Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On my mind today: business and journalism ethics, and David Rohde.

Funny thing is, I was thinking those were different topics - and they're not.

Bill Keller, NYT editor, made a judgment call not to print the news about Rohde. The issue: should the paper have printed the news because it's news, in order not to bow to terrorists, and/or because it would sell papers?

1. Newspapers have a responsibility to print the news. However, what about when news would do more harm than good - and who makes that call? I wrote an article in February about a former crime reporter who got a tip that a criminal was talking, ready to turn in the big guns. Law enforcement was trying to keep it quiet, pulling him out of jail to talk in the middle of the night, because they were afraid not only that evidence would be moved or destroyed in some way, but that their informant would be killed - or even that other people would die. Breaking the news that the guy was talking increased the risk.

But is that the journalist's responsibility? And should the decision of what news to share and what information to protect always be dictated by what would benefit the public? Remember - journalists don't exist to aid government, although they often can and often do when they can. A free press exists to be a thorn in the side of officialdom, proliferating transparency. Also, it can be hard to say what's best for the public, sometimes.

In Rohde's case, reporters who have worked on kidnapping cases apparently tend to agree that publicity escalates the situation and leads to violence. Reporting on a situation often "forces" perpetrators to act.

2. Of course, how far do we go to appease violent factions in order to keep those important to us safe? How far exactly does a policy of not negotiating with terrorists go? If the NYT was asked for ransom, should they have paid it?

Even further, is it a newspaper's responsibility to uphold governmental policy of not negotiating with terrorists? Or do they have the right to ransom their own if they want?

As for 3. - The bottom line would have said to print it, so the issue immediately becomes relevant to business ethics in that the immediate profit did not dictate the decision.

Thorny, sticky questions. I think there is no clear ground; that's what makes ethics so difficult. There are "rights" about the "wrong" decision(s) and vice versa. And I don't think a pro/con list takes care of it; every situation is specific.

In this situation, I think they did the right thing. The public could not have taken any action that would benefit the situation had the Times reported on it, while reporting could have significantly harmed Rohde.

What do you think?

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