The reading Moral Reasoning for Journalists explains that utilitarianism is in line with populism and democracy, concepts from which journalism is derived. When examined in this context, it makes sense that journalists should operate under the notion that people are equally important and thus entitled to their share of the good. Utilitarianism seems logical in situations like Watergate, during which coverage of the scandal was not beneficial for President Nixon, but was beneficial for the majority of the American people. Journalists have a duty to enlighten the public and prevent power from resting with a few, unchecked individuals. There are some instances, though, when doing the most good for the most people can still be considered unethical.
Utilitarianism considers the outcomes of a certain action, but doesn’t account for the methods used to reach that outcome. For example, if a journalist is seeking to expose a fraudulent business practice to save consumers millions of dollars but deceives the business owner in the process, the act could be considered unethical. Likewise, a journalist aiming to uncover flaws in the health system to benefit the general public could be seen as unethical if they didn’t identify themselves to healthcare administrators as a reporter or if they lied in some way to receive information.
This is not a new issue.
In the late 1800s, journalist Nellie Bly feigned mental illness so that she would be committed to a “mad-house” for the purpose of secretly reporting the conditions within. While this illuminated poor conditions suffered by mental health patients and potentially helped a majority of people, Bly’s tactics were unethical.
Moral Reading for Journalists goes on to express that an entirely utilitarian approach would allow the government to execute an innocent person for no other reason than to appease a rioting crowd. This example is extreme, but illustrates a good point.
When rioting was at its height in Ferguson, MO in 2014, journalists were quick to blast social media with videos and images of looting and other signs of unrest. It was beneficial for the majority of Americans to see and try to comprehend the situation so that aid could be organized and solutions could be considered. However, as pointed out in the article Unethical journalism can make Ferguson more dangerous, the photos and videos gave police the opportunity to look more closely at specific individuals involved. This closer look put those in the area (innocent or not) at a greater risk of being identified, (correctly or not) then arrested.
While a utilitarian approach to journalism ethics may be an easy and obvious choice, it is worth considering the consequences of acting on a philosophy that doesn’t consider right or wrong independent of outcome.
|Photo provided via The University of Pennsylvania, Digital Library|