September 14, 2014

After a series of famous journalism scandals in the early 1980s, I was asked to kick-start an ethics program at the Poynter Institute. I felt fully prepared to be a writing teacher, but not an ethics one. So what would I do?

I read what I could; studied professional codes; consulted ethics scholars; became pals with the influential bio-medical scholar Arthur Caplan; and took part in countless conversations and debates about duty, truth, privacy, plagiarism, conflict of interest, and much more.

Perhaps my one contribution to the field was in the distinction between Red Light and Green Light ethics. In journalism, and in other fields, I expressed a preference for the articulation of what we should do (Green Light) over what we should avoid (Red Light).

That, as they say in the age of transparency, is where I am “coming from.”

Where, then, am I headed? At a time of seismic convulsions on the media landscape, I find myself leaning toward an approach articulated by public scholar Peter Levine in his book Living without Philosophy. What follows is not a summary of the book, but how I am using it as a compass.

At a moment when new codes of ethics are being drawn or revised, let’s begin with the inherent weaknesses therein. Codes, in my opinion, work the way early maps of the world worked: They provide you with the general shape of the cosmos. But they are of less use as a GPS system to get you from one specific place to another. Some elements are obvious (“Do not plagiarize”). Codes tend to put the onus of moral action on rank and file practitioners rather than on the owners and top managers of news enterprises. And they leave so much open for interpretation.

Legal scholar (and my college friend) Austin Sarat once explained at a Poynter seminar how unhelpful were certain codes of ethics. One might say “Lawyers must charge a fair price for their services.” Now think of the range of opinion and practice on the way to arriving at “fair.”

Beyond the codes, here is the other dilemma I learned from Levine: The history of philosophy (especially ethics) has left us with a series of “theories of justification,” ways of thinking designed to lead us to good decisions. To learn those, you study Aristotle, Jesus, Kant, Bentham, Rawls (John, not Lou), and Carol Gilligan. And you immediately confront a dilemma.

Say, for example, that a popular NFL Football player has beaten his wife in an elevator. Eventually, the video of that violent act and its immediate aftermath becomes available. You are the editor of a news organization. Will you show the video on your television program or website? How will you show it? And how often? And why? If only I had some ethics experts to guide me, you wonder. You are tempted to call up the folks at Poynter, but then think again. You reach higher. You roll out your Rolodex to Parnassus. You call on Aristotle, Jesus, Kant, Bentham, Rawls, and Gilligan.

Here’s the problem with those experts: Not only will they tell you different things; some of the most important things they have to say will contradict the others.

With apologies to anyone who has tried to teach me ethics, here are my thumbnail descriptions of these key theories of ethical decision making:

  1. Aristotle: My favorite Greek articulated the value of the “golden mean,” an approach to decision making that avoided the extremes and looked for some middle path. With Aristotle whispering in my ear, perhaps I would use the video of the crime, but use it just once. It’s first use would create a public clamor for justice and reform; but withholding it from subsequent use would prevent exploitation of the image and the victim. Or perhaps my middle path would be not to show the video itself but to describe in texts what it depicts.
  2. Jesus: From Aristotle to Jesus takes us from the golden mean to the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. The work of Carol Gilligan might lead us to a platinum rule: Do unto others as others want to have done to themselves. To accomplish this, you must escape the myopia of your own vision. You must go out and find out how the other person wants to be treated. The golden rule would have us identify with the victim (and to some extent with the abuser) depicted in the video and, through non-violent means, care and protect them.
  3. Kant:  When the Germans got in the act, they gave us the “categorical imperative.” That’s a big phrase, which may not be wise to throw around on deadline. Kant asks us to take our ethical decisions and be willing to turn them into universal laws. If we decide that lying is wrong, we must imagine it is wrong in all such cases. Let’s take someone who argues: No victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse must endure seeing her private life on public display without her permission. Or reporters should never use false identities in pursuit of the truth; or we will never use an anonymous source, even if we miss out on some important stories; or we will never ever pay a source for the story. That recurring word “never” is a sign that the author is on some Kantian wavelength.
  4. Jeremy Bentham: I associate Bentham with a school of ethics called “utilitarianism,” which offered, perhaps, the simplest moral algorithm: “the greatest good for the greatest number.” This, at times, requires using a person as a means. Within this frame, the privacy of the victim of abuse in the video must be sacrificed (or “utilized”) for some greater good. What might that be? The exposure of her pain brings to light the real experience of abuse in a way that motivates people to seek reform. Men and women are outraged. Crimes are prosecuted. Enablers of abuse lose their jobs. New rules and regulations are imposed. But what about that abused woman unconscious on the floor of the elevator? She needs John Rawls.
  5. John Rawls:  Rawls is considered one of the great scholars of politics and justice in the 20th century. In ethics, he is known for a process of decision making called the “veil of ignorance.”  The idea is to take all the potential stakeholders of a decision and place them behind a veil. Since the person who is most affected by a decision might be you, you are best off identifying with the most vulnerable stakeholder. By walking in the moccasins of the most vulnerable person, you protect the interests of most if not all parties.

