Minimizing harm relative to the public importance of the matter

(The original version of this entry was written by Wendy Gillis)

Image care of Kewei Shang, shared through Creative Commons

Proportionality: minimizing harm relative to the public importance of the matter

The Supreme Court of Canada's groundbreaking ruling in Grant v. Torstar not only established a new defense for defamation in Canada, it strongly emphasized the importance journalism plays in fostering an educated, thoughtful and empowered public. In defining Public Interest Responsible Communication, the ruling stipulates “the publication must be on a matter of public interest... the subject matter must be shown to be one inviting public attention, or about which the public has some substantial concern because it affects the welfare of citizens, or one to which considerable public notoriety or controversy has attached" (Grant 99 and 105). In making public interest a mandatory element of the defense, the supreme court's message is clear: responsible journalism provides a service in society, thus it should be protected under the law.

It does not follow, however, that journalism in the public interest can always be deemed responsible—that, because it would qualify for protection under the defence, it is ethically and morally justifiable. In reality, serving the public interest is but one ideal a journalist must consider; while seeking out and supplying information is his/her primary function, a journalist must aim to do so while limiting unnecessary intrusion into privacy, pain, or otherwise negative consequences of his/her work. In other words, to uphold journalistic (and, often, individual) standards of ethical behaviour, a reporter must attempt to minimize harm.

The problem is, of course, that the journalistic ideals of providing public information and minimizing harm are frequently at odds with one another. How does a journalist reconcile minimizing harm and providing information of public interest and importance?

Minimizing harm: What does “ethically justifiable” mean, anyway?

Journalism is not a professionalized practice—the foremost reason being the contentious and near impossible task of outlining rules that apply in all circumstances—but that doesn’t mean guidance on professional conduct is not constantly needed. Beginning in the 1920s, professional journalism codes were developed (Daniel 51), outlining behaviour generally considered appropriate and desirable– many urging journalists to keep harm caused by their work to a minimum. One such guideline is the Society of Professional Journalists’ 1996 code, which emphasizes the importance of minimizing harm: “Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect;” that includes showing compassion for those who might be adversely affected by coverage and recognizing that only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy (Foreman 89). Other codes offer similar formulations of the SPJ’s tenet, such as the American Society of News Editors’ Statement of Principles, which says “(j)ournalists should respect the rights of people involved in the news, observe the common standards of decency” (ASNE Statement of Principles). Media outlets, too, often have in-house codes, such as the Toronto Star’s policy manual (based upon the Atkinson principles), which proclaims “every person has a right to privacy. There are inevitable conflicts between the right to privacy and the public good or the right to be informed about the conduct of public affairs. Each case should be judged in the light of common sense and humanity” (Toronto Star Policy Manual, 3). The authors of Doing Ethics in Journalism also argue that minimizing harm is connected to the values of humaneness, and “based on our responsibility to treat others with decency and to allow them their dignity even in the worst of circumstances. It is connected to a concern for the consequences of our actions.” (Black, Steele and Barney, 40, as quoted in Foreman, 91).

One need not necessarily follow an explicit code to determine the ethical course of action, either, says Lynette Sheridan Burns, author of Understanding Journalism. Virtue ethics, as defined by Aristotle, separate ethics from action by emphasizing the influence of the individual’s character—if the journalist was a morally upright person, then his or her decisions were ethical by association (66). Burns also cites the consequence-focused approach—known as utilitarianism or consequentialism—where actions are ethically justifiable if the result is for the greater good.

There are, then, various ways for a journalist to measure her/his work in ethical terms. In most, there is a explicit instruction to consider possible adverse effects of journalism on the public and find ways to minimize the hurt or harm that might arise.

