As I’m finishing this issue of Quill, I’m watching news reports of the unfolding war in Iraq. The war is just over a week old, but already the media’s coverage of the war is being closely scrutinized. Critics from all sides are discussing coverage and asking questions that will surely be considered for years to come: Can embedded journalists cover the war objectively? Does patriotism or support for U.S. forces have any place in war coverage? What kinds of graphic scenes from the front lines are acceptable in news pages and in daily television coverage?
Journalism ethics inherently comes in many shades of gray, and those shades multiply in new or extraordinary situations. Immediately after the terrorist attacks of 2001, journalists faced situation for which no ethics textbook could have prepared them. And now, with the country in the midst of the most technological war to date, journalists are called upon to define the ethical boundaries of war coverage as they go.
This is our annual ethics issue, and, as the cover suggests, we’ve focused on the idea of self censorship. As journalists, we make daily decisions about what belongs in our coverage and what doesn’t. The amount of airtime and column inches each day is limited, and we decide what information is vital to the public and what never makes it out of our notepads. Self-censorship takes place any time a journalist or journalism organization chooses to omit relevant information from its coverage; we practice self-censorship every day, either for space reasons or other ethical considerations.
Quill’s monthly production schedule means that you won’t find any stories in this issue about the specific dilemmas that have arisen in the coverage of the war in Iraq; instead, the stories focus on day-to-day questions that are a part of the newsgathering process. But make no mistake – many of these underlying ethical issues we face every day can easily be applied to coverage of the current conflict.
As a forum for community discussion, news organizations face difficult self-censorship issues in times of crisis when emotions run high. Newspapers sometimes filter letters to the editor and commentaries that contain vitriolic hate speech. And for news organizations that host online message boards, the decisions about which posts are acceptable and which should be removed can be a challenging one. This question became especially important after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when emotions ran high and hate speech quickly made its way into online discussions. When – if ever – should an organization censor the messages that are posted? Should journalists be allowed to participate in the online discussions? On Page 16, learn how organizations are answering these questions.
Since the 2001 attacks, there have been several alarms – most of them false ones – about additional terrorist threats. Throughout these perceived threats, the media has had to walk a difficult line to provide information without inciting unnecessary panic. On Page 21, our Media Leaders Forum addresses the questions that journalists faced during the anthrax and airline safety scares that came after the World Trade Center attacks. These challenges will likely come up again in the years after the campaign in Iraq is finished.
The ethical decisions often pondered by media critics and in ethics classrooms are the “big-picture” questions: How should anonymous sources be used? Why did a newspaper run a particular photo? Why did a television station use live shots of a sensitive scene? These are important issues, but they often are beyond the control of the rookie reporter just entering a newsroom. Some educators argue that ethics education should be refocused to address “low-power ethics” – the ethical dilemmas faced by a reporter at the bottom of the power structure in a newsroom. A reporter rarely has the ability to change newsroom policies, but that reporter does face ethical dilemmas with every story he or she writes. On Page 11, read about changes that some educators are making to their curricula in an attempt to better prepare these new reporters.
On Page 15, Russell Frank argues that his students may be too willing to censor the information that goes into stories. He complains that many students put sensitivity and privacy above legitimate news value.
The ethics of self-censorship are as applicable in the ongoing war coverage as they are in our daily community coverage. How much information should be provided about troop movements or war casualties? How confirmed do reports need to be before they are broadcast? What information from the battlefield should go into a story, and what details should be left out?
I hope the discussions in this issue will help you make decisions about self-censorship, whether the stories are about Iraq or the latest town hall controversy. The greatest responsibility journalists have is deciding what qualifies as news and what doesn’t, and the sometimes most difficult ethical decisions are the ones that determine what goes in the next day’s paper or the nightly broadcast.
Jeff Mohl is the editor of Quill.
Tagged under: Ethics