We journalists are not big on restraint. We’re even suspicious of any tendencies we may harbor toward self-restraint. But we shouldn’t be. Self-restraint is an important component of ethical journalism.
Another term for self-restraint is self-censorship. It’s not a term we embrace. It smacks of timidity and avoidance of the hard truth. A journalist’s number one obligation, after all, is to seek truth and report it.
But that does not mean we report all truths.
A reporter is not just an inert conduit between everything that happens and everyone who wants to know about it. No matter how much we profess objectivity, a big part of our jobs is subjective – making decisions.
Reporters, and their editors and news directors, make dozens of decisions about every single story they publish and broadcast. That accumulates to hundreds of decisions a day, hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – in a year.
We have to decide whether an event is a story. And if it is a story, is it a major story or just a brief? Is it an investigative piece or a feature? And whom do we interview for the story? Which quotes do we use? How do we organize it? Does it take a straight news approach or an anecdotal one? Are we telling a narrative story or giving a no-nonsense report?
What pictures or graphics do we use? The sobbing relatives? The perp walk? The mother whose child’s illness may be the result of contamination? The researcher who’s trying to find the best way to get rid of the pollution?
Do we tease the story before the evening news? Do we promote it during “sweeps”? What type size does the headline merit? Is this a 1-A story or does it belong inside the metro section?
And what if we decide not to use the story at all?
The authors of a textbook called “News Reporting and Writing” (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999) ask similar questions in their chapter on ethics:
“What happens when journalists have knowledge of something, some corruption in government or marital infidelity of a political candidate, and do not report it? What happens when the public learns that journalists knew and did not let the public know? What happens to public trust?”
That’s a lot of questions. But that’s the essence of ethical decision-making – asking the right questions.
Much of the debate about what to divulge and what to refrain from divulging is related to journalism’s traditional role as a watchdog on government and the public.
As a political reporter for almost four decades, I have heard a great deal more than I have written about. Much of it had to do with allegations about the private lives of public figures.
This has been a conflict of long standing in political reporting. It wasn’t until years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated that the news media disclosed his health problems or his tendency to involve himself in some potentially dangerous liaisons with a number of women. The primary reason for those belated revelations was a new environment in which a new president’s private peccadilloes – we’re talking about Bill Clinton here, obviously – had become luridly public.
Colorado, where I have spent my career, had a governor for 12 years who was rumored to have had a long-standing affair with a high-ranking aide. No one wrote about it because it didn’t appear to affect the way he was doing his job. Some reporters made half-hearted attempts to confirm the rumors, but gave up for several reasons – it was too hard to prove, and it didn’t seem to matter, anyway.
Toward the end of the popular governor’s first term, though, Denver’s widely read alternative weekly, Westword, wrote a long article about how the rumored affair was affecting the way people with business in the governor’s office dealt with the aide. The article never said definitively whether there was or was not an affair. Instead, it went on at great length about how the rumors of an affair created a strained atmosphere in Gov. Roy Romer’s office.
Many local journalists thought the article was irresponsible, because it offered no proof of an affair. Others said the way in which the rumor was affecting the conduct of state business actually was more important than whether the rumor was true or false.
Late in his third term, after Gov. Romer had taken on additional duties as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the magazine published by the Washington Times published an article about the relationship. It was illustrated with long-range telephoto shots of the governor embracing and kissing his aide in a car parked at Dulles International Airport.
This time, the Denver media had to respond. Rather than talk with reporters usually assigned to cover him, the governor explained himself to the editor of The Denver Post. It was one of Romer’s worst moments politically. He said it was purely a nonsexual relationship, and his family knew about it. But critics of the governor and of the media – for not covering the story – had an “I told you so” moment.
Another Colorado politician with a similar problem made much more of a splash nationally. Then-U.S. Sen. Gary Hart was driven from the presidential race in 1987 after a Miami reporting team caught him leaving the Georgetown apartment of a woman named Donna Rice. The reporter and photographer essentially staked out the joint and watched Hart enter the apartment in the evening and leave the morning after. This came after the candidate, seeking to dispel rumors of his womanizing, had challenged reporters to follow him.
