions in “a separate statement on issues raised by the kind of ‘war’ we are facing now.” SPJ has already issued several such statements. The “Resolution on Press Coverage of The War on Terrorism” was adopted at the Seattle convention (in the days following, we joined 10 other journalism organizations in issuing a similar, joint declaration). Other Seattle convention resolutions re-stated the principles of our Code of Ethics in the context of the war on terrorism and urged journalists to maintain a commitment to diversity and avoidance of racial profiling in news stories. In another statement, “A Time for Courage, Caution and Compassion,” Ethics Committee Co-Chair Fred Brown writes, “This is a time for courage to seek the truth, caution to get it right, and compassion to minimize harm, as our Code says.” All of the statements can be viewed at the Web site: www.spj.org.
But few pronouncements carry as much weight inside and outside SPJ as our Code of Ethics. I got my comeuppance when I suggested to committee members we might try and draft a Code amendment to be looked at during this spring’s regional conferences with an eye toward possible adoption in September.
Peter Sussman of the Northern California Chapter asks if “whether ‘in the heat of (literally) battle’ is the right time to freeze our guidelines in a format that will be difficult to revise later. It’s not easy to see the forest while we’re in these trees, and whatever we do in these circumstances is likely to be taken as ‘choosing sides’ in current political disputes.” Sussman was not alone. So, I’m back from the ethical woodshed to assure you nothing will be proposed in haste. And I confess, maybe no amendment to the Code is warranted. It just seemed odd, at least right after Sept. 11, that words such as war, propaganda, censorship, patriotism, were nowhere to be found in the Code. Maybe we should change that. Maybe not. What do you think?
Irwin Gratz is the local host of Morning Edition on Maine Public Radio. He can be reached at email@example.com