Ethics and war

Critics claim journalists go too far — and, sometimes, not far enough.

Since Sept. 11, American journalists have been walking a fine ethical line.

On the one hand, there are grim warnings about spilling military secrets, undermining national security and consorting with the enemy. Not to mention the fact that it’s pretty hard to criticize a politician with a 90 percent approval rating at a time when the nation is swept up in patriotic fervor.

On the other hand, there’s the fear that journalists aren’t doing their jobs, aren’t playing their vital watchdog role, are too soft on politicians and buy everything with an American flag stamped on it.

Journalists are used to tackling the normal gamut of ethical issues. We know we’re not supposed to take bribes and make up quotes, and we check with our editors before using anonymous sources. We don’t own stock in the companies we cover, or, if we do, we disclose the information. We’re cautious about identifying underage suspects or rape victims.

But these are all peacetime standards. Few journalists working today have experience reporting during wartime — a situation that brings with it its own challenges.

“This situation in the past two months is unique,” says Robert Steele, senior faculty and Ethics Group leader at St. Petersburg, Florida-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “We’ve never had such massive loss of life, where we were attacked by terrorists on our own home turf. So there’s a natural tendency for journalists and news organizations to respond with some of the patriotic fervor that has swept the nation.”

And recent experiences in military reporting have been mostly isolated, far removed from our daily lives — Kosovo, the Gulf War, Panama. The ethical discussions that arose were remote, not truly relevant for most working journalists.

But the war has been brought home, and American journalists now find themselves in the unusual position of being part of an important national story. Not part of it in the “O.J. Simpson” kind of way, but part of it in the “we’re-all-Americans, getting-Anthrax-envelopes, targeted-by-terrorists” kind of way.

For the first time in more than a century, a military conflict has become local news.

It changes the way we work, and not always for the best.


The foreign journalists working here in the United States noticed changes in our coverage immediately.

“In the wake of the 11th, there has been relatively little, with a few exceptions, very little critical distance from the government,” said Yolanda Gerritsen, U.S. bureau chief for the Dutch national daily Het Parool (“The Word”). Gerritsen is also the general secretary for the Foreign Press Association, an organization of international journalists working in the United States.

For example, she said, she’s watched President Bush’s televised speeches and was surprised by the extremely favorable tone of the ensuing media commentary.

“Sometimes I wonder — did we really see the same thing?” she asked. “I realize he’s in a difficult position, and I’m not saying that he’s not doing anything right, but at the same time it’s important for journalists to have a certain distance.”

One problem, says Jane Kirtley, Silha professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, is that it’s difficult to be critical when the audience is swept up in patriotism.

“I’ve gotten my share of nasty letters from people based on a story I wrote about the national decision not to publish the results of the Florida ballot,” she said, referring to a media-sponsored recount that has the potential of casting doubts on Bush’s legitimacy as a president.

“I have no idea what the results show and, regardless of what they show, Bush is president,” Kirtley said. “But if you say anything that is even mildly critical, you’re going to see people react negatively to that.”


In times of war, readers probably need even more information than they normally do, said John Bussey, the Wall Street Journal’s foreign editor.

“If our reporters have come across information that affects the general discussion of the conduct of the war, then we want to make sure that our readers get it,” he says. “Reporters and editors are always going to push for as much disclosure as possible because one’s concerns is that without disclosure, without information in the public domain, public officials aren’t held responsible.”

But when full disclosure can put lives at stake, editors have to exercise additional caution when making editorial decisions. Operational security is an issue that has been little more than an abstraction for most journalists until now, said Ed Offley, a long-time military reporter for papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and author of the recently-released book “Pen and Sword.” In Panama and in the Gulf War, Offley said, the military preserved operational security by physically restricting access to journalists.

But no one can restrict journalists’ access to the country in which they themselves live.

“In the first week after the attack, I monitored the press for a week for information that I would reasonably conclude that I would not want Osama bin Laden to know, and it was just everywhere,” he said.

Shortly after Sept. 11, major newspapers named the terrorist camps that the United States was observing by satellite, for example.

“If some camps weren’t listed, that tells them what we don’t know,” Offley said. “The guy’s got terrorists still in this country reading the newspapers trying to find out what we know about them. I love getting a good scoop just as much as anyone else, but we have already lost lives. I’m not arguing against tough reporting on anthrax or the Pentagon, but you have to go into this with the realization that the act of publishing is not a neutral event.” Offley added that there are always officials ready to say something they shouldn’t, if journalists look hard enough.

“Every military story that we could try to get, sooner or later can be gotten,” he says. “Sources can be just as stupid as reporters.” That means that journalists have a role to play in maintaining national security, he said.

Many journalists disagree with this position.

“It’s up to the government to keep its secrets,” said Kirtley. “If people within the government, for whatever reason, have come to the conclusion that information is worth giving out, then it’s not up to the press to second-guess whether it will cause a problem.”

