Principles of Morality and Privacy Consumers and Journalists Should Understand

Philosophical issues in journalism affect both those who work in the media and the general public. This report explores issues that are important to how the journalism business operates and how that business acts to change its consumers for the better and the worse.

The first chapter of the book, “What Makes a Story Newsworthy”, attempts to answer the question it poses. Joshua Halberstam in his article “A Prolegomenon for a Theory of News” and Benny Morson in his article “The Significant Facts” agree that what is counted as news is something that is important, affects people, and about consumer’s interests.

In Chapter two, “Morality, Competence, and Journalistic Excellence” Stephen Klaidman and Tom L. Beauchamp who wrote “The Virtuous Journalist: Morality in Journalism” and Stephen H. Daniel who wrote “Some Conflicting Assumptions of Journalistic Ethics” explain how journalists can deal with ethical issues and the differences between regular morality and journalistic morality.

Chapter three, “Publication and Free Speech”, features Judith Andre’s “‘Censorship: Some Distinctions” and John Stuart Mill’s “Liberty of Thought and Discussion”. These pieces explain attempts to suppress free speech by non-governmental forces.

Finally, chapter four, “Privacy, News Sources, and the Refusal to Testify”, includes W.A. Parent’s “Privacy, Morality, and the Law” and Philip Meyer’s “The Reporter’s Refusal to Testify”. These two pieces give an in-depth look at when the media has a right to obtain and print personal information.

Cohen starts by asking the question why some things are considered more “newsworthy” than others. Newsworthiness is a philosophical principal defined by Joshua Halberstam as the report of current events meeting specific criteria (Cohen, 8). According to Halberstam, news can be defined by using the “speech act” model, its importance to consumers, and the consumer’s interests. (Halberstam, 15)

Halberstam explains that the “speech act” model states that any report of current news that is published meets the definition of news. News is not discovered but is created through the act of publication according to this view. This idea cannot be underestimated. Studies indicate that issues that have the most coverage on television are issues that voters believe are the most important (Halberstam, 15). After September 11, 2001, media consumers realized how the news media can unify a society after a tragedy and how that unity can be a story in itself.

Newsworthiness can also be analyzed on its importance according to Halberstam. Importance is something that makes a difference in our lives either for the short term or long term. For example, a terrorist threat is more important than the result of last night’s baseball game. Some events receive more coverage than others do. No newspaper would give priority to a killing in Brooklyn over the destruction of the Mona Lisa” (Halberstam, 16).

An audience’s interest to a story also determines what news is, Halberstam explains. Specialty sections in the newspaper about cooking, movies, sporting events, and day trips are also “news” because people are interested in reading about these different types of activities (Halberstam, 18-19).

Halberstam focuses on defining news while Benny Morson focuses on the emotional importance of news to media consumers. Morson says that consumers care about stories that affect human emotions. Many of these stories inspire change at the federal level of government where change is often a slow process (Morson, 23).

The problems at Wheat Ridge Regional Center, a state-managed home for the mentally retarded, were discussed at a session of the Colorado House of Representatives. Morson, a legislative reporter at the time, explains that these problems involved the neglect of mentally retarded people. In order for this to be a story consumers would want to hear about, information on the conditions at Ridge, the cost of alternatives, and new standards of care being urged by advocacy groups would need to be made clear (Morson, 23).

A fact such as the amount of rainfall a state gets in a month mean nothing to consumers by itself, says Morson, but a fact takes on meaning if the rainfall amount results in drought conditions or heavy flooding (Morson, 24).

A journalist must have a clear understanding of morality in order to be an effective storyteller. Klaidman and Beauchamp define morality as “culturally transmitted rules of right and wrong conduct that establish the basic terms of social life” (Cohen, 35) and explain that these rules are “absolutely essential to social stability and the preservation of human decency” (Cohen, 35). The public is better served when journalists perform well because of good character than because of threats of laws (Cohen, 35-36).

Their definition of “good character” includes a variety of virtues such as fairness, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and nonmalevolence. Nonmalevolence is not acting in a malicious manner. Characteristics such as lying, conflict of interest, malevolence, unfairness, and a lack of respect for persons are minor moral problems compared to incompetence. Incompetence is the inability to place distance between personal beliefs and what is being reported (Klaidman and Beauchamp, 46).