“This is journalism—no matter what you do, you're going to hurt someone”

When it comes to the average day in the newsroom, however, how useful are codes of conduct and philosophies of ethics? According to Stephen Daniel’s “Some Conflicting Assumptions of Journalistic Ethics,” codes such as the SPJ’s demonstrate the need on behalf of journalists to formulate rules of conduct that “embodied the ethical problems of ordinary human interaction and communication” (51). But a substantial problem lies therein: “Most journalists do not live and work in an environment of ordinary interaction and communication,” Daniel writes, saying factors such as attempting to minimize personal prejudices, probing deep into subject matter and even risking one’s life for a story removes the enterprise from the realm of normal human interaction (51). As a result, many journalists place little weight in philosophic arguments for respecting the privacy of individuals or for avoiding conflicts of interest, he says, for such arguments are intended to apply to ordinary human interactions (Daniel 51). In other words, the role of journalist carries with it inherent complications; it is, under certain circumstances, exempt from the otherwise standard ethical framework, often in the name of the grander task of finding and reporting truth. Take Daniel’s example of a Louisville-Courier Journal publisher who admitted that, while the eavesdropping practices of some of his reporters were morally wrong, they also exhibited “the vigorous enterprise and competitive spirit that is... a standard of excellence in journalism” (51). Those who were being listened in upon unknowingly had their privacy rights violated—but it was to serve the larger function of providing truth the public. The public importance of the matter superseded the aim to minimize harm.

This quest to find and report the truth frequently takes precedence over minimizing harm; in countless—some journalists might say most—situations, it will not be possible for a reporter to provide information without producing some negative effect. While speaking about the SPJ’s code of ethics, American news director Jerry Bohnen said when his radio station was covering the Oklahoma City bombings, there was little time to consider the four elements, especially minimizing harm; the station carried its first report of the bombing within one minute of the blast. “Minimize harm... Man, we didn't even have time to think about what we were doing, much less even consider if what we were reporting minimized harm or not. This is journalism—no matter what you do, you're going to hurt someone” (Tallent 42). Similarly, in The Ethical Journalist, Gene Forman points to a story out of The St. Petersburg Times, where a distraught mother appeared in a photo on the front page of the metro section shortly after her four-year-old son was rushed to the hospital (and died thereafter) (100). The paper received negative feedback from users because of their coverage—including such comments as “Have you no heart?”—but the editor of the section defended the position, saying “the newspaper is expected to cover major events in its community thoroughly and accurately” (Foreman 101,102).

In both these examples, the primary focus was the media outlet’s responsibility to report news; when confronted with clashing ideals, getting the information out was what these journalists decided mattered most. This line of thinking exemplifies what Christopher Hanson calls “one principle reasoning” in his essay, “Weighing The Costs of a Scoop.” “Merely citing a guiding principle of journalism—even citing one as basic as informing the public—is not sufficient to justify a news decision involving conflicting principles” (34). Yet, the journalist’s role as truth provider is frequently used to justify stories; while providing information is undoubtedly the key role of the journalist, it cannot be used as a license to invade private lives or cause harm—as it says in the SPJ code, “recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance” (Foreman, 89). In Understanding Journalism, John Wilson goes further than calling the one principle reasoning more than just arrogant: “Inventive use of (public interest) justifies the worst journalistic behaviour.”

"A plea of 'in the public interest' is a favourite defence for journalists under attack. It is at the heart of the argument about the extent to which prying reporters and cameras should be allowed to invade personal privacy... Grand theory says journalism is a function fundamentally in the public interest" (Wilson 32).

Indeed, the abuse of the role to provide truth is, in part if not in full, due to this grand theorization Wilson speaks of. As David Berry writes in Journalism, Ethics and Society, “the public interest principle is given greater weight in ethical decision making and is therefore given priority; in effect, the public interest principle becomes the main principle that underpins responsibility” (Berry 88). Public interest and responsibility is intrinsically linked to the ‘public right to know,’ Berry writes, something he traces back to Edmund Burke’s ideas of the fourth estate: “The gentleman of the press were in the gallery of Parliament to justify what was formally established as the ‘public right to know’, which was eventually subsumed within the idea of public interest— an ideal that is ardently defended provided the actions of the journalist “do not fall outside what is considered to be proper moral behaviour” (Berry 89).

