COMM 400 – Media Law and Ethics

The Media Law and Ethics course allows students to learn about the different communication and media laws, like slander, libel, and freedom of speech.  The second portion of the class is devoted to ethics and handling ethical situations.  In a paper about ethical dilemmas, I tackled the ethical question of telling the truth versus the importance of integrity and reputation.  After identifying the decision maker, the competing morals, alternative courses of action, the external factors, stakeholders, and ethical theories, I was able to decide upon a conclusion.  In addition to writing the paper, a group presentation was expected providing all of the same material.

Ethics Paper-Truth vs. the Importance of Integrity and Reputation

          Several months ago, The Washington Post interviewed Jose Antonio Vargas, a former reporter from 2004 to 2009, who admitted to being an illegal immigrant from the Philippines.  According to Vargas, his grandparents brought him to America when he was twelve years old and during his time of employment for the Washington Post, the assistant managing editor for personnel, Peter Pearl, was completely aware of Vargas’s illegal status.  However, Pearl did not reveal this information to anyone else at the Washington Post.  Vargas brought his story to the newspaper in March 2011 and they spent weeks editing and fact checking the piece and even received additional help from Vargas on the piece.  Then, in mid June, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli unexpectedly pulled the story and refused to have it published.  To have his story heard, Vargas submitted it to the New York Times, who promptly published it online and in the newspaper.

The ethical question at interest is to decide whether to publish Vargas’s story and tell readers the complete truth but risk embarrassment and harm to reputation or to avoid publishing Vargas’s story and not be honest with the public and evade embarrassment.  However, not publishing the story gives other newspaper the opportunity to publish it.  In reality, the ethical decision maker or moral agent was Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli but for the purposes of this paper, I will be assuming the role of ethical decision maker, specifically when it involves journalism ethical dilemma.  The ethical decision maker has quite an important role and should examine every ethical issue very seriously.  This can be better accomplished by following a structure for resolving ethical dilemmas called the S.A.D. Formula that includes defining the situation, analyzing the situation and making a final decision.

After understanding the important facts of the issue, it is imperative to begin recognizing the specific competing morals presented by the ethical dilemma.  For the issue of whether to publish the story about Vargas, the competing values are being truthful to the public and trying to avoid harm to the paper and its reputation.  One source for journalism ethical morals is the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which includes several specific ideas and values for journalists to keep in mind while reporting the news.  According to this code, several values are present on both sides of the issue.  To begin, on the side of truth telling, one value that applies is to “tell the story of the human experience even when it is not popular”.  Vargas’s story is a unique experience that could be overall beneficial to society by encouraging more discussions about current immigration laws.  Another value is to “support the open exchange of views, even if those views are distasteful”.  Although the article may shine a poor light on the Washington Post, it is important to support the discussion of such a story.  Additionally, one Code of Ethics value is to “give a voice to the voiceless”.  Because Vargas is no longer a reporter for the Washington Post, he was incapable of telling his own story to the public.  However, a story in the paper could have been very popular and let readers understand his story.  Also, “seeking out individuals of news stories who have been accused of wrongdoings” is a value according to the Code of Ethics.  Not only should have the Washington Post allowed Vargas to respond and discuss his wrongdoings, the paper should have given Peter Pearl an opportunity to respond to the allegations against him.  A final value present in the Code of Ethics is to “expose the unethical practices of journalists”.  Allowing the public to know that Vargas was illegally being in the country and working for the Post exposes the truth about a journalist and an entire organization.

On the other hand, the Code of Ethics also shows supports for not printing the story and protecting the paper.    One of those values is the idea that “compassion should be shown to those who are affected by the news coverage”.  Although Vargas wants his story told, it could have a negative effect on him and other members of the paper, especially Peter Pearl who knew the truth about Vargas.  Furthermore, a value from the Code of Ethics is to “recognize that reporting some information may cause harm”.  Again, printing the story could have some negative effects on individuals involved.  Finally, one value from the Code of Ethics involves “protecting the privacy of private citizens and comparing that to the need of public intrusion”.  Basically, although Vargas wants his story published, the ethical decision maker must decide if the need for the public to know the truth about Vargas outweighs the privacy rights that others affected, such as Peter Pearl, have.

