The hills are alive with the sound of musings. Almost everywhere, it seems, journalists and journalism professors are attending conferences on ethics or writing books on ethics. Some valuable work has illuminated the hazards for reporters in accepting bribes ("freebies"), overt or subtle, or in making up stories. But the discussions of ethics have overlooked some deeper problems.
Part of the impetus for the ethics books and conferences may have come from the shocks to journalism which came in the early 1980s. Novelist John Hersey, writing in a 1980 issue of the Yale Review, criticized what he saw as "the great fallacy" of the new journalism, the movement noted in Chapter Four that tumed its back on objectivity: "Since perfect objectivity in reporting what the eyes have seen and the ears have heard is impossible, there is no choice but to go all the way over to absolute subjectivity."
Hersey argued that such a view "soon makes the reporter the center of interest rather than the real world he is supposed to be picturing, or interpreting." Events of the following year, though, showed there was more to it than even that: As the reporter became the center of interest the world's actual reality would become less important, with imagination (pretending to honesty) assuming the throne.
The best-known recent episode of journalistic dishonesty involved the awarding in 1981 of a Pulitzer Prize for a Washington Post story, "Jimmy's World." The story itself was a series of imaginary events and fabricated quotations about a supposed eight-year-old heroin addict. When Post reporter Janet Cooke lied once too often and was found out, the Post retumed the award, explaining that one of its reporters had victimized the newspaper, and that no editor could be safe from a clever liar.
Some Post editors had been suspicious all along. One Post reporter drove Cooke through the neighborhood where she claimed Jimmy lived, and saw that she did not know the area. He reported that to the city editor, but there was no investigation. The story, true or false, was just too juicy to pass up. Cooke's editor, Bob Woodward, who was previously best-known for helping to break the story of Watergate, said "Jimmy's World" was "so well-written and tied together so well that my alarm bells simply didn't go off."
Ironically, the prize Cooke had to return was awarded to another article that used what the National News Council called "overuse of unattributed sources" and "reckless and speculative construction." Then, a New York Daily News reporter admitted that he had made up "facts" in a column reporting on violence in Northern Ireland; the reporter, in his defense, said he had done the same thing three hundred times before. Meanwhile, the New York Times acknowledged that it had published an article about a trip inside Cambodia by a writer who had not gone to Cambodia, and had instead plagiarized passages from a novel written decades before.
Journalists could see part of the problem behind those stories: The movement away from subjectivity-balancing to expression of the reporter's own subjective views, generally through subtle "strategic ritual." Editors tended to react by deploring inaccuracies, pledging to cut down on the remnants of "new journalism," and demanding more substantiation from reporters.
Stories such as "Jimmy's World," however, showed not only problems in "objectivity" as it has been most recently defined, but a lack of compassion. Post editors did not respond to readers' pleas to try to find "Jimmy" so that he could be helped. A former editor, Charles Seib, pointed out that Post editors would have saved themselves much subsequent recrimination if they had shown some compassion for Jimmy, because in searching for him they would have realized that the story was made up.
Deceptive stories have continued to emerge during the 1980s, along with many conferences decrying ethical "lapses" of journalists. Behind most of those deceptive stories, though, stand reporters who cared little about real people and real problems, and therefore let imagination reign. When John Hersey noted the present and impending triumph of journalistic subjectivity, he could have gone further and spoken of journalistic solipsism, with many reporters writing as if their private pursuit of stories was the only reality, or at least the only one that counts.
Newspaper treatment of Hilda Pate (she now has a new last name) provides a good example of the failure to place compassion for victims above journalistic cheap thrills. A 1982 court case revealed how Pate was abducted by her estranged husband. He came to her office and, at gunpoint, forced her to go with him to their former apartment in Cocoa Beach, Florida. There he beat her repeatedly and forced her to take off all her clothes.
As police closed in Mr. Pate killed himself. The police entered, found Hilda Pate in a state of shock and emotional distress, and rushed her out of the house to a police car in full view of reporters, photographers, onlookers and other policemen. She was still naked, but was clutching a dish towel to her body. The local newspaper, Cocoa Today, published a photograph of Hilda Pate, her private parts barely covered by the dish towel. The photograph was distributed across the United States through the news services and published in newspapers throughout the country.
