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What’s the harm in truth telling?

Should journalists commit first to telling the truth and only secondarily weigh the harm their reports might cause? Or should harm and truth be considered more as equals?

I banged into these issues last week with a post about Channel 4 naming uncharged arrestees. Three journalism pros emailed me back channel, and their discussion shows how ethical protocols differ, even among journalists who take ethics seriously. Thinking that thoughtful readers might be interested in the debate, here’s a summary of the discussion, with the authors’ permission.

In the original story, I quoted station news director Scott Libin justifying his decision to name more arrestee names: “The Society of Professional Journalists says [our] primary obligation is to seek the truth and report it as fully as possible. Not seek the truth and hold it. Second is journalistic independence, and the third is minimizing harm — but that’s third. To me, that means we don’t need a good reason to report what’s true, but a good reason not to.”

Andy Schotz, a reporter who chairs SPJ’s National Ethics Committee, wrote to clarify:

“The four sections of the SPJ Code of Ethics are not listed in numerical order or in order of importance. ‘Minimize Harm’ should not be interpreted as automatically less (or more) important than ‘Seek Truth and Report It.’ Indeed, the sections sometimes conflict … and might require a balancing test before you reach a decision. Also, the ‘order’ of the sections wasn’t right. ‘Minimize Harm’ is the second section listed, not the third. …”

The primary principle

Well, that last error is mine, not Libin’s. I truncated the first part of his original quote; Libin was actually crediting Bob Steele, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute (where Libin worked before coming to Channel 4). Steele’s work (and subsequent book) drew on SPJ expertise and may have influenced its code, but there are differences, as I would soon learn.

Up popped an email from Steele, backing Libin. “It was my intention … that ‘Seek the Truth and Report It As Fully As Possible’ is the PRIMARY principle for journalists. It speaks to the unique and essential mission of journalism and the most important obligation and duty of journalists. … The principal of ‘Minimize Harm’ is exceptionally important, but it is not primary.”

Steele added that in rare instances, where “PROFOUND HARM … outweighs the value of telling the truth, it may be necessary for the minimize harm principle to outweigh the truth telling principle. Even then, we should search for alternative decisions/actions that will allow us to tell as much of the truth as possible and as soon as possible while we also take steps to minimize harm.”

On some level, both take harm into account, but it appears SPJ gives that consideration more equivalence.

So, to sum this in list form, SPJ’s principles are, in no particular order:

• Seek the Truth and Report It
• Minimize Harm
• Act Independently (of anything but the public’s right to know)
• Be Accountable

Steele’s paradigm:

1.    Seek the Truth and Report It as Fully As Possible
2.    Act Independently
3.    Minimize Harm

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 03/25/2008 - 07:41 pm.

    It seems to me that a large part of this discussion would center on what constitutes “harm” and what “quantity” does “minimize” represent?

    Both terms are subjective and a nonstop source of debate in many newsrooms.

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