Truth or consequences? The Mellissa Fung case

Stephen J. A. Ward

Stephen WardMost of the editorial dust stirred up by not reporting the Mellissa Fung kidnapping in Afghanistan has settled.

But ethically, not much else has settled.

Unresolved issues remain. The lingering question is how journalists should weigh potentially harmful consequences against their calling to report the truth.

Let me put my cards on the table.

The CBC and its allied news agencies did the right thing in not reporting the kidnapping. I celebrate Fung’s release. As Scott White, editorial chief of The Canadian Press, noted: No story is worth a life. I can’t imagine that any responsible person, if put in the place of John Cruickshank, head of CBC News, would have done anything different than he did.

To those who would report such kidnappings, I say: fine, you can meet with and inform the distraught family of the kidnapped person when things go wrong.

What I found most interesting about the debate on list-servs and elsewhere were the simplistic reasons given to support reporting the kidnapping. For many commentators, it was deemed sufficient to use a tattered slogan.

Here are two examples of this simplistic reasoning. First, journalists argued that not reporting the kidnapping violated the right to report freely and that it amounted to censorship. But this case isn’t about censorship. And freedom to publish is not the only principle to be consulted. 

Freedom to publish is a fundamental but not an absolute value, legally or ethically. To say it is not absolute means that it may be balanced by other principles. Anyone who wants to construct a good case for publishing the Fung kidnapping must do more than harp on the rights of a free press. She will have to argue in detail as to why free speech trumps the possibility of serious harm to Fung.

The second example was expressed by skeptical questions: Is it the job of journalists to take consequences into account?  Why not “publish and be damned”?

The answer is blindingly obvious.

Of course, journalists should take consequences into account.  An appeal to the old “publish and be damned” slogan is appallingly glib.

Journalists take “consequences” into account every day of their working life. Journalists consider consequences when they report on abused children, on people considering suicide, and on families traumatized by tragedy. Journalists protect sources to avoid harmful consequences. News organizations report carefully on domestic kidnappings. Why should such an attitude not apply to foreign kidnappings?

However, how we consider consequences is a complex matter.“Considering the consequences” does not entail that the potential for harm always trumps reporting. It does entail that journalists have a responsibility to at least consider the results of reporting. Most reporting does some harm to some people, from a critical book review to an investigation into corrupt officials. But while we may not be able to eliminate all harm, we can often minimize harm in the way we do stories.

Also, we need to distinguish between the types of harm caused by reporting, and we need to be able to say when harm-reduction trumps the publication of a fact or an entire story.

So, how should we approach cases like the Fung kidnapping?

First, we start by recognizing that any case worth discussing will require the balancing of conflicting values. Slogans and intuitions won’t cut it. Instead, we stand back and take all the major principles of journalism ethics into account.

What principles are we talking about?

Take, for instance, the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). The SPJ code is divided into what I call “pro-active” and “restraining” principles. The pro-active principles urge journalists to “seek truth and report it,” freely and independently. The restraining principles ask journalists to use their freedom responsibly by minimizing harm and being accountable to the public. Journalists must balance principles, and decide which principle has priority in any given case.

In the Fung case, my view is that the restraining “minimize harm” principle trumped the pro-active principles of reporting freely and independently.

The value of the SPJ framework is not that it provides instant answers that we all agree on. The value is that it encourages nuanced reasoning that balances values, rights, and duties given the facts of the case. The framework shows that responsible journalists incorporate both a love of freedom and a concern for others into their practice.

In the end, where does the Fung case lead?

I hope it leads to newsroom policies on similar kidnappings in the future. Why? Because consistency requires that, if news organizations did not report on Fung because of the threat of harm, then they must do the same for other people in similar situations, including politicians and aid workers.

Do newsrooms accept this implication? Can many of us clearly articulate the ethical reasons for or against it? I doubt it.

The Fung case exposes a weakness in our ethics — the need for consistent, explicit guidelines on kidnapping and on the principle of minimizing harm.

If we retreat to the old seat-of-the-pants approach to problems, and ignore these questions, we retreat to “ethics by slogan.”

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of  UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.