Ethics Week 2015: A question of balance

The theme of SPJ Ethics Week for 2015 is “Minimize Harm,” the third of the four basic tenets in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

All seven of the sub-sections of this tenet call on a reporter to make value judgments and to consider restraint in reporting information that he or she has a right to publish.

In fact, a new sub-section that was added in the 2014 revision to the Code is explicit: Journalists should “[r]ecognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

And the Code cautions, “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

The addition of the last three words — “or undue intrusiveness” – in last year’s revision demonstrates the need for a heightened sense of respect for privacy of private people.

Those individuals have a greater right to control private information about themselves than a politician or other public figure, the Code states. A journalist must weigh the consequences of publishing that information, all in a way that seeks to minimize harm.

As with most journalism ethics questions, there aren’t many bright-line, black-and-white answers. The journalist must go through the analysis weighing or balancing (the need to “balance” alternatives appears in two of the seven sub-sections) the best course of action.

The Code addresses one particular dilemma in the next-to-last sub-section: How and what and when to report in a criminal case when there has been a crime committed but no one has been arrested so far.

Sometimes authorities will identify a “person of interest” in a criminal investigation, but that is a mushy, inexact euphemism. Maybe the person is a suspect but there isn’t enough to charge him yet. Or maybe he or she has information. Or maybe dangling a name is a way provide bait in a police fishing expedition, where the authorities someone will come forward with info on the “person of interest.”

Should the reporter name the “person” if the cops have given a name? Maybe, or maybe not. The Code suggests that the journalist should “[c]onsider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.”

What will be the impact on that individual if his or her name is published or broadcast?

Take a look at the cases of Richard Jewell and Steven Hatfill, probably two of the most prominent “persons of interest” in the past 20 years, and ponder the impact of that term on their lives and reputations.

Jewell originally was a hero of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing. He was a security guard who discovered a backpack full of bombs who alerted the FBI. But the feds began to treat him as a “person of interest.” He was subjected to intense coverage, scrutiny and ridicule. The local U.S. Attorney cleared him several months later. Jewell filed a number of lawsuits, including libel claims against CNN, NBC and the New York Post. He settled the suits, usually for amounts that were not disclosed.

Following the 2001 anthrax attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft named Hatfill, a government researcher, as a person of interest in the case, which involved mailing anthrax in letters to politicians and media outlets immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

Hatfill’s name was splashed all over the newspapers and the airwaves. He steadfastly maintained he was innocent. His phone was tapped, his home was raided and he was fired from his job. He filed a lawsuit against the government, which settled in 2008 for $4.6 million, including a statement of complete exoneration for any involvement in the attack.

Paul Fletcher is the president-elect of SPJ and a member of the Ethics Committee. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, based in Richmond.


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