After reviewing the different conflicting morals that are presented, the ethical decision maker can begin to recognize the alternative courses of action and start to determine the benefits and negative aspects of each alternate.  One possible course of action is to publish Vargas’s full interview.  This course of action honors the value of truth, exposing unethical practices by journalists, and supporting the open exchange of ideas and giving a voice to the voiceless.  Vargas wants to share his story through the Washington Post.  Also, publishing the story does not give other news outlet an exclusive story about Vargas that many citizens may want to read.  However, publishing the story may cause harm as well.  Peter Pearl knew that Vargas was an illegal immigrant but did nothing about it.  Publishing the story could harm his reputation and the reputation of the Washing Post.  Because Pearl is a private citizen it is important to consider his privacy rights and recognize that publishing this story could cause harm.  Overall, because Pearl was in the wrong and Vargas wants his story shared, the value of truth and honesty outweighs the value of privacy.  Another alternative course of action includes not publishing the story at all.  By not publishing the story, the values of privacy and attempting to not harm a reputation are put higher than truth and honesty.  Not publishing the story respects the fact that Peter Pearl is a private citizen and harm or discomfort may come from publishing the story.  However, because another news outlet could receive Vargas’s story, the story still may be published but the unethical practices of journalists are not told by the paper that hired them.  In addition, by not publishing the story, the Washington Post is not being totally truthful with its readers.  A third alternative course of action would be to publish a story about Vargas without his full interview.  Although it may be useful to use part of Vargas’s interview, as long as he is reflected in the way he intended.  This course of action is still maintaining being truthful and exposing unethical practices of journalists, but the paper has more control of the content in the story.  With this control, though, comes the responsibility to report the news fairly and truthfully.  Never the less, readers may feel more understanding of the actions at the Washington Post if a story is published by one of the writers rather than Vargas telling the story himself.  If the Post can admit and apologize for their wrongful actions, they may be forgiven.  Also, telling the story does not allow another news outlet to have an exclusive story.  A final course of action would be to publish the story online but not in the actual paper.  Again, this course of action maintains the value of honesty but a different set of readers will see it.  This could still cause harm to Pearl and the Post because online readers will see the story though.

Another item to consider when deciding an ethical dilemma are the external factors.  One external factor to consider is the legal constraints.  Before making a decision, it is vital to consider the legal effects of the ultimate decision.  For example, Peter Pearl has a right to privacy and it is important to contemplate if publishing the story infringes on that right.  There is no real legal precedent about infringing on privacy by publishing a story stating that someone knew of wrongdoing and did nothing about it.  It is a true fact but it may cause harm to reputation, which can infringe of privacy rights.  Another legal aspect is that Vargas is committing a crime and the consequences of publishing the story need to be considered.  However, it is the responsibility of reporters to expose such practices but it is best to be prepared for the repercussions of the story.