Pate sued for invasion of privacy and won a jury verdict, but a Florida appeals court ruled that the photographs were taken in public during a legitimate news event and showed only what a gawking onlooker at the spot could have seen. Photographers and editors were legally in the clear. According to an angry jury, though, journalists had re-victimized a sad victim, causing her "severe emotional distress and mental pain and anguish."
The Pate case was typical of a pattern emerging in recent years: A victim rescued from an assailant, only to face a new victimizer-the press. For example, in 1980 the Burlington County (N.J.) Times printed the name of a rape victim in three separate stories about the rape, despite her request to police that it not be revealed. The victim sued both the newspaper and hospital which had supplied confidential information to reporters. She charged that identification of a rape victim was not necessary to a rape story but reflected "morbid desire." The Times defended its action, saying identification by name strengthened the impact of its stories, and the New Jersey Superior Court agreed.
Similarly, a Florida rape victim testified at the 1982 trial of her assailant after receiving assurance by state authorities that her name and photograph would not be published or displayed. A television station, though, videotaped the trial proceedings and ran the rape victim's testimony on its evening news show. While the videotape ran, the newscaster identified the victim by name to the viewing audience. She sued the station for invasion of privacy, but a Florida appeals court had to note that the state, despite its promise to the rape victim, did not try to restrain the videotaping or use of the woman's name. Since the information was readily available to the public, the television station was legally in the clear.
The station was an ethical derelict in the eyes of the judge. He let the station off "reluctantly," he wrote, "because the information disclosed during the television broadcast appears to us to have been completely unnecessary to the story being presented. Withholding the name and photograph of the victim in this case would in no way have interfered with or restricted publication of 'news of the day.'" He asked that journalists think about the "individual rights of others."
Judge Campbell also noted the price of journalistic license: "The rape victim," he wrote, "had the unhappy circumstance of becoming a victim of a crime. The publication added little or nothing to the sordid and unhappy story; yet, that brief little-or nothing addition may well affect appellant's well-being for years to come." The judge was not calling for courts to be closed, nor should Christians generally. Biblically, court proceedings generally were open. Yet, Campbell was asking for compassion. He deplored "the lack of sensitivity to the rights of others" evident among many journalists.
A 1982 Supreme Court decision spotlighted that widespread lack of sensitivity. The Massachusetts legislature, hoping to protect the privacy of minor rape victims, had passed a law excluding the public from sexual assault trials during the testimony of victims under eighteen years of age. The Boston Globe wanted its reporters to be present for the victims' testimony during a trial in which the defendant was charged with raping three minor girls. The trial judge said no. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts refused to issue an injunction and later dismissed the Globe's appeal.
The Globe kept pushing, and finally found powerful protectors. In 1982 Justice Brennan and six other U.S. Supreme Court Justices overturned the Massachusetts ruling. Brennan wrote that the press could be barred only under "narrowly tailored" situations when "necessitated by a compelling government interest." Brennan wrote that the First Amendment did not "explicitly" justify the Supreme Court's ruling, "but we have long eschewed any 'narrow, literal conception' of the Amendment's terms.''
Former Chief Justice Warren Burger dissented, writing that the legislation was justified in trying "to prevent the risk of severe psychological damage caused by having to relate the details of the crime in front of a crowd which inevitably will include voyeuristic strangers." In most states, that crowd may be expanded to include a live television audience, with reruns on the evening news. That ordeal could be difficult for an adult; to a child, the experience can
be devastating and leave permanent scars. Burger concluded that Brennan's opinion showed a "cavalier disregard of the reality of human experience.''
The cavalier disregard goes beyond coverage of rape. As we will see in Chapter Ten, nineteenth-century journalists at times would cover "successful" suicide attempts after they had happened, with the hope of trying to show others that suicide was brutal and nonheroic. Recently, though, some journalists have not acted to prevent suicides, and by their presence have even urged on those aspiring to a brief moment in the headlines.
One notorious instance "starred" a newspaper photographer in Oregon. He could have helped a woman on a bridge who was desperately gripping her husband in an attempt to restrain him from jumping one hundred feet into the Columbia River. The photographer, instead of grabbing on, took five pictures. The man broke loose from his wife and jumped to his death in the river.
