The New York Times has reported that one of its reporters who was captured by the Taliban and has been held captive for seven months has escaped. What makes the story particularly interesting is that the Times kept the story of the reporter’s capture confidential during that entire time because it was advised that disclosure of the capture would endanger the reporter. The Times therefore was confronted with a choice between printing what was a newsworthy story or refraining from doing so because printing the story could be fatal to its subject. The situation presented a question of journalistic ethics, and I think the Times clearly made the right choice.
When I attended the Ohio State University School of Journalism, ethics was part of the curriculum — not a major part, but at least a topic that was discussed. I was surprised to learn that there really are no hard and fast standards that apply to all members of the news media. Instead, every newspaper and every reporter had to make their own rough cuts. One of my journalism professors said his particular rule of thumb was never to accept a gift that could not be consumed in one sitting.
For reporters, the ethical questions can arise in countless different scenarios. If a kidnapping occurs, do you follow the requests of the police and the family on what to print and when? I think most journalists and editors would agree to do so, because no story is worth a life. Do you offer a source anonymity when you suspect that they may be leaking to pursue a political agenda? I think most journalists would say yes, if the reporter had done enough checking to believe in the truth of the source’s information and there was no other way to get the story. Do you accept a free meal or round of golf from someone trying to garner some favorable press? I think most reporters would permit themselves to do so, and believe that they could maintain their objectivity — but what if it turns into many meals, rounds of golf, and maybe a junket to an exotic location? Some lines are easier to draw than others.