Offley recommends that journalists, before publishing information, ask themselves whether it’s the kind of information that would result in Osama bin Laden achieving a tactical victory or the deaths of American or allied service people.

“I think you can be objective without being neutral to the point where you’re a danger to your own country’s military,” he said.

For example, he said, the media reported that, at the recent New York trial of bin Laden’s terrorist associates, information came out that the U.S. National Security Agency had been monitoring Osama bin Laden’s telephone satellite calls.

“He immediately switched his communications to other methods,” Offley said. “The news media was at least a co-partner in that intelligence failure because we gave away what should have been the deepest secret in the U.S. intelligence community.”

Most journalists and editors don’t seem to agree that the criticism of national security coverage is warranted, whether in the case of that trial or for other security issues.

“If the information came out in a trial of alleged Al Qaeda members then they (other Al Qaeda members) were listening to the testimony,” said Felicity Barringer, press reporter at The New York Times. “Obviously, they’re present at their own trial.”

Even coverage of troop movements falls into a gray area, said Jerry Seib, deputy Washington bureau chief at the Wall Street Journal.

“Several weeks ago, the Pentagon was very nervous about news organizations reporting the movements of special operations forces in Afghanistan,” he said. “This week, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld was announcing these things from the podium of the Pentagon.”

But Seib doesn’t argue that the news media should print everything they know.

“If there’s a valid case to be made that something specific shouldn’t be put into print then we will listen, and have in the past,” he said.

For example, there’s a distinction between saying that the government knows something, and saying how the government found out, that could be critical for intelligence purposes, he said. Another issue is the precise schedule of the President of the United States.

“It’s not that important for people to know,” he said, adding that, conceivably, more things can move into that category.

If there’s some information that the public should be aware of, but could create problems for the military, then one solution is for the media to delay publishing the information until it was safe to do so, said Offley.

“The difference between heroism and treason is usually a matter of timing,” he said. “If I’d been one to find out that the special operations forces were about to go out and do an airdrop, in my own professional self-reference, in my own human conscience, I don’t think I would have the right to betray that operation in advance.”

Kirtley added that journalists should be wary of leaks, whether during peace or wartime. “Any time an official leaks information and demands to be kept off the record, that raises an ethical conundrum for a journalist,” she said. “Is that person leaking for reasons that promote an agenda? You also have to question the veracity of the person, but that’s not a new issue. That’s an issue that we deal with all the time.”


The Foreign Press Association’s Gerritsen noted that the American press seems to be overly enthusiastic about covering issues of national security.

“I’ve noticed that there’s this steady stream of worst-case scenarios come from American journalists about what would happen with biological terrorism and so on, which could put ideas in people’s heads,” she said. She herself has filed stories about, say, the cessation of military flights over New York.

“That’s noticeable by everyone,” she said. “I think it’s important to write about these things because even if you wouldn’t write about it, you don’t protect the people. The terrorists, if they live in this society, then they know what’s going on.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, some critics have said that U.S. journalists have gone too far in exposing security weaknesses — and not far enough in thinking about the consequences of airing or printing a particular story.


In international reporting, some of the same ethical issues that arose in the Gulf War are still with us. In the war on terrorism, there has been controversy over reporting from the opposing side or airing interviews with opposition leaders.

For example, CNN has a policy of not submitting questions to an interview subject before the interview — yet they were willing to send a list of questions through intermediaries to Osama bin Laden.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer told viewers that CNN was making no commitment to air bin Laden’s response, and he said the network will decide how much or how little to run after it evaluates the tape, should there be one. In addition, he said, CNN would share the tape with other news organizations.

But, according to many critics, the main problem with sending questions to bin Laden — which, as of press time, have not been answered — is that people like bin Laden should not be interviewed by CNN at all, and particularly not in a format that wouldn’t allow for follow-up questions.

“They would be lending their international imprimatur to the videotape that came out,” said Richard Noyes, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, a conservative think-tank based in Alexandria, Va.

Furthermore, he said, there could not possibly be any useful information in such a videotape. Bin Laden would simply use the mass media to spread his propaganda, and, unlike other public figures that do the same, his messages result in the deaths of thousands of Americans.

“His goals are destructive towards the West, including organizations such as CNN,” Noyes said.

If the American public needs to know more about bin Laden, Noyes said, CNN could interview biographers and people whose work has brought them into contact with the man — and Noyes lauded the news organization’s efforts in this regard.

Even before CNN sent its questions to bin Laden, however, there was controversy over the use of bin Laden videos. In fact, the media was asked not to air these videos unedited for fear that bin Laden may have been using them to communicate secretly with his followers.

News organizations, particularly broadcasters, generally followed the government’s recommendations.

“While we do not surrender our right to broadcast such releases in their entirety, we are mindful of the U.S. government’s concern there may be hidden messages,” said Gary Hill, chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and director of investigations and special segments at KSTP-TV News in St. Paul, Minn.

“Like the networks, we will examine each tape and decide what is appropriate to release rather than putting it ‘live’ on the air without scrutiny,” he said.