    This model of thinking is an expression of what is often called “social contract” theory, that human beings make certain spoken and unspoken agreements among themselves to protect individuals and communities from harm. At first glance, it would appear, then, that the most vulnerable person behind the veil would be the abused woman. Publication of these images can be predictably embarrassing, hurtful, and damaging to her. She may, time and again, become a witness to her own humiliation, and the consequences to her and her abuser may feel destructive to her long-term interests. But wait! Perhaps this particular woman is not the most vulnerable stakeholder. Perhaps it is one – or any number – of unknown women who continue to be, or will become, victims of abuse because of the lack of reform.

  6. Carol Gilligan: In a critique of her teacher, who only used male subjects in his experiments, Gilligan argued persuasively that women would respond differently to ethical situations and case studies. While men tended to revert to law and other absolutes, women were more likely to take into account complex human relationships into their decision making. This is a philosophy of “difference,” that a diversity of perspectives will help enlighten stakeholders and lead agents to a better decision. Countless issues of race, gender, age, and social class, for example, are revealed in the circumstances surrounding cases of intimate partner abuse. When people argue for more inclusion in the discussion around such cases, they align themselves with an ethic of difference.

So what is a good journalist to do?

What has worked for me is to think of these various theories as tools rather than as abstract schools of thought. I don’t have to be a Kantian or a Christian in order to see the practical relevance of an idea or strategy from one of those ethics clubs. To help myself, and others, I have translated those theories into practical questions, what I might call, borrowing from the composition theorists, a process approach to ethics, especially on deadline. These questions have, shall we say, earned tenure at Poynter, being articulated, revised, adapted by teachers such as Bob Steele, Keith Woods, Kenny Irby, Kelly McBride, Aly Colon, and many others.

  1. What is my journalistic purpose in this case? What public good will it do? (Time to drag out Jeremy Bentham’s mummified body and raise a toast to the old man. There is a strong utilitarian stream in the thinking of journalists. While they might write about individuals, they imagine good things flowing through the social order)
  2. Who are the stakeholders and what are the likely consequences to them of publication? (A Rawlsian question, of a sort.)
  3. Are there any rules, laws, or standards that I should know about? (Kant is smiling.)
  4. Is there any way to avoid or minimize any harm that might come from publication? (Thank you, Jesus.)
  5. Whose voices would be a valuable part of the conversation? (Carol Gilligan)
  6. What are my alternatives? (Aristotle may point us to another way.)

In Living without Philosophy, Peter Levine suggests that good decisions can be made with a combination of common sense informed by practical conversations among practitioners and potential stakeholders. This appeals to me, but part of its appeal is to allow me to ask and discuss these questions, and to sort through, however quickly, the ideas that inspired them.

So here is my take on our case study.

  1. If the tape from inside the elevator was made available to me, I would view it, test its authenticity, take into consideration the biases and interests of the source.
  2. I would publish it in the public interest because: spousal abuse is a terrible social problem; because justice may not have been done in this particular case; because the abuser is a celebrity and public figure; because the events, however, personal, took place in a public place and immediately involved the intervention of public institutions; because he and others may have been enabled by people at the highest levels of his team and one of the world’s most powerful and profitable professional sports leagues.
  3. After initial publication, I would discontinue publication, even if other news organizations continued to make it available. This is an attempt, however insufficient, to minimize additional harm that may come to the victim and those closest to her.
  4. I would devote the resources I could afford to report and comment over time on this important issue. My Green Light sensibilities tell me to go, go, go; rather than no, no, no. My reporting would attempt to include as many key perspectives as possible, taking into account gender difference, race, social class, law enforcement, the judicial system, professional cultures, the status of children, and much more.

More questions: Would I pay to obtain the video? Would it be legal to obtain it? Are there ways to get access without payment? How would payment distort the reporting process in this case and others? Are powerful interests trying to prevent access or keeping it secret? As an occasional Kantian with escape hatches, my answer would be: “If I could afford to buy it, I would do so if I thought there was no other way to obtain it, and that it revealed enough information in the public interest that it would justify such a rare action.” If I bought it, I would disclose that to my audiences.

Finally, from an academic ethics point of view, what are the ethics of turning a person, such as the victim in the elevator, into a case study, where her name and image might exist in perpetuity for students and professionals to examine? I wish there were some experts around here to consult. Oh, wait….

Poynter’s News University has a free ethics course. It includes 20 questions for ethical decision making.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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