Press ethics: add responsible self-restraint to a nose for news

The Virtuous Journalist, by Stephen Klaidman and Tom L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press. 246 pp. $19.95. It is probably not surprising that when a veteran journalist collaborates with a philosopher-ethicist, the product would be a book about virtue in journalism.

It is also predictable that the authors would not come down unequivocally for either an unrestrained press or a morally untainted one.

What reporter Klaidman and philosophy professor Beauchamp do champion is a kind of ``moral balancing'' in the media - attained by combining a nose for news with responsible self-restraint.

``The objectives of journalism and the public interest will be served if journalists learn to weigh and balance competing moral considerations in their work, rather than leave such balancing to the courts or leaving it aside completely as if it were a purely legal matter,'' they say.

This balancing act must not be at the expense of First Amendment freedoms, Klaidman and Beauchamp hasten to explain. But they just as quickly equivocate and sound a note ominously reminscent of the rhetoric of many of those who file megabuck libel suits against the press: ``...there is no evidence that the Founding Fathers intended conflicts involving press freedom to be resolved by an absolute principle of freedom and ... they [the Framers of the Constitution] were right to stop short of endorsing such sweeping freedom.''

So what is the message here? Forward into the battle of investigative reporting with a backpack of compunctions? Or perhaps freedom of the press is a flaming sword with a blade of rubber?

Probably neither. It's not fair to be too hard on a couple of people who really only want to argue that a free press is not necessarily incompatible with virtue and honor. But they do seem to belabor the whole thing a bit. For instance: ``Every encounter and story in journalism has a moral dimension: reporter-source relations, editing a tape, securing consent to publish sensitive material, and deciding whom to and whom not to interview are moral matters, which - perhaps because they are so pervasive - are easy to neglect,'' they write.

Who could argue with this? But are moral considerations the special province of journalists? Aren't plumbers and engineers regularly faced with the same dilemmas? And we need not even mention government officials and lawyers.

Reporters, like everyone else, act ethically - or unethically - because of the type of people they are. Certainly, there are sticky situations and borderline ones. But that is more a test of individual maturity and basic honesty than anything else.

What sets the press apart, insist the authors, is an ``obligation,'' ``duty,'' and ``requirement'' to serve the public.

And here they are undoubtedly right. Public service would add an extra, if not special, dimension to the general expectation of ethical behavior that we have a right to demand of everybody.

For the press, it raises unique problems in reporting hostage or terrorist events, situations involving national security, and real-life dramas that involve personal, sometimes intimate, details of people's lives.

When does the responsibility to report the facts and the public's right to know end and invasion of privacy begin?

Here Klaidman and Beauchamp descend from their moralistic soapbox and realistically examine media case studies. Among others, they generally praise the press for its coverage of the Baby Jane Doe story - which involved the role of government in decisions involving life and death of defective newborns. ``The human dimensions were not only presented fully, but in a tasteful, fair, and compassionate manner,'' the authors say.

But the press acted with less accuracy - and responsibility - in reporting the barroom rape saga at Big Dan's Tavern in New Bedford, Mass., they say. Incorrect reports of cheering, laughing witnesses to this crime - based on false evidence - were compounded by newspapers across the country. And this left a slanted over-all impression of the entire situation, and a public bitterness about many of the Portuguese residents of this area. Although later some newspapers corrected the misinformation, the first impression lingers.

The authors also detail changing views of newspapers over the past two years in reporting the story of AIDS. Here they found editors faced with the dilemma of offending readers with explicit, often unsavory, information or meeting their responsibility to give public service information about this disease. This is the ``balancing'' act they initially refer to.

Ironically, ``The Virtuous Journalist'' itself does a balancing act. And unfortunately, from a reader's standpoint, it may not all be to its credit.

Scholars are committed to present various sides of an issue. And for this reason, they are often accused of a lack of commitment. Virtue and journalism are not mutually exclusive. Simply, the virtuous journalist is one who is doing his job right - in honoring a commitment to a free and aggressive press as well as to a society built on individual rights and privacy. In this case, the devotion to free and virtuous press is there. And it would have been better if the authors had more clearly stated it.

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