As a journalist it is our job to report the news, truthful news; seek truth and report it. That’s one of the most important ethical codes of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), but when does reporting the truth go too far? Before a story is published the journalist needs to think of the far-reaching effects of what they publish. The journalist needs to decide if the information they are publishing is of importance to the public and their need to know.
In my last blog post on ethics, I discussed the hullaballoo around Ashley Madison and the stolen, hacked documents that contained millions of user’s personal data: emails and partial credit card numbers. The consensus was that it was okay to use hacked documents as long as the journalist had no hand in stealing them. More often than not the information garnered from hacked documents has been from some political scandal that the readers/viewers needed to be aware of.
This is not the case in the Ashley Madison affair (small pun intended). The public doesn’t need to know if Joe the mechanic is cheating on his wife. He only fixes cars, not the national debt. It’s understandable if an email from the documents was from a .gov email and/or paid for with taxpayer’s money. Then the public needs to know and to take action. Unfortunately, in this case, public standing had little to do with who was “outed.”
John Gibson, a pastor and one of the people outed by the press, made the decision to take his own life because he didn’t want to face his family and parish with them knowing he was an Ashley Madison account user. His wife Christi is the one who found him and the note he left behind. Christi Gibson stated, “What we know about him is that he poured his life into other people, and he offered grace and mercy and forgiveness to everyone else, but somehow he couldn’t extend that to himself.”
Reporters were so anxious to get the names of the “adulterers” out to the public that they didn’t stop to think of the individual person: the father, the husband, the son. Nor did they consider the families of the account holders and the long-term and permanent damage this would do. Gibson, being a pastor, could not live with the shame of what he had done and was afraid of having his family, his parish, and the community look at him in disgust. He could not forgive himself. “It wasn’t so bad that we wouldn’t have forgiven it, and so many people have said that to us, but for John, it carried such a shame,” Gibson’s wife said.
Minimizing harm is a key goal in journalism, but that doesn’t mean news should be avoided entirely. Andrew Seaman mentions that a journalist should remember when using stolen documents that they should still try to minimize harm, which does not mean avoid reporting on it completely. “All journalism, in general, creates some level of harm – ranging from discomfort to mental distress. The good of the information being brought to light should outweigh the harms.” In this instance, I don’t believe that the information given outweighed the harms as lives were lost because of it.
For me, minimizing harm is one of the most important ethical codes. In the next blog post, I want to touch on what steps to take to maximize the minimizing of harm.