Furthermore, stakeholders, or those individuals or groups that may be most affected by the decision, are another important aspect to review before making a final decision.  The first stakeholder is the ethical decision-maker.  In the real life situation, it is important that Brauchli feels comfortable and can rationally defend his decision.  For this paper, I am acting as the stakeholder, and I must also be able to rationally defend my decision.  An emotion that I am feeling is compassion and sympathy for Pearl.  Although he did not do the right thing by knowingly allowing Vargas to continue to work at the Post and be in the country, I feel that he was stuck in a very hard situation and may not have known the correct course of action to take.  However, it is important to put those emotions aside and focus on the best decision to make.  Another stakeholder includes the people or groups that are most likely to be affected by the outcome.  In this case, Peter Pearl will probably be very affected by the decision.  Publishing this story could bring about serious harm to his reputation.  Admitting and apologizing for his wrongdoing does not guarantee sympathy and understanding from the readers.  Others greatly affected by the publication are Vargas and his family.  Although Vargas wants his story published, does not mean that it will not have severe consequences for him.  He and some of his family are illegally in the country and legal consequences could occur.  Also, this story could affect immigration groups by sparking discussions about the current immigration laws and regulations.  Support may be gained from the publication of the story or support could decline but either way the country will be talking about immigration.  Third stakeholders to consider are financial supporters.  Subscribers may respect the Post for admitting their wrongdoings or they may be turned off by it.  However, a story like this could gain more readers and eventual subscribers.  In addition, depending on subscriber’s response, advertisers may be gained or lost from publishing the story.  Overall, even if individuals are upset with the Post, people will still be interested in the story and their subscribership and advertisers may improve.  Another stakeholder to consider is the institution, or the Washington Post.  Publishing this story could have negative outcomes on the paper as a whole.  The Washington Post has quite a high reputation to uphold and this story could ruin that reputation.  On the other hand, admitting mistakes and apologizing may go along way with an understanding and forgiving audience.  Additional stakeholders are the professional colleagues, such as the other reporters at the Washington Post and reporters in general.  This story could give all reporters at the Washing Post a negative reputation for working with an illegal immigrant.  This would also not shine a positive light on other reporters.  A final stakeholder includes the society.  This story could ultimately be very beneficial in sparking discussions and reforms to the current immigration laws and regulations.

A final aspect to consider when making an ethical decision is ethical theories to determine what the best outcome may be.  The first ethical theory is based on Kant’s duty ethics.  This theory believes that a decision is good if it is based on a moral value, regardless of the consequence.  For Kant, as long as the decision was in good faith the decision is moral even if it brings about negative outcomes.  Basically, the ends never justify the means.  According to this theory, the best course of action to take would be based on personal decisions about morals.  If one believes that telling the truth is almost always the right thing to do and at least something positive will result from it then the story should be run regardless of consequences that result.  If the running of the story hurts someone, it is obsolete because the course of action was picked based on personal morals and values.  However, one might hold privacy of Pearl or maintaining the Post’s reputation as being more important than honesty.  In that case, not running the story is the best decision.  The second ethical theory is based on consequence ethics.  This theory is only concerned with the outcome.  Thus, if the outcome is positive then the decision was correct, regardless of the means to maintain a positive outcome.  Also, this theory believes that the best outcome promotes the greatest amount of happiness.  It is possible that publishing the story best fits this theory.  If only a few people are harmed by the publication, but it encourages discussion of immigration and readers are happy to read the story than publishing the story is the best choice.  However, if no discussion of immigration occurs and readers are unhappy with the story and the Post’s reputation is harmed then not publishing the story may be the best choice.  However, when considering both theories it is also important to keep in mind that the story may be released through another news outlet if the Post does not release it.  A final theory to consider is Aristotle’s Golden Mean theory.  This theory seeks to find a mean and moderate solution between two extremes.  However, the decision may not always be made right in the middle, one extreme may be somewhat favored over the other.  For this theory, publishing a story about Vargas without inclosing the entire interview may be the best solution.  The Post can still publish the story, but readers may be more forgiving and understanding of the actions that occurred if written from a Post reporter without just Vargas’s story.  Additionally, another news outlet would not be able to report an exclusive story and shed the Post in a bad light.

After reviewing this ethical dilemma, I have come to the conclusion to print a story about Vargas and the situation, but not use his full interview in the story.  If the Post feels apologetic for its actions then that can be expressed in the article to gain understanding and ask for forgiveness.  Also, this does not give another outlet the ability to print a hateful article about the Post before it can explain and respond itself.  However, the most important reason to tell Vargas’s story is to be honest and truthful to the public.  The Washington Post is a reputable news organization and it has a right to publish the truth to the public, especially when mistakes are made because they can be forgiven.  Along with telling the truth, publishing the story may bring harm to some people, but it has the potential to start a national discussion about immigration and make some serious reforms to the country immigration laws.  In addition, publishing Vargas’s story without the full interview can satisfy both people who think the article should be published and people who don’t.  Aristotle’s Golden Mean theory makes the most sense because not everyone may be happy but damages and harm is decreased all around.

