Why must journalists minimize harm?


The Society of Professional Journalists provides journalists with ethical guidelines to use in the line of reporting news and information. The code of journalism ethics includes being accountable and transparent, acting independently, and minimizing harm when reporting a story, and that’s not just with a story but with every story.

To minimize harm, for example, professional television news stations have a seven second delay in their video feeds while reporting live breaking news. At least one Columbus television news station reported the seven second delay ensured the video feed was cut when a man decided to commit suicide on-air so that this was not broadcast live to the public. There are plenty of examples like this when journalists must minimize harm.

In today’s virtual, online simulated reality of social media, there are private citizens across the world who now take the initiative to produce videos and share them with the public. Facebook’s live news feed, for example, does not provide a seven second delay. Citizen journalism is a gray area on the internet because the average person does not have formal professional journalism training.

Journalism ethics is something journalists must consider with every story produced. Minimizing harm is one of the foundations of journalism ethics. Sharing video of people suffering or being harmed is not a necessary element of news reporting. It should never be the intention of a news agency to invade a person’s privacy, speak libel of their actions, and mislead people into harm. Of course not — these things are illegal. Yet ethics and legal definitions are not the only reasons why it is not okay to share video of people being hurt. That is also a concept of Buddhism, a philosophy that pre-dates Christianity.

Buddhism relates to the philosophy that when we choose to honor life, we no longer choose to engage in acts of violence and we cease to identify as a part of the cycle of destructive emotions that inhibit liberation through samsara, a Buddhist word closely meaning the constant passage of life, including suffering and change.

Because private citizens do not typically view themselves as Buddhists and journalists, they may not be aware of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, or the tort laws related to civil suits. For those private citizens who do consider themselves journalists, they may think they are doing the best they can but in all actuality may be causing more harm than good.

Negligence is basically the failure to see how one’s own actions or inactions are not normal and result in harm or cause damages to another. Sometimes when people become very angry and their blood is really boiling, they say, “That person was stupid!” What they might also mean to say is, “That person was negligent!” An example of this could be someone who is driving and runs a stop sign that results in a traffic accident and death. A normal person has a duty to stop at the stop sign. When someone breaches that duty and causes harm, they are acting negligently.

Unlike with a criminal allegation, you have to be able to prove damages in a civil negligence claim. Civil cases require more work, resulting in higher costs, than do criminal cases, but the plaintiff may be awarded attorney’s fees if successful. For these reasons, the private citizen who knowingly disregards ethics, laws, and philosophy must be careful. Any number of possibilities could resolve unfavorably with orders to cease and desist or to make payment of money as punitive damages in a civil suit.

What this teaches us is that we do not minimize harm only because it is a law. We do not minimize harm only because it is an ethical guideline or only because it is a philosophy. We choose to minimize harm because it is the right thing to do and is in the best interest of humanity despite any laws, ethics or philosophies invented to justify it.

So long as journalists follow basic journalism ethics, harm to the public does not happen. This is not to say fake news is not permitted — it is permitted because in most cases it’s protected legally as free speech, but it depends. Anyone is free to publish fake news as protected free speech, but if they publish a false statement maliciously and cause harm, the owner of that fake news story may be called upon to face the facts in court.


By Ashley Bunton

Staff Columnist

Reach Ashley by email at abunton@aimmediamidwest, by calling her at (740) 313-0355 or by searching Twitter.com for @ashbunton

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