Moral Difficulties Involved in War Reporting

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Historical perspective on the evolution of journalistic ethics .

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Ethical Dilemma

  • Should reporters ever leak and/or publish classified information in a time of war?

Arguments opposed applying principles of Deontology and Utilitarianism to the ethical dilemma

Journalists covering wars and conflicts are faced with numerous ethical dilemmas regarding professional codes of conduct, laws regulating national security and personal commitments to ideals such as the public’s right to know, and acting as the fourth estate (with the first three estates being the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government).

Of the ethical theories we studied in the Communication Ethics course, I chose to compare and contrast Deontology and Utilitarianism, describe how they apply to a specific moral difficulty, and detail what conclusions can e drawn. For brevity sake, I have left out such theories as Justice and Fairness, Care Ethics, Virtue Ethics, and Moral Intuition as described by Jordin and Beaken (2009). I have also left out numerous other dilemmas, such as the role advocacy or bias plays in the journalism profession as it relates to war and conflict. Here are just a few of the contemporary moral difficulties that could be examined:

  1.  Should reporters use neutral labels to describe terrorists? When is a terrorist a terrorist?
  2. When can wartime photos and video incite violence? What are the journalist's responsibilities?
  3. Should reporters ever leak and/or publish classified information in a time of war?
  4. Can (and should) news media be used for war propaganda or censorship?
  5. What would public support have been like for WWI, WWII or Korea if there had been unlimited and unregulated scrutiny as there is today with broadcast and digital media?

The conflict I am specifically examining, and the moral difficulties it presents, involves the current conflict in Iraq. To thoroughly examine one dilemma within this paper’s space limitation, I have chosen number three: should reporters ever leak and/or publish classified information in time of war?

It is in this area that, while researching the above moral difficulties, I found a significant variation in attitude from war to war. Historical perspective on the evolution of journalistic ethics I found it is useful to place this examination within the historical context and journalistic attitudes of just a few of many past conflicts reaching as far back as the American Revolutionary War period. Ben Franklin was one of America’s earliest and most influential journalists (Burns 2006). Burns says (p. 91), “. . . he was as ethical a journalist as America produced in the eighteenth century.

Yet, he deceived on occasion, but only because he thought it was a better way to tell a story, and only because he believed his readers were sophisticated enough to know the ruse and understand that it served a deeper purpose. ” Franklin’s newspaper, magazine, and others he inspired covered political and foreign news and wars. War reporting of the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1763, which began in Europe as the Seven Years’ War, provided exciting reading to colonists. Reports were common of troop movements, battles and scalpings. Advocacy journalism was in full flourish, and readers were encouraged (Burns 2006, p. 121) “. . .  resist their French and Indian attackers. ” As taxes were increased in the colonies, newspapers began to encourage disobedience and a boycott of British goods. Franklin summarized the state of ethical journalism of the American Revolutionary War when he wrote that “. . . the press not only can ‘strike while the iron is hot,’ but it can ‘heat’ it by continually striking. ” Richards (2005) states the prevalent newspaper partisanship of 17th and 18th century began changing in the 19th century to a more neutral position. This was due to the increasing dependence on advertising revenue, and the need to appeal to the broadest market possible.

He also identifies news coverage of the Spanish-American War and the circulation wars between Hearst and Pulitzer as a low point in American journalism, and providing impetus to a call for more objectivity and defined standards. That came in 1910 when the first code of ethics was created by the Kansas Editorial Association and in 1923 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Covered in these and subsequent books and codes were such ethical topics as reporting on national security, fairness and accuracy. The Hutchins Commission in 1947 (Richards 2005, p. 8) “. . . introduced two key notions – the ‘public good’ and the ‘greater responsibilities’ of the press. ” He adds, “According to this theory, the responsibilities of the press . . . were to be emphasised over its freedoms, and the press was to be considered subject to moral and ethical restrictions. ” During the second half of the 20th century there was considerable criticism of this social responsibility theory. For instance, Richards queries to whom are the journalists responsible, what should the media be free to do, and why are they watching the government rather than the governed?

Also, how does the journalist determine the public good and of which of many potential publics are we speaking? To summarize, there have been times throughout journalistic history when deception and taking sides was acceptable, but objectivity and responsibility were largely considered to be professional standards as we entered the 21st century. Deontology and Utilitarianism Of the many methods for applying ethical theories to war reporting, I narrowed the choice down to Deontology and Utilitarianism as referenced in the introduction.

Deontology involves applying a universal set of principles (Jordin 2009, p. 15) “. . . which makes the duty or the obligations we owe other human beings the fundamental principle of ethics. ” Doing our duty is not based on a particular set of circumstances. Since acts are judged only by their consequences, the means justify the ends. Utilitarianism is defined by the consequences of actions, not the act’s moral or intrinsic value. Jordin (2009, p. 17) states, “Where deontological theories thus talk more in terms about what is right, consequentialist theories are more concerned with the good. Moral worth is determined by its ability to produce the most amount of good for the greatest number. Here, the ends justify the means. How can these two standards help answer our ethical dilemma? We can answer this question by examining a few cases from the current Iraq conflict and others. Ethical Dilemma: Should reporters ever leak and/or publish classified information in a time of war?

