The Ethics of Ugly

(This is a guest column by my brother, Stephen A. Smith, a freelance writer and also a Th.M. candidate at Dallas Theological Seminary in the Media Arts program)

Douse your torches. Lower your pitchforks.

The Los Angeles Times recently printed leaked photos of U.S. paratroopers posing with the gruesome remains of dead Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan. (http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/18/nation/la-na-afghan-photos-20120418) It was unquestionably an ugly instance of the hellish nature of war and an error in judgment by soldiers under pressure. The resulting media storm grew so intense that LA Times editor Davan Maharaj hosted an online forum to defend his decision to publish the two-year-old photos. Many readers felt that the LA Times had compromised troop safety on the altar of sensationalized newspaper sales. Others cried for the heads of the offending paratroopers on a platter.

Davan Maharaj, Editor of the Los Angeles Times Media Group

To address the ethics of the situation, Maharaj said, “At the end of the day, our job is to publish information that our readers need to make informed decisions. We have a particular duty to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan.”

I disagree on two counts.

First, true impartiality is a journalistic fiction. Every person comes to the table with their own unique set of experiences, perspectives, and value judgments which color their worldview. Journalists wear these colored glasses as much as any other person. They take raw facts—information—and tell those facts (or withhold them) to suit their conception of reality. As a graduate-level media arts student, I’m trained to recognize my own worldview and to cherish it—or correct for it—as the case requires. Good journalism can never claim impartiality—we all care too much about the things that matter for that to ever be true—but it should strive to be honest and ethical.

Second, an editor’s job is not to convey information—Facebook and YouTube do that just fine—but rather to make value-judgments about news items. Journalism students learn early on the difference between information and news. Information is raw facts. For information to qualify as news, however, it must pass through the filter of several criteria: timing, significance, proximity, prominence, and human interest. Watching over these criteria as a chaperone is the ethics of the decision. Ethics is the branch of philosophy that discriminates between right and wrong. If an editor ignores the five criteria of newsworthiness, he or she may well face the charge of unethically grinding a personal axe or purposely provoking sensationalism.

In this case, Mr. Maharaj seems to punt the ethical dilemma of publishing out-dated photos of no-name soldiers in an ugly act in a far-away country by pleading his role as a middle-man: simply a purveyor of information which readers require to make informed decisions. But is this really the case? Or did something else motivate his decision? The LA Times’s sub-head for the paratrooper pictures, “EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS,” suggests that something other than journalistic altruism motivated the exposé.

Maharaj’s job as an editor is not to disseminate information or grind the recently fashionable axe of military-bashing in the name of impartiality. His professional responsibility as an editor is to filter news from information, and then to run that news through an ethical grid which determines the “oughtness” of publishing it. Chief amongst ethical principles is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Soldiers can commit ugly errors of judgment when they ignore this maxim. So can editors.

Neither deserves to be burned at the stake.

About Nate

A 2003 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and former Marine infantry officer, Nate is the Chief Operating Officer of Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans get jobs. He holds a Master's in Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Nate lives with his wife and dog in Alpharetta, Georgia.
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