Overall, ombudsman Patrick Pexton did an excellent job critiquing the Washington Post for its actions.  Pexton understands that Post reporters hold public trust and respects the value that reporters owe the truth to the public.   He also realizes that the publication of this article would have done a lot of good for the public, like sparking discussions on immigration.  However, he also appears to have some sympathy for the ethical decision maker.  He recognizes that Brauchli had a difficult decision to make.  He discusses that Vargas started as a reporter but turned into a advocate.  Ultimately, though, Pexton believes that the paper should have published the story, especially because it had already been edited and fact-checked.  The specific values from the Code of Ethics that Pexton believes holds the most stake in the decision to publish the story is the idea that “unethical practices of journalists should be exposed” and that “the story of human experience should be told boldly”.  In his critique, he states, “Journalists are not public officeholders, nor do they manage public funds. But they do hold, precariously, a public trust. And at the foundation of that trust is the pledge to tell the truth, or at least to get as close to it as they can”.  Because of this, Pexton came to a slightly different conclusion that I did.  He believes the Post should have published the story Vargas wrote, giving him a voice to speak.  He believes that the outcome of doing that would have been better than the outcome of allowing the New York Times to publish the story was.  Pexton and I agree on the importance of the same values: truth and honesty.  Although we did not come to the exact same conclusion, we came to our conclusions in similar ways and he did an admirable job supporting and rationally defending his position.

Ethics Paper

Case Brief-Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn

Facts:  A seventeen-year-old girl was raped and ultimately died in August 1971 in Georgia.  Even thought there was much press coverage of this crime, the girl’s name was never released to the public.  The court date of the six boys accused of this crime occurred several months later.  On the day of five of the boys’ trials, a reporter for WSB-TV, Wassell, obtained the name of the victim through a copy of the indictments, which are assessable to the public.  That same day, Wassell broadcasted the girl’s name and did so the next day as well.  In May of 1972, the victim’s father brought charges against the broadcasting corporation, based on a Georgia Code that prohibits the publication of a rape victim’s name, and claimed his right to privacy had been violated.  The publishers confessed to publishing the victim’s name, but believed they were protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  In this case, the plaintiff is the victim’s father and the defendant is the broadcasting company.   Also, the plaintiff sued for money damages.

Procedural History:  In the trial court, it was decided that the First and Fourteenth Amendment did not sufficiently protect the defendant from being sued because the Georgia Code, which protected the names of the rape victims, granted a civil solution to anyone harmed by its violation and the damages would be decided upon later by a trial by jury.  This was appealed by the appellant and eventually went to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Issues:  According to the First and Fourteenth Amendment, can an individual be liable for damages for invasion of privacy caused by publicly broadcasting the name of a dead rape victim that was already publicly revealed in court records?

Holding/Decision:  The Georgia Supreme Court decided that the Georgia Code that declared it illegal to publish a name of a rape victim was unconstitutional.  Therefore, it overturned the initial ruling of the trial court and in the end, the appellant won.

Legal Rule/Test: The legal rule that came out of the case to use as future precedent is that the freedom of the press to publish rape victim’s names is protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments as long as the name of the victim is not obtained improperly or that it was not on official public court documents. 

Rationale/Analysis:  The court’s rationale in deciding this case is to not discourage future reporting, specifically reporting of crimes and the names or identities of the people involved.  Because the name of the rape victim appeared on public court documents and the reporter obtained the information about the case through court proceedings, the court did not feel it proper to punish the broadcasting station for civil liability.

Cox vs Cohn Case Brief

U.S. DOJ v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Facts: A CBS news correspondent requested that the FBI release information about the criminal records of four members of the Medico family because their company had supposedly acquired several defense contracts from an arrangement with a corrupt Congressman.  The FBI supplied the requests only for the three members who were deceased but refused to supply the requests of the fourth, living Medico family member.  In the original Trial Court, the plaintiff was the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the defendant was the United States Department of Justice.  The plaintiff sued because the FBI refused to release the reports of the fourth Medico family member.

Procedural History: The U.S. Department of Justice appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.  Before it went to the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals ruled in the favor of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, agreeing that the request for the law enforcement records did not invade the privacy of the private individual because it contained matters of public record.