Arguments in favour

Former Pentagon aid Daniel Ellsberg leaked a highly classified study, subsequently called The Pentagon Papers, claiming the U. S. government deceived American citizens about the country’s involvement with Vietnam.

Mitchell (2008) refers to Ellsberg as establishing the precedent for when the public’s right to know outweighs claims of national security and secrecy. Ellsberg argued that the ends justify the means since journalists sometimes do not question government war statements and do not delve deep enough. In a U. S. Supreme Court ruling on Ellsberg’s case, Justice Hugo Black wrote (Bauder 2009, p. 110), “The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people. Alterman (2003) concurs, maintaining that humans are flawed and abuse authority if they believe no one is watching. He speaks not only of politicians and policy makers, but military leaders as well. Alterman concluded it is the journalist’s role to hold political and military leaders accountable. Dean Baquet and Bill Keller (Bauder 2009, p. 111) say “Our job, especially in times like these, is to bring our readers information that will enable them to judge how well their elected leaders are fighting on their behalf, and at what price. ”

They add that the White House never intended for the public to know classified secrets about faulty intelligence that led to the current war in Iraq, about prisoner abuse, alleged torture, or about electronic eavesdropping without specific warrants. They claim Americans have a right to know how the war is being waged. Others maintain that denying the public’s right to know amounts to censorship, and sometimes this censorship is not used to protect troops and prevent operational information from helping the enemy (Williams 2009), but is used to promote support for the war effort and sanitize its brutality and human cost.

Williams cites as an example that the often promoted “smart” weapons in the Iraqi Gulf War, which supposedly reduced civilian casualties, comprised only seven per cent of the bombs used. “The rationale for this policy was that the public will no longer support any war involving a large number of civilian casualties. ” (Williams 2009, p. 159). He added, “When the flow of information in a democratic society is controlled by the authorities and when military considerations take precedence over all other considerations then democracy itself is threatened. (Williams 2009, p. 167). To summarize, some believe it is ethical to expose government wrongdoing and deception because the public has a right to know how its government behaves behind closed doors and in foreign conflicts.

Arguments opposed

At the beginning of WWII editor Tom Hopkinson withheld the truth from his British readers regarding the military disaster at Dunkirk, believing (Williams 2009, p. 154) “. . . he truth would demoralise people and make them less able to resist an invasion. ” Williams goes on to explain that similar restraint in revealing brutal photographs during the Korean War was so they would not “give aid and comfort to the enemy. ” Williams (2009, p. 156) explained the distinction as to when it might be acceptable to withhold classified and potentially damaging information to a war effort: “The Second World War was a matter of national survival. There was a direct threat to Britain’s way of life. Defeat would have resulted in subjugation.

The Korean War, on the other hand, at least as far as the British public was concerned, was in essence a police action happening on the other side of the world. There was no national emergency. There was no direct threat to national life. It is only when the very survival of a society is threatened that the truth can be interfered with. ” During the early stages of the first Gulf War in Iraq, detailed classified information regarding the extent and effectiveness of bombing raids was withheld and restrictions placed on a reporter’s ability to interview pilots and troops (Hatchen 2000).

Interviews conducted by pool reporters were subject to censorship. The U. S. Pentagon had decided there was a high priority assigned to the dismantling of the communications and military command structure in Iraq. It was vitally important that the enemy could not anticipate coalition force intentions, targets, troop strength or movements. U. S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that making classified information available to people who are not cleared for it makes finding and dealing with the responsible terrorists much more difficult.

Rumsfeld added (Tapper 2001) that “. . . the inevitable effect is that the lives of men and women in uniform are put at risk. ” President Bush concurred (Berkowitz 2003), stating "Our nation's progress depends on the free flow of information. Nevertheless, throughout our history, the national defence has required that certain information be maintained in confidence in order to protect our citizens, our democratic institutions, our homeland security, and our interactions with foreign nations. " James B. Bruce (2007) argues that nothing is more important than national security.

He believes leaks forewarn and forearm the enemy and allows them to develop countermeasures, thus placing national welfare and our citizens at home and abroad at risk. He adds in an article published on www. cia. gov that, “The US press is an open vault of classified information on US intelligence collection sources and methods. This has been true for years. But the problem is worse now than ever before, given the scope and seriousness of leaks coupled with the power of electronic dissemination and search engines. He states that press leaks allow the enemy to see how secret intelligence works, and how to defeat it. Schoenfeld (2006) rails against newspaper leaks that exposed the classified network of CIA prisons in Europe holding al-Qaeda captives, the disclosure of government surveillance of al-Qaeda suspects, and the monitoring of Al-Qaeda financial transactions. He adds the most serious leak was of a classified memo raising serious USA administration doubts about Iraq’s Prime Minister.

