Media Ethics and the Moral Philosophy of a Journalist

Here’s the situation, a source has leaked information to you as a journalist while you’ve been out in the field. You return home to a case of the wrongly accused – a public servant has been put on trial for leaking you the information and the real whistleblower isn’t coming forward. What do you do? Throw away the gentleman’s agreement with your source to protect the innocent, yet potentially throw away your credibility as a journalist? Perhaps you let the judicial system run its course by holding your word to that initial source?

This was the primary moral dilemma dished up to us this week in Media Ethics. Asked where we stand on this issue it became apparent there wasn’t a clear answer. Overwhelmingly it became a question of consequence, a matter of subjective analysis with regards to potential outcomes of following certain paths of action. Reasoning, if you will.

It became useful to employ deductive reasoning in entertaining potential actions, but it also appeared a great opportunity to employ inductive reasoning to understand what the outcomes of similar circumstances in the past have been.

My answer? You protect the innocent. I can think of a few moments where those in the wrong have been unable to deal with the weight of holding back the truth – Richard M. Nixon in his interviews with David Frost, Adrian Lamo in his dealing with Bradley Manning – and wonder whether the real source might come forth. Are we more in the position of Adrian Lamo or Julian Assange as a journalist? I am unsure. But it does bring to light the increasingly complex nature of the judicial system vs. the sanctity of a handshake – the giving of your word.

After all, laws are written by people for people, just as a handshake takes place between two people, sealing a deal or offering a promise of trust. One can only imagine many journalists may choose to honour their agreement with their source over the pressures of the law.

Which is more honourable? Which is the right move? It becomes a matter of context. Unfortunately, philosophy deals in principles, not particulars.