Issues: Does the disclosure of Medico’s “rap sheet” violate the “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” intended by Exemption 7(C) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)? 

Holding/Decision: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the U.S. Department of Justice, saying that the request for the law enforcement records was an unwarranted invasion of a citizen’s privacy.  Therefore, it reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals. 

Legal Rule/Test: The legal test that came out of this case to be used as precedent in future cases is deciding whether disclosing a private citizen’s information to a third party is an unwarranted invasion of privacy, as intended by Exemption 7(C) of the FOIA.  In this case, the disclosure of a “rap sheet” is unwarranted if a third party requests it, regardless if the party is a news source.

Rational/Analysis: The court’s rationale in deciding this case begins with the idea that both common law and privacy law indicate that a person has control over information pertaining to him or her.  This was strengthened by the fact that federal funds were spent to obtain his “rap sheet”, meaning that the information is not freely available.  In addition, the Privacy Act of 1974 indicates that criminal histories are not to be released unless a written request by the individual involved is made.  Also, even though this information may have been public at one time, it is a compilation of many different things and therefore should not be disclosed.  The court decided that reporters are essentially the same thing as any other third party as well.  Finally, the court decided that the information the press wanted to obtain does not have anything to do with the alleged corrupt government official and thus was not official information.  His “rap sheet” says nothing about the behavior of the government official.  They agreed that there is some public interest in the rap sheet, but it is not the type of public interest the FOIA was made to protect.

U.S. DOJ v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Case Brief

Sunshine Week Paper

     Sunshine Week was originally created by journalists and is a nation-wide, non-profit program dedicated to maintaining and expanding the public’s right of an open government and their freedom to information.  Members of Sunshine Week vary from news media to schools to any other party who is concerned with the publics right to information.  Sunshine Week first commenced in March of 2005 with the aid of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the American Society of News Editors.  Although Sunshine Week was not first recognized until 2005, in 2002, The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors started Sunshine Sunday to persuade their legislators not to enact more exemptions to public record laws.  Around three hundred new exemptions were stopped after three weeks of Sunshine Sundays because of more awareness.  Then in June of 2003, a Freedom of Information Summit was held in Washington, which really laid the foundation for Sunshine Week.  Because individual involvement is so important, everyone is welcomed to be a participant of Sunshine Week.  In order to be a member, one must become active in some sort of a discussion about the significance of an open government.

Sunshine Week is very important because it allows citizens to be much more informed and aware of their government and encourages the interaction of individuals and their government.  This better awareness has actually led to real changes to individuals and laws.  Sunshine Week encourages individuals to not just accept unnecessary government secrecy.  Instead, this program promotes a better understanding of the type of information citizens are entitled to and the ways to go about finding this information.  This is essential to American rights, as promised by the Constitution.

Because Sunshine Week is so important, many news outlets do different things to celebrate it.  For example, one organization, the General Services Administration, wanted all individuals to join in celebrating Sunshine Week last year by donating ideas and joining them promoting a more open government, which includes the government being less secretive and individuals participating more in the government.  The administrator of this organization, Nancy Johnson, encouraged people to understand that the government is listening and promoted the importance of directly interacting with the government.  She stated that one way to become more involved with government is to visit the website challenge.gov, which allows visitors to try to come up with solutions to problems posed by government officials.  This is a direct form of interaction between citizens and government.  Other websites with similar purposes include data.gov and USA.gov.  Overall, this organization understands the importance of Sunshine Week and is dedicated to opening up government and information.

To celebrate the next Sunshine Week, one idea is to engage the Shepherd University campus.  First, this can be done by spreading awareness of Sunshine Week through flyers, posters, and discussions, including its importance and purpose.  Another activity to celebrate Sunshine Week on campus would be to allow students and staff to write letters to government with problems or concerns about its secrecy or lack of access to information.  Additionally, games or contests could be set up to encourage participation.  Also, a speaker could be asked to speak to the campus about the importance of an open government and freedom to information.  So many different activities and events could be done on campus this March to help celebrate Sunshine Week and spread awareness.

Sunshine Week Paper

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