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Friday 10 November 2023

Is journalistic ethics an oxymoron?

"Moral clarity", "moral compass", and "Moral fog", are phrases used frequently nowadays to expose arguments that support actions with a flawed ethical basis. Most common recently in relation to the Oct 7 Hamas attack on Israeli civilians, but of course applicable in many other areas of cultural conflict.


So what is moral clarity? While not easy to define for any situation, hypothetical questions provide some insight by focusing on dilemmas where we have to make choices. Our choice of right or wrong highlights our moral compass. For ourselves at least.

Here are three hypothetical questions to let you clarify your own position.

Question 1; You are a journalist confronted by an active crime scene. A young man has a woman by the throat and is trying to rape her. Do you; -

1. Try to stop him and liberate the woman?
2. Call for help and try to help her?
3. Take out your mobile phone and start filming the rape?

Question 2: You are a television journalist and your producer has inside information of where and when a protest will take place in front of a private residence. He wants you to go and cover the protest together with a film crew. You are told the protest is on a private residence so you are to ensure you do not violate trespassing laws.

Do you
1.  Follow your producer's instructions and go to the property without alerting the owner of the property?
2. Tell your producer that you would be an accomplice and therefore do not accept the assignment?
3. Inform the authorities and let them know where and when the illegal protest will take place then go and cover the protest?

Question 3; You are a photo journalist and your producer has asked you to attend a military action by a terrorist organisation. Your producer has asked you to cover the action to provide a professional record.
You know this is going to be violent and on a large scale

Do you
1. Follow your instructions and join the group as an observer to record the 'action'?
2. Tell your producer that you refuse to go as you do not want to be an accomplice to the actions of a terrorist group
3, Do you advise the authorities where and when a terrorist attack is to take place and then go and cover the action?

And a second part to this last hypothetical. 

Question 3 part 2
You had decided to go and create a record without informing the authorities who could prevent it. You now find that the terrorists are carrying out a massacre, murdering, raping, butchering, burning, decapitating,

Do you
1. Cover the story with pictures and live narrative?
2. Refuse to take part in any way?
3 Try to help those being massacred?

Of course, these are pointed questions. Unfortunately, the scenarios are not totally hypothetical,  Question 2 is based around the protest covered by Australia’s ABC where the TV crew covered an anti-mining protest at Woodside CEO's Perth residence (see Woodside files formal complaint with ABC over CEO protest. They chose not to let the victim know but took part in what they knew would be an illegal action. What do you think of the ABC's ethics?

And worse still Question 3. There was a CNN journalist embedded with the Oct 7 Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians. Yes, really. Hard to believe. Of course, some questions on ethics are now being asked, but this is after the event.

These questions are of course not easy. I can hear journos providing a variety of excuses for moral compromises; 
  • "If we let authorities know, then we would never have informers
  • "The crimes would have occurred even if we were not there, but then the world would not know about them? Surely it is better to shine a light on such events?”
  • "We never break the law"

Mmm. I guess that is where the moral clarity is missing and moral fog takes over.

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