CHOOSING SUBJECT MATTER: TIMELINESS AND BALANCE


Editors around the world faced ethical dilemmas on September 12, 2001, when Richard Drew’s photograph of a man falling from the World Trade Center came across the wires. Some newspapers displayed the graphic prominently in their front section while others, such as the New York Times, buried it on page seven. But how would four renowned thinkers approach the same dilemma?

Ryerson graduate journalism students examined just that when they presented the critical thinking methods of Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls. The group sought to understand how an editor would decide on whether to publish the falling man photograph using the philosophical reasoning related to each thinker.

Aristotle has no set code of conduct for being virtuous, rather he is concerned with finding the mean between extreme and deficiency, according to group member Meghan Davidson Ladly. Aristotle’s thinking is akin to intuition.

“In this case the two extremes would be that running the photo could be seen to be sensationalist, while not running the photo could be viewed as paternalistic,” Davidson Ladly said.
Using Aristotle’s reasoning, the group would publish the photo.

“People were jumping off the World Trade Center … it did occur and should be noted in a way that conveys truthfully to the public the horror of that situation,” Davidson Ladly said. However, to follow the mean in this situation, she would avoid publishing the photo prominently on the first page, and would instead run it on an inside page.

Kant is primarily concerned with duty - specifically the duty to follow universal rules. Using his reasoning, Julia Chapman argued, the objective of journalism is to keep the public informed and tell the truth. It follows that it is a journalist’s duty to inform the public. Therefore, Chapman would publish the falling man photo.

“It is a truthful depiction of the desperation and horror people were faced with that day,” Chapman said.

John Stuart Mill, in his book, Utilitarianism, argued that actions are good if they promote, “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.” He called it the Greatest Happiness Principle.

“The photograph would be considered newsworthy because the image shows the extent of the desperation of the people involved,” Anna Piszczkiewicz said. “Yes, some people may say it is horrific, distasteful and unnecessary but most would say the photo needs to be shown so the greatest amount of people will understand the gravity of 9/11.”

Rawls argued that reasoning must come from behind the veil of ignorance—a sort of perfect or idealized objectivity—and consider the effect of a decision on the least advantaged member of society. Christine Dobby, using Rawls's reasoning, would not run the photo.

“It’s arguable that the least advantaged members would be the family of the person in the photo,” Dobby said. “Running the photo, although it may produce a net benefit to society by informing people of the true nature of what happened that day, it could be argued, would not benefit them as it would invade their privacy and cause them pain.”

Ivor Shapiro, the course instructor, praised the group’s effort in tackling such complex philosophies, but warned against over-simplifying.

“It is not especially helpful to ask ‘What would Kant have said, or what would Mill have done?’” Shapiro said, “But this gives us practice in thinking about moral decisions and practice in criticizing moral decisions.”

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