He states, “At a moment when the United States faces the present danger of assault by Islamic terrorists and is struggling to protect itself from falling victim to a second September 11, a murmuration of overzealous, self-interested, and mistaken advocates is striving to shield the press’s freedom of movement at the expense of many if not all of the competing imperatives of a system based upon the rule of law. ” To summarize, some believe the test for publishing any kind of information, whether classified are not, is as follows.

Will publishing the information:

  1. provide aid and comfort to the enemy?
  2. threaten the safety of our troops and allies engaged in the conflict?
  3. threaten our safety as a nation?

Some believe if the answer is “yes” to any of the above, than the material should not be published or distributed. Applying principles of Deontology and Utilitarianism to the ethical dilemma Universalists, and in particular consequentialists (Jordin 2000), would argue that the greater good is served by releasing secrets during a time of war.

Withholding secrets could threaten the very foundation of democracy, and the principles we are fighting to defend. If revealing a secret exposes inhumane treatment of prisoners or casts doubt on intelligence gathering which led to the current Iraqi war, then the ends justify the means. A Deontologist would say releasing secrets would destroy the right of a government to possess information that might prove harmful in other people’s hands. The duty to protect state secrets in a time of war is reflected in the “universal human right to life” as described by Jordin (2009, p. 6), and life, whether it be a citizen’s or the nation itself, might be endangered if secrets were revealed. The means (keeping classified information secret) justify the ends (national security and public safety). How then can a reporter decide when confronted with this ethical dilemma? One approach would be to answer the general questions from the URJC model (Jordin 2009, p. 29). URJC stands for Utilitarianism, rights and duties, and justice and care ethics. For the purpose of this discussion, I am employing only the Utilitarianism and rights and duties (Deontology) standards:

  1. “Does the decision optimise the welfare and satisfaction of all the stakeholders? ” No, it would satisfy stakeholders such as crusading journalists opposed to the war, freedom of speech and public right to know advocates, but not necessarily the government, military or intelligence personnel whose lives may be placed in danger, and not the stakeholder citizens who support the war.
  2. “Does it respect the rights and duties of the individuals involved? ” No, for the same reasons as stated above.
  3. “Is it fair and consistent with the norms of justice? Yes, government leaks in Iraq and prior wars have rarely resulted in government prosecution or professional censure.
  4. “Does it arise from and reflect an impulse to care?

” Yes, acting as the fourth estate and holding the government accountable and responsible for its actions is an altruistic goal. We can see from this exercise that the answers are evenly split: two “no” and two “yes. ” A further approach might be to use the modified URJC model as developed by Velasquez et al and described in Jordin (2009, p. 29) by answering the following questions:

  1. “Who will be affected by each possible course of action and what benefits and harms will be derived from each? ” The publication of classified information in time of war could provide aid and comfort to the enemy and potentially endanger public officials, military and intelligence sources both at home and abroad. However, there are situations when governments may wish to cover up embarrassing or potentially illegal activities, and the only way to shed light on the situation is by publishing secret information.Therefore, each situation would need to be reviewed in a case-by-case analysis; weighing the potential for harm against the greatest good.
  2. “Does the course of action respect everyone’s rights to choose freely how they will live their lives, to the truth, to privacy, not to be harmed or injured, to what has been promised or agreed? ” No, revealing secrets during the time of war may result in harm and injury to its citizens and to the security of the government, even while promoting truth and democracy.
  3. “Does the course of action treat everybody in the same way or does it show favouritism or discrimination? No, selectively choosing which laws to break and which secret data to reveal does not treat everyone the same way and can show favouritism to a particular point of view, course of action or even a political party. The only way not to discriminate would be to blanketly publish all available leaks or secret data a reporter comes across, or to publish none at all.
  4. “What kind of person do I aspire to be? Which course of action promotes the development of that character within myself and my community? ” The decision is up to each reporter.

Speaking from personal experience as a professional journalist I can answer that adherence to the principles of democracy, freedom of the press, and the public’s right to know are of highest importance. Yes, it may be acceptable in some circumstances to leak or publish classified material in a time of war. In reviewing the previous four questions there was one “maybe”, two “no” and one “yes” answers. Conclusion By answering the previous eight questions in the context of Deontology and Utilitarianism theories, it can be concluded that leaking and/or publishing classified information in a time of war is not acceptable.

Therefore, it is possible to solve this specific moral difficulty concerning war reporting. Though it is possible to determine a course of action by applying these theories to such an ethical dilemma, the final result is not clear cut. The outcome was decided by a single “no” answer out of eight questions. Due to such a close margin, I believe these two basic theories can benefit from further modification and application of other ethical models to help find a solution to moral difficulties in war reporting.


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  11. TAPPER, Jake (2001). Bush scolds Congress. Salon. com, 9 Oct. [online]. Last accessed 20 Dec. 2009 at: http://www. salon. com/politics/feature/2001/10/09/bush/index1. html
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Moral Difficulties Involved in War Reporting. (2018, Jan 26). Retrieved from

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