Share Your Ethical Cases So Everyone Can Learn

By Brown, Fred | The Quill, August 2006 | Go to article overview
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Share Your Ethical Cases So Everyone Can Learn


Brown, Fred, The Quill


Those who endeavor to teach ethics to budding journalists are always looking for case studies. Unfortunately, there seems to be no shortage of ethical problems facing today's media.

The Society of Professional Journalists would like to serve as a repository for some of these cases. We have a few on our Web site; a couple of others are ready to be added. We could use many more.

So consider this an invitation to submit your own ethical scenarios for addition to this small archive. We have some newspaper examples. We need more from other media - television, the Internet, etc. - and from freelance reporters.

To keep some sort of consistency in these case studies, here's a format that works pretty well. It's based on several models used in college-level communication ethics, including those developed by Bernard Gert of Dartmouth College and Louis Alvin Day of Louisiana State University.

WHAT: Describe the situation. Assemble all relevant facts, list all the angles. In other words, do the reporting. Put the ethical dilemma in the form of a question; write it down, to be sure it makes sense.

If, for example, you were considering the furor over publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, you'd want to assemble all pertinent facts about:

The original motivation for publication.

Why it took so long after their initial appearance for the images to cause such a violent reaction.

Differences of opinion in the Islamic community, including over whether any depiction of the Prophet is considered blasphemy.

Think of all the questions you can, and try to answer them. The case study on SPJ's Web site, for example, does answer many of these questions, but there's not room here to include all that information.

And so you're ready to pose the question, a pretty basic one:

Question: Do we publish the cartoons or not?

WHO: The principals (people) who will make the decision and those who will be affected by it. First, decide who is responsible for the decision. Then list the major stakeholders, ranging from the subjects of the story to the general public. Remember that not everyone will be affected to the same degree by what you decide to do.

The decision-maker here most likely would be at least at the managing editor level at a newspaper; perhaps the news director at a television station.

The stakeholders include the local Islamic community, Muslims around the world, people at sites that might be targeted by riots, your newspaper or TV station and its reputation for truth-telling and fairness, and readers and viewers - who have an interest in seeing what is driving such outrage.

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