However, he goes on to say that a journalist must weigh their decision on firm ethical criteria, but “there are no real sanctions that can be imposed if a journalist refuses to abide by a code of conduct that is too weak to be taken seriously in the competitive commercialized world that governs modern journalistic practice” (Berry, 90). In short, journalists are justified in pursuing a story about which the public has the right or interest in knowing, provided they do so morally. The catch? In the fast-paced, business-oriented journalism world, there is no substantial recourse if a reporter fails to follow the conduct codes.

“Anytime we cover these events it's hard, we have to figure out the balance”

As we have seen, when confronted with conflict within journalistic ideals—specifically, minimizing harm versus the public importance of the matter—providing the story tends to come out on top. But reporters and editors can hardly be faulted for the hierarchical organization of ideals, where information-giving rules over all else. The truth is, it is ingrained in journalists that this is the rightful organization of priorities. As Kovach and Rosenstiel write in The Elements of Journalism, “the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self governing” (12), going on to say that “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth” (36). Poynter Institute for Media Studies’ Director of Ethics Bob Steele agrees, saying "the obligation of journalism to do its very best to seek out the truth and to report it, to portray events and issues as best as possible, even when the revelations of words and sounds and pictures and images cause some harm” (Privacy in America, 215). Steele recommends journalists begin with the assumption—rather, the “obligation”— that information be published and broadcast, unless there is an overriding reason to the contrary—”and that should be rare” (215). The objective, then, is finding a way provide the information in a manner that reduces the potential harm—in other words, it’s not a matter of publishing or not, it’s a matter of how to publish, how to approach and interview sources, and how to treat the subjects of journalistic inquiry.

This was the recent challenge for journalists covering the trial of former Canadian Forces Colonel Russell Williams, who was convicted of two murders, sexual assault and fetish break and enters in October. Not only were they faced with special challenges to the public importance versus minimizing harm debate, thanks to Twitter (the judge’s allowance of smart phones in the courtroom meant journalists could tweet the disturbing and horrifying details, which undoubtedly caused harm to many and was questionable from a public interest standpoint) but they had to deal with approaching family members and loved ones for information and comments. This is acknowledged in the SPJ’s code with its own tenet which states that journalists "should be sensitive when seeking interviews and photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief” (Foreman 89). This is because, in these circumstances, journalists might actually inflict harm by their presence, says Foreman, therefore “compassion should be a priority when interviewing... the kin of someone who has been killed in a tragic accident” (93).

Throughout the months since Williams was arrested, the mother and brother of Jessica Lloyd, one of the slain women, were constantly in the media spotlight, forced to relive the painful moments of finding out their family member was missing, then dead. The shock of dealing with the media in such a high-profile case took its toll to such a degree that brother Andrew Lloyd included in his victim impact statement that it’s been difficult for the family to grieve because of the media attention. Both the judge in the case and the lawyers acknowledged the impact of the intense attention on the families and the victims of the break-ins and assaults, with crown attorney Lee Burgess saying “at this most difficult time they simply want to be left alone to grieve.”

But how can a journalist attempt to fully capture the story of tragic murders and betrayal without including the human toll? Capturing the whole story is what kept Toronto Star photographer Steve Russell going each morning he covered the trial, simultaneously knowing his pictures were making it more difficult for the families to carry on with their lives. He says the photographers ended up pissing off Andrew Lloyd when he and his mother left court before hearing the agreed statements of facts about Jessica’s death. But he did not turn off his camera, walk away and refuse to shoot. Instead, he consciously aimed for balance: “Anytime we cover these events it's hard, we have to figure out the balance of coverage... how we cover the accused and the victims. I feel for the Lloyds, the large amount of media coverage makes it difficult to get pictures sometimes and we end up pushing the bubble around the family a little too much” (Russell, Toronto Star Photo Blog)

Ultimately, however, by providing images of the Lloyds’ suffering and reaction to the case, the story was not just about brutal crimes of a murder—it was about their devastating impact. “Andy Lloyd is a brave man... he shows up at almost every court appearance with one purpose in mind: to make sure that the story was also about his sister and her life. A heavy burden” (Russell).