A well-publicized episode in 1983 began when a man called television station WHMA in Anniston, Alabama, to say that he planned to set fire to himself in a nearby town square at midnight. The station's news director dispatched a camera crew. When the news team arrived no one was visible, but when the cameraman climbed out of his car the apparently drunken man approached, poured charcoal-starter fluid over himself, lit a match, and started the fire. The cameraman continued to film as the burning began, but an eighteen-year-old who had a part-time job with the station did try to beat out the flames. The man survived, with serious burns.
Some journalists expressed concern over that episode, and several others. Some attention was paid to the tale of a television camera crew following a man trying to pay a ransom to persons who had kidnapped his wife. Despite the man's pleas, the crew kept coming and-according to the FBI-"put that woman's life in danger " The newspaper trade magazine Editor and Publisher editorialized that the TV crew had been practicing not "enterprising reporting" but "sheer stupidity.... It is this sort of arrogance and brashness that gets media in trouble with the public.''
Overall, with ethics conferences wading in humanistic homilies, many non-Biblical journalists still were like Pavlov's dogs, salivating whenever the story bell sounded. This was certainly the public perception of the occupation. According to a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 78 percent of Americans believe that news reporters "are just concerned with getting a good story, and they don't worry much about hurting people." In the same study, 63 percent said that "the press often takes advantage of victims of circumstance who are ordinary people.''
That popular mood has contributed to vigorous criticism and occasional boycotts of local newspapers that print names of rape victims. The Commission on Women of Arlington, Virginia, asked readers to cancel their subscriptions to the Northern Virginia Sun, which had a policy of identification by name. The Durham, North Carolina, Rape Crisis Center picketed the Durham Morning Herald after it named a rape victim in a front-page story.
Some newspaper editors hit back, though. Michael Rouse of Durham argued that opponents to the printing of names were "seeking to coerce the free press." He wrote that the protesters "believed divine guidance was on their side," and added that "newspaper editors lacking the benefit of divine guidance usually call upon their own objective judgment when deciding such matters." Rouse apparently was sarcastic, but the difference between man's best "objective judgment" and divine guidance is clear. Many newspapers do not print names of rape victims, but others do. Major journalistic codes of ethics do not cover the question. Legally, newspapers covering details of rape are generally in the clear. One U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decreed in very broad languagethat a reporter's privilege "extends to information concerning interesting phases of human activity." Man's judgment tends to approve of publishing whatever seems interesting.
Real divine guidance, that's found in the Bible, is very different. Yes, many things are interesting: "The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inmost parts" (Proverbs 18:8). Nevertheless, in Proverbs we are often told to be careful about what we report, for "When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise" (10:19). Subsequent chapters of Proverbs note similarly that "a man of understanding holds his tongue," and that "He who guards his lips guards his soul, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin" (11:12; 13:3).
The Bible often contrasts those who emphasize the educational with those who blurt out the merely interesting. Proverbs teaches that "A man of knowledge uses words with restraint" (17:27), but "He who winks maliciously causes grief, and a chattering fool comes to ruin" (10:10). Thoughtless reporting may have physical consequences: "A fool's lips bring him strife, and his mouth invites a beating" (18:6). It also may have consequences for a community: "A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends" (16:28). The reporter himself may suffer the spiritual consequences: "A fool's mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul" (18:7).
Development of a Biblical standard for coverage of rape trials involves three questions of increasing specificity. First, should information about the trials be available to the public? Second, should specific detail from testimony be published? Third, should victims be identified?
On the first question, Biblically the presumption is that most trials should be open to the public. Trials in the Bible were generally conducted by "elders at the gate," a prominent and public passageway (Deuteronomy 21:19; 22:15; 25:7-9; Ruth 4:1,11).
On the second question, the Bible's refusal to shy away from harsh reality shows that depiction of evil can be useful, if context is provided. The Winfield, Kansas, Daily Courier was criticized for reporting testimony that after intercourse with one victim (unnamed) the rapist "entered her rectum." Publisher David Seaton, though, argued that citizens needed "to know how severe rape cases are.... It seemed to me that there was a sound case to be made for having people face the harsh realities."
The third question, on naming the victim, highlights the question of compassion. Victims generally are powerless during a rape to control what is happening to them. Identification in a news story may be a second assault on privacy, a second situation in which the victim feels powerless to protect herself from consequences such as humiliation, embarrassment, and possible danger. Biblically, we are to have compassion toward widows, orphans, and others who are abandoned or left destitute in a variety of ways. Biblical compassion certainly is owed to rape victims.