One of the problems of journalism is that reporters sometimes fail to keep their writing phrased differently than their original source materials. Roy Peter Clark published the anthology Best Newspaper Writing 1982 which included an article on stock car racing written by Miami News reporter Tom Archdeacon who wrote about 100 words almost verbatim from a book written by Jerry Bledsoe of the Greensboro Daily News and Record. When Bledsoe discovered the apparent plagiarism and contacted Clark, Clark explained that he accidentally took more than 100 pages of notes in Bledsoe’s words but at the time thought they were his own words (Klaidman and Beauchamp, 46).

The article Archdeacon wrote was submitted to American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) for a contest. The ASNE explained that the act was not plagiarism but rather a mistake. The board, however, “deplores that such gross carelessness and sloppiness could be part of the working procedure of such a talented writer.” Unethical writing that is not plagiarism is incompetence with a moral dimension, says Klaidman and Beauchamp (Klaidman and Beauchamp, 46).

Would one’s sense of morality be different from a journalist’s sense of morality? Stephen H. Daniel defines the differences of “ordinary morality” and “journalistic morality” by stating that activities such as eavesdropping and provocative photography would not be accepted under ordinary morality but would be accepted under journalistic morality. (Daniel, 53-54)

Journalists must live in their own world and even though pictures with human suffering may make the photographer seem insensitive, these pictures are a way to report a human drama and such pictures are those that win journalistic prizes. Large financially solvent newspapers, television stations, and journalists are more likely to act in “morally responsible ways” says Daniel (Daniel, 53-54).

Judith Andre explains that newspapers often block publication of opinions since private individuals or interest groups aim at keeping things from being published. Attempts at preventing the publication of items are always morally wrong, but there are considerations to determine whether a given attempt is morally justified (Andre, 60).

Her criteria include “the kind of tactics used by the individuals seeking to block publication, the particular obligation of news editors to provide all sides of a debate, the nature of the material objected to, and the certainty about the value of the targeted material” (Andre, 60-61).

Some material should be blocked because some views have “already been given enough of a hearing to warrant dismissing them” (Andre, 62) such as the opinions of Satanists and child molesters. Obviously, there will always be some information that is not published because there are practical constraints on what can be published due to time and space limitations (Andre, 62).

John Stuart Mill agrees with Andre in saying that not all opinions are equally true or useful. However, he believes that nobody can ever be certain that one’s beliefs are true and that opposing ones are false (Cohen, 61).

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (Mill, 64).
An opinion that is suppressed may in fact be true says Mill but suppressed opinions can never be fully understood or appreciated. Those who are in opposition to an opinion seek to silence that particular opinion. He warns that a person who does not fully understand an issue is apt to form a prejudice about it (Mill, 73).

An example of this principle is the fact that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. attempts to silence the opinions of those who are opposed to new Wal-Mart stores or to Wal-Mart practices. Those opposed to Wal-Mart may claim that its stores are not environmentally friendly and the chain hurts its competition to the point that it is forced to close. Although it can be said that discount chains like Bradlees, Caldor, and recently Ames Department Stores have filed for bankruptcy and consequently closed their stores, Wal-Mart often injects a lot of money in the markets they serve even non-profit organizations seeking to revitalize downtown areas. Wal-Mart states that its community involvement initiatives help improve education, provide funds for local and national community causes, benefit children, and help the environment (Walmart.com).

No one opinion is the truth and by understanding multiple opinions on an issue, one can understand the whole truth. A community should learn both the positive and negative consequences of a new Wal-Mart store rather than simply listen to Wal-Mart officials or those in vocal opposition at a town meeting.

An opinion can be either positively or negatively says Andre. Positive attempts provide information, reasons, and argument and explain that if the recommended action is wrong than the Decision-Maker is not correctly performing their duties. Negative attempts often use blackmail or physical threats (Andre, 79).

Andre identifies three types of pressure groups, which include political, emotional, and economic, enable opinions to gain power by making others feel uncomfortable and limit their freedom. Political pressure groups seek to threat to vote against members who are doing actions the group does not approve of, i.e. citizens would not re-elect town councilors who approved construction of a new Wal-Mart if the citizens were opposed to it. The constant public expression of displeasure is shown by emotional pressure groups. This would be done through carrying of signs protesting Wal-Mart near the proposed site by those opposed to the store. While economic pressure groups threaten to boycott the buying of goods or services (Andre, 79). These groups would refuse to buy products at Wal-Mart and instead shop elsewhere.

Andre argues that attempts are sometimes morally legitimate while Mill argues that attempts are self-defeating and unfair. Andre believes that a publisher’s willingness to yield to an attempt may constitute an acceptable form of editing under certain circumstances. Mill, however, would call this a serious form of assault on the freedom of speech (Cohen, 63).