Reporters are not monolithic in their response to this reporting tactic. The Hart episode was discussed at a workshop sponsored by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for reporters planning to cover the 1992 presidential campaign. I remember that political reporters attending the meeting expressed some doubts about the ethics of the stakeout. Reporters who identified themselves as “investigative” more than “political” were much more convinced of its legitimacy.
There are multiple other examples of journalists practicing or professing the wisdom of restraint in the pursuit of their basic obligation to seek truth and report it.
The use of anonymous sources is a form of self-censorship, and one that seems to be losing favor everywhere but in Washington, D.C., where it’s a way of life.
Here’s a form of self-censorship that most people would applaud: Broadcasters no longer release national election results until all the polls have closed all across the United States. Even then, it hasn’t stopped all the problems. The 2002 election wasn’t finally decided until five weeks after the polls closed in November. Television still attempted to announce “results” on election night – humiliating itself by having to reverse calls throughout the night.
There are other cases where journalists withheld timely information. Some of them are good ethical decisions. Some of them are not.
The (Portland) Oregonian apologized to its readers for not reporting allegations of sexual harassment against U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood until after his re-election.
El Paso, Texas, media once held a kidnapping story for two days because the abductors said they’d kill the two boys if there were any publicity.
Elsewhere in Texas, the Waco Tribune-Herald’s stories about alleged child abuse and weapons stockpiles at the Branch Davidian compound was held for nearly a month at the request of federal officials. The feds wanted continued delays, but the day after the first story was published, they felt compelled to raid the place. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms later said timing of the raid was not connected to publication of the reports, but there was a great deal of discussion in the profession and elsewhere about the media’s role.
The battle over self-censorship is fought in an arena bounded on one side by the need to report the truth and on the other by a more recently articulated ethical concern – minimizing harm.
In Florida, the mother of a boy who had lost three limbs and been severely burned in a car accident praised local media for not photographing him when he showed up to testify in a lawsuit arising from the case. “We hear so much about the media, that they’re so cold, that they’re vultures. Well, they held back with Cliff. I was very, very impressed,” the mother said.
In “Doing Ethics in Journalism,” (Allyn & Bacon, 1997) authors Jay Black, Bob Steele and Ralph Barney say the Florida case was an example of that basic conflict between compassion and the raw truth:
“The journalists involved seriously weighed the competing principles of truth-telling and minimizing harm. They chose alternatives [using family album pictures of the boy before he was injured] that allowed them to honor both principles, giving greater weight to the extreme vulnerability of the young man.”
Journalism has changed over the years. The public has more places to get information than it ever has had: multiple cable news channels, the Internet, specialty publications.
In this environment, a news medium has to be credible and reliable if it is to survive. That means showing good judgment. And sometimes good judgment is revealed in what a publisher or broadcaster decides not to reveal.
Journalism’s default position, as it should be, is to report. Seek truth and report it. The public needs information so it can make informed decisions.
In “Doing Ethics,” Barney, Black and Steele argue that the discussion of what to tell the public naturally and correctly weighs heavily on the side of telling as much as possible.
“Defenders tend to speak of the right rather than the moral obligation to publish,” they write. “It is as if insistent assertions of the right to publish would somehow turn away attacks and public outrage. The right to publish, granted by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and confirmed by judicial decisions, is widely documented and discussed in civics classes and history lectures. But the obligation to distribute information, which resides in the soul of a journalistic ethic, is rarely discussed. It is the why of this process that demands articulation, so that the public can understand and appreciate the journalist’s motives for telling so much.”
Walter Cronkite, one of journalism’s venerated icons, once said that if journalists worried about what all the consequences could be for reporting something, they would never report anything.
That’s true, but it doesn’t mean a journalist shouldn’t consider any of the consequences. There’s also that balance to consider.
“Minimize Harm” is one of two sections added to the SPJ Code of Ethics in 1996. The other is “Be Accountable.” Both reflect serious journalism’s need to be credible and reliable in a media marketplace that has grown exponentially over the past decade.
There are very few absolutes in media ethics. The only black-and-white instruction in the SPJ Code of Ethics is “never plagiarize.”
All the rest is a matter of asking the right questions.
We journalists should constantly be asking ourselves whether a behavior is ethical, including whether a fact really needs to be known.
Sometimes the answer is no. I don’t call that self-censorship. It’s just good judgment.
Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com.