The word compassion, however, "makes a lot of journalists squirm," according to former reporter Gene Goodwin: "It describes a condition that runs counter to the strong tradition in journalism of detachment." Harvard University's James C. Thomson wrote that among leading journalists taking sabbaticals under his supervision, "What is usually lacking is empathy or compassion for their subjects, those reported about, or even token nods toward those qualities." Robert Maynard, editor of the Oakland Tribune, noted that "when people see a TV person shoving a mike in front of a grieving relative," journalists "appear to be boorish and ghoulish." Appearances in this case may not be deceiving.
Again, there are many newspapers that do not print names of rape victims, but-unless the person raped is of great prominence- it is hard to see any situation in which identifying the victim is vital. Possible apologia for printing names (for example, making the story more "real" for readers) are underwhelming in comparison to the detriments of such action.
The details of re-victimization are sad. When one newspaper printed the name of a rape victim without her consent or knowledge, her son learned about his mother's rape through taunting by his playmates. Not only more shame for the victim, but more physical danger as well, may be by-products of journalistic arrogance. Rape victims are far more liable to be threatened again than are victims of other crimes, if their names are revealed in newspapers.
Why, then, do journalistic codes of ethics not prohibit such noncompassionate treatment? To get at that answer, an apparent digression is in order: Comparison of the openness to naming rape victims with the blanket prohibition against identification of confidential sources.
The American Newspaper Guild's Code of Ethics states flatly, "The newspaperman shall refuse to reveal confidences or disclose sources of confidential information in court or before judicial or investigative bodies." The Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi Code of Ethics also presents "the newsman's ethic of protecting confidential sources of information." Journalists have frequently protested attempts by judges to make them reveal the names of sources with knowledge of crimes.
Journalistic organizations have made passage of "shield laws" (statutes protecting journalists) a top priority. They note that reporters vulnerable to subpoena might lose access to important information that helps them in performance of a "watchdog" function. They say a closet whistleblower with knowledge of official misconduct but concern for keeping his job might be unlikely to cooperate with a journalist for fear that his identity will be made public. They fear that other sources fearing identification would "dry up." They fear harassment of newspapers by subpoena-wielding officials. All of these concerns have some validity.
There is another side, though. Criminal defendants have an explicit Sixth Amendment right to compel the attendance of witnesses who could provide helpful information. Furthermore, courts and police like to prevent future crimes and catch fugitive felons. As Justice Byron White once put it, "We cannot seriously entertain the notion that the First Amendment protects a newsman's agreement to conceal the criminal conduct of his source, or evidence thereof, on the theory that it is better to write about crime than to do something about it."
The Bible in its newspaper-less age, of course, never delved into the particulars of such questions, but it does provide clear principles. First, occupation does not allow a reporter to turn his back on crime: "If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible" (Leviticus 5:1).
Second, there is a strong presumption in favor of open accusation that allows witness and defendant to confront one another, and there is a requirement that at least two sources of indictment are necessary: "One witness is not enough" (Deuteronomy 19:1518). Good reporters today should refuse to report without attribution accusations against or evaluations of a named person by a nonnamed "source." If they choose to use confidential material, it should be only to develop leads on stories and witnesses who will testify openly. Third, reporters can minimize problems by evaluating carefully all motives for requesting anonymity and fighting hard to have everything on the record. As Leviticus 5:4 notes, a person should not "thoughtlessly" take an oath "in any matter one might carelessly swear about." The books of Matthew (5:37) and James (5:12) both contain the essential lesson for reporters and many others: "Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes', and your 'No,' 'No.' "
When the reporter does promise confidentiality he should keep his promise, even at the cost of going to jail, for the honest person "keeps his oath even when it hurts" (Psalm 15:4). The Biblical presumption, though, is that such promises might only be given in very rare circumstances, and with full knowledge of the possible consequences. Shield laws that promise immunity from hurt may be easy ways out.
The Biblical presumption against reportorial immunity does not mean that state officials should be free to harass reporters or use them as spies. Justice generally does not require that journalistic sources be revealed. Yet, when the only way to prove that the defendant is innocent is to have the reporter testify, or when all alternative sources of obtaining information concerning a crime have been exhausted, then a reporter's claim to privilege becomes an assertion that his relations with sources are more important than the life or liberty of others.
