It is no secret that the U.S. boasts a free press, allowing journalists, both professional and civilian, to print virtually anything that is not obscene or related to national security secrets–and print they do. Americans’ freedom comes with many caveats, some of which have been illuminated in the recent Supreme Court decision to release 911 tapes of the Newtown school shooting to the Associated Press. Journalists should not and do not print certain material simply because the law permits it. There are many ethical considerations working in a field with such influence and reach. The release of the Newtown tapes brings up the differences between objective journalism and publication with a political agenda.
Journalism students are required to complete ethics courses, which are intended to instill in them a sense of responsibility as they make ethical publication decisions. By the same token, they are taught the free press is a medium for many things including informing, educating, entertaining and influencing opinion. Journalism students are not the only ones who must consider the implications of a free press. The line between media liberty, the rights of others and public decency is one tested by people in many other professions, including politics, public policy, criminal justice, business and advertising.
Politicians and political advocates commonly use the media to further political agendas, advocate for causes, affect election outcomes and shape public opinion. Politicians who are not media professionals do have access to the press, through advertising, being guests on political shows, blogging and other means of civilian publication. The ethical implications political actors consider when publishing stories or information are different than that of objective journalists such as those who write for The New York Times, which is the paper of record. Politicians often push boundaries and customs in the name of promoting a cause, but the pursuit of a noble cause does not always justify the publication of sensitive or offensive information. Customary media ethics may be skewed by political goals. Gun control advocates might want to release Sandy Hook tapes to demonstrate the terror that can ensue when unfit people have access to guns. The Associated Press, in their case about the Sandy Hook tapes, said they would review the tapes before releasing material. “It’s important to remember, though, that 911 tapes, like other police documents, are public records,” said Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of AP (AP 2013). “Reviewing them is a part of normal newsgathering in a responsible news organization” (AP 2013). While AP is a responsible and objective organization, political actors with this content would not be bound by the same media ethics that the AP claims they employ.
A journalist, disseminating newsworthy information relevant to their readers while observing ethical standards acts differently from a politician seeking political gain or political advocate seeking public support. It is often in the politician’s best interest to publish information that a responsible journalist working for an unbiased publication would not publish. As each has a different goal, they have differing standards of ethics. Michael Walzer describes his theory of “dirty hands” in which unethical means can justify an ultimately virtuous goal (Walzer 1973). Of course, it is expected that politicians engage in questionable behavior. It is inherent in their job description. Many of these political behaviors occur out of the eye of the public. But publication of sensitive information involves the rights of the public. Should people be subjected to the desperate screams of teachers as they cry for help as their students are executed by an armed gunman, simply by turning on the television and seeing a political ad or a partisan show on a broadcast network?
Walzer argues the difference between an ethical politician and an unethical one is that the ethical politician publicly admits the bad behavior and repents (Walzer 1973). How this would work when using publication as the method to accomplish political means is unclear. A politician who publishes offensive material would not be politically inclined to include a disclaimer of “I know this content is gruesome and offensive, but I want the public to support gun control because it is for the public good and this content will further that goal.”
Politicians are not bound by the same media ethics as journalists who pride themselves on discerning reporting. The differences between journalists and politicians in using publication as a medium for accomplishing different goals will continue to have major implications as the line of decency and ethics is tread by situations like the release of the Sandy Hook tapes.
Melia, Michael, and Jack Gillum. “911 CALLS SHOW ANGUISH AND TENSION IN CONN. SCHOOL.” News from The Associated Press. Associated Press, 4 Dec. 2013. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.
Walzer, Michael. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 2nd ser. 2 (1973): 160-80. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2265139>.