“You have to keep in mind that the word is minimize”: Finding the best way to tell the story

It is only in the rare cases when a journalist will justifiably omit information from the public record—the rest of the time, be prepared to cause harm, says a former SPJ president and current chair of the society’s ethics board. “As a journalist, you have to recognize that the work that you do is never going to be harmless, and it is going to have an impact, particularly stories that matter, that have social impact,” says Kevin Smith, who spent 20 years working for community newspapers in West Virginia and Ohio and now teaches college-level journalism. “ It doesn’t say eliminate harm. The idea is that you should at least try and minimize it.” Smith agrees with Irwin Gratz when he writes that “even responsible journalists sometimes must — and do — trample on individual rights in pursuit of the news that makes society, as a whole, safer and more honest” (Gratz 93).

The key, says Smith, is being empathetic, respectful, courteous, and understanding. Regarding the Lloyd’s constant, unwanted media attention, Smith says reporters should always be asking themselves if the information they are seeking is worth the pain they are inflicting. “You have to ask if intrinsic harm that’s caused by continuing to go back to the victim's family outweighs the information and the value that you’re going to be adding to your story. That’s the question you need to ask yourself as a journalist. If the answer is no, then why bother that person?” He says a better option reporters could have offered the Lloyds would have been to speak to them all at once. He also questions whether it's necessary for journalists to turn to family and friends of victims every time there is a small development in a story.

Smith not only speaks as a journalist; he has been in Andrew Lloyd’s situation. Several years ago, Smith’s brother was killed in a coal mining accident, and Smith was working as a journalist the day it happened. It was front page news, and Smith became the media spokesperson for the family and his sister-in-law. He said he spoke openly about what happened, and felt that journalists were respectful—he felt that if he didn’t want to talk about his brother’s death anymore, the journalists would have understood. The experience demonstrated that it’s possible for journalists to both limit the potential harm they may cause as well as perform their reportorial duties simply by being aware of the consequences of their work and acting accordingly. “If they can do that for me, and still churn out stories that inform, then it seems to me they can do that for everybody.”

Works Cited

American Society of News Editors, Statement of Principles. Accessed October 22, 2010.

Berry, D. (2008). Journalism, Ethics & Society. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Burns, L.S. (2002). Understanding Journalism. London: SAGE.

Daniel, S.H. (1992). "Some Conflicting Assumptions of Journalistic Ethics. In Cohen, E.D. (Ed.), Philosophical Issues in Journalism. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 51-59.

Foreman, G. (2010). The Ethical Journalist. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Grant v. Toronto Star. 2009. Supreme Court of Canada 61.

Gratz, I. (2005). "Ethical questions are often answered by SPJ's code." Quill, 93(3), 4.

Hanson, C. (2003). "Weighing the Costs of a Scoop." Columbia Journalism Review (January/February), p. 34-38. Retrieved October 24, 2010 from ComAbstracts database.

Intelligencer Staff, "Killer gets Life." The Belleville Intelligencer, accessed October 22, 2010.

Klovach, B. & Rosentstiel, T. (2007). The Elements of Journalism. New York: Three Rivers.

Russell, S. "The perpetual perp walk, the Russell Williams trial." Toronto Star, Accessed October 2010.

Steele, B. in Black, J. (1994). "Privacy in America: The Frontier of Duty and Restraint." Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 9(4), p. 215.

Smith, Kevin. Telephone interview. October 22, 2010.

Tallent, R. (1997). "New ethics code not to restrain, but minimize harm." Quill, 85(11), 42.

Toronto Star Policy Manual. Internally Circulated Document. Accessed October, 2010.

Wilson, J. (1996). Understanding Journalism: A Guide To Issues. New York. Routledge.


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