(Ed: 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 calls are answered within 24 hours.)
What sorts of issues come into the AdviceLine? The largest group falls under the broad heading of “conflict of interest.” The SPJ Code of Ethics tells journalists to “act independently,” but it is often difficult to know, when one is in the midst of a complex situation, what compromises journalistic integrity and what does not.
First, a fairly simple case. A free-lance writer who writes for various newspapers has authored a book. A self-help marketing book he has read urges him to promote his book by writing op-ed pieces and letters to the editor that mention the book and its merits. He calls to ask whether he may ethically write such promotional pieces for papers for which he writes as a free-lancer. But in the conversation we conclude that, as a journalist who understands the purpose of op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, he ought not use these to promote his book at all.
Another caller is the publisher of an urban business weekly. Several months earlier, the paper had hosted a breakfast panel for business folks about the latest technical advances in e-commerce. Though the panel of representatives from area technical companies were specifically required to refrain from promoting their own companies, those companies were willing to pay several thousand dollars to have a representative on the panel, and the breakfast made good money for the paper. The publisher would like to hold another breakfast and has asked his technical editor to identify forward-looking companies for the publisher to invite to send speakers to the panel. The editorial staff believes that providing the publisher with this information would violate the ethical barrier between editorial and business. The publisher and editors jointly called the AdviceLine.
The AdviceLine respondent talked about “error control rules” to guide close ethical calls. Do you want to err on the side of integrity or on the side of additional revenue? The reputation of the paper’s editorial staff and, in this case, technical expertise is worth too much to risk sullying it. If forced to choose which companies should be allowed to purchase space on the panel, it may appear that the editorial staff is playing favorites among local companies. The paper’s relations with sources on technical matters also is at risk here.
In the last analysis, the publisher and editors all agreed that it makes a lot more sense for a paper to err on the side of integrity rather than the side of commerce.
The other largest group of cases to the AdviceLine concerns the SPJ Code’s standard that journalists “minimize harm.” What circumstances involving possible harm would justify an organization holding information back from publication? For example, the media agreed last fall to not publish elements of bin Laden videos lest they contain instructions for terrorist groups. An AdviceLine caller wondered how much potential harm must be at risk for such actions to be justified.
Another caller asked how great the risk of harm needed to be to justify a media organization in revealing something – e.g. telling law enforcement about a confidential source – if doing so might prevent a harm.
One caller asked whether the obligation to minimize harm meant that he should not publish the results of his investigative reporting about candidate A’s misdeeds when he felt confident that A’s opponent, candidate B, was even more corrupt than A. The reporter felt that publishing the report could give B an advantage over A in the upcoming election.
The AdviceLine’s aim is not to tell callers what they ought to do. It is to help them think through the issues they are struggling with from the perspective of sound professional ethics and clear and careful ethical thinking – and to do so in a way that takes account of everyone affected, especially the public, whom journalists are most committed to serve.
To date, almost every caller has been appreciative of the effort.
David T. Ozar, Ph.D., is a Professor of Ethics in the Philosophy Department and the Director of the Center for Ethics and Social Justice at Loyola University Chicago.
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