Ethical Dilemmas

The objectives of journalism sometimes conflict with journalistic ethics. In such cases, the individual journalist or organization must decide which should be prioritized. Since the goal of journalism is to distribute information, the ethical considerations of privacy and confidentiality restrict the distribution of certain information, and many ethical issues in journalism center on the tension between privacy and disclosure.

The Pentagon Papers

In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the dilemma was between exposing massive political deceit and protecting the secrecy of classified documents. The documents in question detailed the history of the Vietnam War, including descriptions of internal policies and military actions that had been kept from the public. The papers revealed that the Kennedy Administration had planned to overthrow South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, despite professing surprise at his death in a coup. They also revealed that the attitude of the Johnson Administration towards the escalation of the war, the use of ground troops, and the purpose of the war was almost diametrically opposed to what Johnson claimed publicly. In 1964, Johnson claimed that he would not send American troops to fight on the ground, and maintained that the purpose of the war was to secure an “independent, non-Communist South Vietnam.” The Pentagon papers revealed that the administration denied any change in military policy even after ground operations began and that Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton prioritized preventing “a humiliating US defeat” over preventing the spread of communism or acting in the best interests of South Vietnam.

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post gained access to the papers through military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, publishing excerpts and analyses in 1971. The Nixon Administration obtained an injunction to stop publication of the papers and charged Ellsberg under the Espionage Act of 1917, arguing that publication of the papers interfered with military operations. The charges were dismissed in court, creating a precedent for greater journalistic freedom where classified documents are concerned.

Confidentiality and Justice

Journalists often face more mundane decisions between protecting confidentiality and exposing important information. This is especially common when interviewing sources who confess crimes to the interviewer after being promised confidentiality. Often the decision to protect or expose the source comes down to the perceived seriousness of the crime. Nick Martin-Clark, a freelance journalist in Northern Ireland, developed a rapport with a loyalist prisoner who confessed a murder to Martin-Clark after being promised confidentiality. Martin-Clark published the confession in the Sunday Times and testified in the resulting trial. He believed that his duty to uphold the public good trumped the promise of confidentiality in this case. In his own words,

[D]espite the difficulty of going against a source, this was a promise I eventually felt, after some agonizing, that I could not keep. [. . .] There was a clear public interest in solving a murder [. . .] [S]omeone who might well have killed again will now almost certainly never have the chance to do so. (2003)

There was a considerable backlash in the journalistic community against Martin-Clark’s decision to betray his source. John Coulter of the Irish Daily Star argued, “the fundamental ethical principle of journalism is that we have a moral imperative to give a guarantee of anonymity to genuine confidential sources providing bona fide information.” (2005) However, as journalist and academic Michael Foley pointed out, determining the veracity of an anonymous source is often difficult, and perhaps journalists should adopt a general policy of using anonymous sources as sparingly as possible. He suggests that journalists ask themselves, “Are my actions or decisions likely to increase the trust between me and my readers, viewers, or listeners?” (2004, “Absolutism and the Confidential Controversy”) Views from all points on the spectrum from confidentiality as an absolute duty to a strictly utilitarian viewpoint abound, highlighting the ambiguity of this type of ethical dilemma.

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