The SPJ Ethics Committee has in excess of 30 members. “Excess” is an appropriate way to describe that number – perhaps wretched excess. The committee often expresses more than 30 different opinions on any subject it is asked to opine upon.
But it wasn’t like that with the case of the Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly that published a photograph of the severed head of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and murdered by terrorists.
With only a couple of reservations, everyone was in angry agreement. Publication, the majority of the committee felt, was a wretched thing to do – legal, certainly, but not ethical.
The committee had a lively (if single-minded) discussion for more than a week, but members didn’t begin to agree on a statement until Chairman Gary Hill finally was able to talk with the Phoenix’s publisher, Stephen Mindich, to get his side of the story.
Then SPJ President Al Cross put together a balanced statement that was forceful without being scolding. It was a measured response, because Hill had had a chance to hear the other side of the story. Mindich’s rationale was more thoughtful than many of us in the committee had presumed it would be.
That’s the ethical lesson here: Avoid assumptions and presumptions. As the Code of Ethics says, “Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”
Initial reactions were heavily disapproving. In early e-mail correspondence among members, Chairman Hill wrote that, while the picture of the severed head “may represent a sort of grisly ‘truth,’ it will not do anything to advance our understanding of terrorism, kidnapping or murder. It seems to directly contradict one of the direct lines in our Code, ‘Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.’”
My own initial reaction was to call the decision “lurid, adolescent voyeurism.” Other committee members expressed concern for Pearl’s family and questioned the Phoenix’s motives.
Ted Frederickson, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Kansas, was the first to express “mixed feelings.”
“Count me as among those who were shocked, and actually shed tears, when I learned that Daniel Pearl was mocked as a Jew and brutally slaughtered with the camera running,” Frederickson wrote.
But, he continued, “I have always believed that the job of journalists is to hold up the mirror so that people can see themselves and their world as they really are. There are painful truths in those savage and brutal video images that tell us much about the character of Daniel Pearl’s executioners, who not only took his life but also celebrated his death by mutilating his body. Horrible events sometimes merit pictures that document what happened.”
Hill had problems connecting with Mindich. Most of us had assumed, or concluded from reports we’d seen elsewhere, that the publisher’s decision had been hasty and selfish. His explanation, when he and Hill finally talked, was more thoughtful.
While the paper’s decision to link to a Web site depicting Pearl’s slaying was more hastily reached, there was a great deal of deliberation about whether to publish a photograph of the severed head, Mindich said.
As he wrote in explaining the decisions to Phoenix readers: “This is the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing I’ve ever seen. The outrage I feel as an American and a Jew is almost indescribable.” Viewing of the video, he said, should galvanize sentiment “against the perpetrators and supporters of those who committed this unspeakable murder.”
Mindich told Hill he believes the generalized media outrage at his decision has been “disingenuous at best, if not hypocritical,” perhaps because “Danny was one of our own.”
Still, Mindich doesn’t give a lot of weight to the Code’s admonition to “Minimize Harm.” He told Hill that, for the media, “personal pain is not a reason to withhold information.”
Lou Hodges, Knight Professor of Ethics in Journalism at Washington and Lee University, summarized the discussions for an educational journal. Hodges, like Frederickson, is a member of the Ethics Committee. He concluded:
“Some scholars are concerned that, through their well-intentioned efforts to sanitize the world they depict, journalists may distort their audiences’ picture of the world – thereby giving an inaccurate and dangerously false impression that the world is not as grisly and threatening as it really is. Given that concern, it would seem reasonable that the Phoenix made a morally defensible choice to publish.”
The committee, after hearing both sides, was not fully convinced that this was a morally defensible choice. Members were willing to grant that “there is a certain awful truth that the photo represents.” But we felt it still crossed an ethical line, that the truth didn’t outweigh the harm.
“The committee deplores the newspaper’s decision to place the grisly photo in a way in which readers had no choice but to view it,” the committee statement finally said. Further, it felt that the photo – a product of propaganda rather than journalism – was used in an exploitative way and “added nothing but shock value to the awful truth that Pearl was decapitated.”
Still forceful, but not as colorful or as heated as our first reactions. That’s the problem with listening carefully to both sides. It complicates the simplicity of a thing. It’s the ethical thing to do, but it can take a lot of the juice and spark out of whatever you end up saying.
Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, recently retired as political editor of The Denver Post. He is organizing a project to study media and government ethics.