A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Brown-bag Ethics

By Quill

There seems to be no shortage of

ethical issues in journalism these days.

And we know not every decision is an easy one. But the most important thing in your decision is that you use sound reasoning when coming to a conclusion. That’s why SPJ has been collecting a number of case studies for discussion in newsrooms, classrooms and workshops. If you are an editor, plan a brown-bag lunch session with your staff and work through the following case studies. If you aren’t an editor, plant the seed in your boss’s head. Ethical decisions shouldn’t be made in a vacuum by one or two people. Open debate, and conduct a brown-bag ethics session in your newsroom.

Use the formula below, and the case studies on the following pages, to open debate in your newsroom (or within your circle of journalism peers).

WHAT: Describe the situation: assemble all relevant facts, list all the angles. In other words, do the reporting. Put the ethical dilemma in the form of a question; write it down, to be sure it makes sense.

After doing your reporting, you’re ready to pose the question. It’s usually a pretty basic one, such as: Do we publish this story? Do we include this information? Do we print this name?

WHO: The people who will make the decision and those who will be affected by it. First, decide who is responsible for the decision. The managing editor? The news director? Does this go all the way to the top? Then list the major stakeholders, including the subjects of the story and the general public. Remember that not everyone will be affected to the same degree by what you decide to do.

You may be able to think of others whose interest in the outcome of your decision should be considered.

WHY: These are principles you will use in deciding what to do. In most cases, it comes down to a balance between telling the truth and minimizing possible harms. Identify these and other moral responsibilities. The best decision is the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number of stakeholders.

HOW: This is your decision — how do you achieve the outcome you’ve identified as the best? How do you answer the question you raised in the first step? Again, if you write it down, you will have a better idea of whether it makes sense. Also, write down your rationale, and consider using your decision-making as part of your coverage. Articulating your reasoning will help you answer the questions you’re bound to get.

Editor’s Note: The Ethics AdviceLine operated by the Chicago Headline Club and Loyola University has provided a number of the following examples.

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