ETHICS OF JOURNALISM AND UNABOMBER CASE
NEW YORK — When The Washington Post and The New York Times weighed whether to publish a terrorist's manifesto, they had to pit journalistic independence against the possibility of saving lives.
Not an easy conundrum. In the Unabomber case, they decided to err on the side of public safety.
"It certainly in retrospect turned out to be a good decision," says Ed Fouhy, executive director of the Washington-based Pew Center for Civic Journalism. But he and other media analysts also warn that a dangerous precedent may have been set.
"I think we have to be very careful because we might be headed down a very slippery slope," says Christopher Harper, director of graduate studies at New York University's department of journalism.
But Mr. Harper also notes the police and the media have cooperated for generations. Crime stories full of details often lead to tips that can lead to arrests. Shows like "America's Most Wanted" have proved to be popular entertainment as well as effective crime-fighting tools.
But Peter Herford, a journalism professor at Columbia University, says it's imperative for journalistic organizations to retain complete editorial control. If not, they can become vulnerable to other terrorists' whims.
While the journalism community is still divided over the Post and Times' decision, there's little argument that it may have turned out to be in the public's interest.
"If this is the Unabomber, he didn't turn himself in," Harper says. "It was good police work, alert family members, and hopefully, the press played a positive role in all of this."