Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach

By Christopher Meyers | Go to book overview

21
Mitigation Watchdogs: The
Ethical Foundation for a
Journalist’s Role

Lee Wilkins

Coverage of disasters reveals that journalists, though they may not always acknowledge it, typically share ethical values and goals with the people and organizations on whom they report during these events. Thus, as persons, journalists have a duty to save lives and attempt to prevent property damage during such times. Yet news routines, indeed even the definition of news itself, retard the actualization of that goal in significant ways. A focus on mitigation— coverage based on the goal of reducing loss of life and property in times of disaster for both individuals and the organizations that employ them—can change news coverage, bringing the profession into better alignment with its ethical obligations.

Disasters have a way of revealing the inner workings of organizations.1 Katrina told Americans a lot about how the local, state, and national government functioned; about the place of poverty in urban life; and about the unique culture and traditions of New Orleans. Katrina also represents a melding of disaster categories usually regarded as distinct and separable. On the one hand, Katrina was a “quick-onset” natural hazard—the tropical storm that became a category 5 hurricane developed, hit land, and blew itself out within two weeks. Wildfires, earthquakes, and tornados are also considered quick-onset hazards. But the magnitude of damage that Katrina caused, and the way that damage occurred, also make the storm a slow-onset technological disaster. Slow-onset disasters are a long time coming. Floods, droughts, and epidemics, for example, can take weeks, months, or even years to develop. Technological hazards implicate human choice—to build certain sorts of systems, to prepare for certain sorts of events, to consider certain sorts of eventualities while failing to consider others. Katrina crossed all these boundaries.

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