One of the deepest ethical questions of journalism relates back to Daniel who suggested that journalists should respect privacy but the journalism business does not reward such respect but rather rewards behaviors violating a person’s privacy. An example of a violation of one’s privacy is when photographers took pictures of the injured and dead during the World Trade Center attack. Photographers took pictures of police officers and fire fighters who have rights to privacy just as anyone else.
W.A. Parent defines the “condition of privacy” as “the condition of not having undocumented personal knowledge about one possessed by others.” (Parent 91-92) One’s privacy is lost when others know information about an individual that most people do not know. For example, a person regards information about their weight, health problems, drinking habits, and martial problems as private matters they only tell to close friends or relatives (Parent, 91-92).

Parent acknowledges that everyone has a right to privacy. When person A knows personal information about person B, person A can harm or exploit person B. Person A can use this personal information to embarrass person B and by telling more people about person A’s personal information can violate person A’s status as an independent being (Parent, 97-98).
To analyze whether the invasion of privacy is needed in performing one’s journalistic duties, journalists should ask themselves a variety of questions about the purpose and use of such information: “For what purpose(s) is the undocumented personal knowledge sought?, Is this purpose a legitimate and important one?, Is the knowledge sought through invasion of privacy relevant to its justifying purpose?, Is invasion of privacy the only or the least offensive means of obtaining the knowledge?, What restrictions or procedural restraints have been placed on the privacy-invading techniques?, What protection is to be afforded the personal knowledge once it has been acquired?” (Parent, 100).

However, it is difficult to define what is legitimate and important information says Parent. Newsgathering’s purpose is all about obtaining stories that satisfy the interests of the community. An example that highlights the difficulty of balancing privacy with public interest is when The New Yorker decided to do a story on William Sidis, a child prodigy, who lectured to Harvard professors on the Fourth Dimension at age 11, and later sought solitude and privacy. The story invaded his privacy so he sued but lost the case (Parent, 104).

In Parent’s opinion, Sidis should have won since the press should not be able to publish anything it wants because of limitations to the freedom of the press such as pornography and libel. He argues that an invasion of privacy should have been included as one of those limitations since the public did not need to know about Sidis’s later life (Parent, 104).

Cohen believes that if reporters always respected their subject’s right to privacy, the ability of the reporter to report on the news would be seriously impaired. Even if the media believes that there was a “legitimate and important” purpose more compelling than the right to privacy does not mean that the purpose results in one’s rights not being violated. (Cohen, 89)

If information about an individual is documented with the consent of the subject, than that information can be published. Cohen defines consent of the subject as the giving of permission to print personal knowledge about the subject in an uncoerced manner making the subject fully informed of the information that could be published (Cohen, 89).

The advent of the Internet will allow more opinions to be available to media consumers that are currently “edited” by gatekeepers such as librarians and news editors. The Internet also allows consumers more flexibility in tailoring news important to them. Time limitations in a thirty-minute news show and space limitations in a newspaper take away this flexibility for traditional media sources. Though the Internet is changing journalism, the issues discussed in Philosophical Issues in Journalism will continue to be important in the next century.

References

Andre, Judith. “‘Censorship’: Some Distinctions.” In Philosophical Issues in Journalism. Edited by: Cohen, Elliot D. New York: Oxford, 1992.

Cohen, Elliot D. (Editor) Philosophical Issues in Journalism. New York: Oxford, 1992.

Daniel, Stephen H. “Some Conflicting Assumptions of Journalistic Ethics.” In Philosophical Issues in Journalism. Edited by: Cohen, Elliot D. New York: Oxford, 1992.

Halberstam, Joshua. “A Prolegomenon for a Theory of News.” In Philosophical Issues in Journalism. Edited by: Cohen, Elliot D. New York: Oxford, 1992.

Klaidman and Beuchchamp. Klaidman, Stephen and Beauchamp, Tom L. “The Virtuous Journalist: Morality in Journalism.” In Philosophical Issues in Journalism. Edited by: Cohen, Elliot D. New York: Oxford, 1992.

Morson, Benny. “The Significant Facts.” In Philosophical Issues in Journalism. Edited by: Cohen, Elliot D. New York: Oxford, 1992.

Parent, W.A. “Privacy, Morality, and the Law.” In Philosophical Issues in Journalism. Edited by: Cohen, Elliot D. New York: Oxford, 1992.

Walmart.com. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. “Our Commitment to Communities: Wal-Mart’s Good.Works. Community Involvement Initiatives.” As of November 24, 2002. http://www.walmartstores.com/

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