Some journalists, as we have seen, do not hesitate to publicize the names of rape victims. Most reporters, though, refuse to give police information relevant to crimes given them by sources. Why so much agony about protecting those sources and not the victim of rape?
One reason is that of the simple business decision: Protection of source yields future stories; protection of subject brings no dividends. It is the nature of man to use and discard others, in this case probably forgetting about them except as a press clipping or a film clip.
But a second reason proceeds from humanistic emphasis on man-made law and on ethics apart from Christ. The problems of the first emphasis are obvious: Law deals with short-term "can" and "cannot," not "should" and "should not" nor even the longterm implications of legal but unwise actions. The dangers of the second emphasis are more subtle: We might think that training the mind in "ethical reasoning" will create a higher standard of thought and conduct. The Bible, though, tells us that man's fallen mind will always be able to draw conclusions that appear logical, responsible-but wrong.
Paul said it succinctly: Our minds, without God's grace, "are darkened in their understanding" (Ephesians 4:18). Paul also explained to the Romans, "The mind of sinful man is death . . . the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so" (Romans 8:6, 7). Some commentators on these and other verses have made suggestions that media ethicists should take to heart. Gresham Machen noted that "Sin is not the brute in us; it is, rather, the man in us," and Augustus Strong suggested that "Every man, so far as he is apart from God, is morally insane."
The production of "justifiable actions" is easy, because man is ingenious enough to justify all manner of activities. As one popular song described a murderous decision, "Do it in the name of justice. You can justify it in the end." Obviously, public opinion has some effect on what individuals do or do not do; many newspapers do not print names of rape victims. Journalists who arrive at justifications, though, feel hampered by such pressures, and sometimes look for ways around them. As Jesus said, "Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander" (Matthew 15:19).
How do we overcome ethical anarchy? The media ethics textbook opposes "the imposing of moral principles," since that "shortcircuits the analytical process." But shortcircuiting our fallen analytical process is the only way we ever come to a godly analysis rather than our own self-serving justifications. We may claim that we are without sin and capable of coming to righteous conclusions through our own reasoning power, but John noted that in saying so
"we deceive ourselves" (1 John 1:8, 10). The same message is clear in 1 Corinthians: "The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know" (8:2). Without God's mercy, we are dead in our transgressions and sins; we must ask Him graciously to make us alive through Christ (Ephesians 2:1, 4, 5).
We are not even able to think wisely of long-term consequences when we are dead in our sins; we tend toward short-term gratification and protection. For example, those shield laws that restrict a judge's ability to apply pressure to a recalcitrant reporter could have a long-term cost: Governments would have to "define those categories of newsmen who qualified for the privilege." Shield laws, by giving the state power to sanction some and not others, could lead to that governmental control over the press which many journalists rightfully wish to avoid.
We can learn to act ethically, and wisely, only by first having our hearts changed, and by then following Biblical example. In Matthew 18, Jesus uses a parable about forgiveness to show the source of all deeply motivating compassion. He explains that "the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents [several million dollars] was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt."
The parable continues: "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [a few dollars]. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'"
The first servant refused: "Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers until he should pay back all he owed."
Compassion comes through our thankfulness for the Master's mercy and our following of that merciful pattern when we deal with others. Relying on the law (which requires payment of such debt) or our own devious ethical analysis is of no avail. Yet, we are unwilling and unable to act rightfully until God transforms our hearts through His saving grace. Journalistic ethics without Christ means arrogance and hypocrisy.
Time spent in most non-Christian ethics conferences would be better spent in reading the Bible and, through God's grace, learning who we are. Christians can benefit from discussion of practical applications of Biblical truth at Christian ethics conferences, but each of us also must apply David's words in Psalm 51 to our specific situations: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love.... For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.... Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean.... Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you."
By reading the Bible and realizing our own sin, we might develop the self-awareness of a New Englander named Shanghai Pierce who moved to Texas, built a great ranch, and in his retirement hired a sculptor to memorialize him in a giant bronze statue set out in the pasture. The story is that Pierce would ride by on horseback, doff his sombrero politely, and say to the statue, "Morning, Shanghai, you old cow thief."
Few journalists are like Shanghai Pierce. Many know the law better than their own selves. The result of journalistic emphasis on externals has been the digging of the deep pit that will be described in the next two chapters.
|PART TWO QUOTE
|Man without God is a beast, and never more beastly than when he is most intelligent about his beastliness.