An ethical dilemma: A minor problem with Library Wars Episode Three

Here’s an ethical situation for y’all:

You’re a reporter standing at an edge of a lake. In the distance, you spot a boy drowning. You have the means and ability to save him and saving him will not have any unintended consequences (he isn’t a child Hitler or anything.) There’s also no one else around who could save him. What do you do?

Believe it or not, this is really an ethics question I was asked in one of my journalism classes.

Now the ethical thing to do is to save the kid. He IS drowning after all. You can’t just let someone drown in the lake. But there’s always a follow-up question to this one.

Do you cover the story?

Make no mistake, it is news. If you’re lucky it’ll be front page, maybe even above the fold. Because as cold and callous as it might be, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Now it won’t necessarily be the type of story that would make or break a career, but it’d definitely make cutting out the clip a lot easier. And you could probably do a sidebar about water safety. Maybe you could spin it out into a whole week extravaganza.

But ethically, you shouldn’t write it because the moment you hit the water you stopped being a reporter and started being part of the story. This means that there isn’t any way for you to be fair about it. So while you might get you’re fifteen minutes, you aren’t getting the byline.

Now the whole reason I brought this up is that there’s a moment in episode three of Library Wars where the reporter offered the military the use of the news helicopter.

Um… yeah.

I know a lot of people think that the media are profiteers off of war. (And make no mistake they are.) That is a line that just shouldn’t be crossed. At that point the reporter stopped being an observer of the story and became part of the story.

And trust me, there’s no good way to get out of that sticky situation. Once the media actually starts actively funding the war, (which they are. I mean this isn’t a humanitarian mission or anything), they can’t start funding the other side of the war. So for all intents and purposes the reporter is screwed.

I’m sure there’s somebody right now who’s saying, “Um… why are you making a big deal about such a small thing?” And in a way that person is right. It’s not like I can expect reality out of fiction. But geez. It’d just be more interesting if the media didn’t help out.

The thing is that there is an ideological tension in the show between people who believe that a medium should be censored and people who believe that they shouldn’t. By having the reporter blithely offer the use of the helicopter, the show is saying, “Well the news media wants freedom.” But if they did the ethical thing (and not gotten involved) that would produce a far more interesting tension between people who want freedom and fight for it. And people who want freedom but don’t (or this case shouldn’t) fight for it.

But maybe that’s just me.

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10 Comments

  1. I agree. If they got involved, they shouldn’t be reporters in the first place.

    This reminds me of Tomorrow Never Dies, though. It’s not the best Bond film, but Carver was a media-mogul who wanted to make news himself. He funded wars, etc. – so Bond had to stop him. Obviously, what he did wasn’t ethical. The media shouldn’t get involved.

    Or at least, if they do, let others cover them.

  2. Isn’t that an easy ethical debate? You save the child since you are part of the story either way, and it’s better to be the hero than the guy who let a kid drown. Then, you only grant first interviews and details of the story to the paper/station that employs you. This favor will benefit you eventually (being sent to cover a juicy story), the kid gets saved, your place of employment gets a real feel-good story with exclusive interviews. Win-win-win situation with no morality compromised, so this is not much of an ethical problem.

    As for the reporter, why let the facts get in the way of a good story ;D?

  3. Wow, that’s quite a tricky question that had never occurred to me before. Thank you for pointing that out!

    There might be a slightly weakness in the analogy though. I think there is a difference between the guy who saves the drowning child and the reporter who “donates” their helicopter because that the helicopter belongs to the media. The reporter, however, can become “just a man” to save the child and at that point stop being at his job. Therefore, that could be a solution to the one ethical problem but there is none to the other.

    On a side note, even a child Hitler is a living human and should be saved, ethically speaking. No matter how much how uneasy you would feel about that.

  4. I can’t swim . . . but yes, that helicopter-lending was odd. It suggests that the journalist (and by extension her helicopter crew) prize the victory of the Libraries over journalistic integrity.

    Of course, it’s hard to imagine a real-life conflict with such clearly-defined morals; one has to wonder quite where the Censorship Army (or whatever it’s called) gets its recruits, unless there are lots of people who secretly think ‘Censorship: hell yeah!’ that I don’t know about. But then, the whole world of the show is a bit of a thought-experiment rather than an attempt at realism.

    Tangentially, what’s the deal with embedded reporters, like in recent conflicts I imagine we can all name? How does that work, ethically, especially if one side in a war is eager to embed reporters and the other most definitely isn’t? Assuming there’s an answer to that which fits into a blog comment rather than a three-thousand word essay . . .

  5. The other side already has most of the media at its disposal. Remember how journos took pictures of terrorists launching the missile at the DHL plane, how Reuters doctored their photographs, etc. That’s not embedding, it’s better: having media in your pocket and doing your bidding.

  6. @Michael – I definitely agree.

    @Kabitzin – It actually is a pretty easy ethical question. It was just one that I got asked in a J-course. Although whether you’re part of the story either way is a good point that I hadn’t thought about.

    Although it isn’t so much the facts, as providing assistance to a governmental agency involved in a war.:) But yeah… although that usually gets people fired (people like Jason Blair or there was another woman who actually won a Pulitzer prize for a story about a young herion addict that she actually made up.)

    @Sasa – There is a bit of a weakness. But the counter argument for why the media should lend their helocopter is because “They’re saving lives.” I think there’s a question though of whether or not the people involved actually put themselves in danger or just happened to be in danger.

    As far as the side note, I was pretty sure if I didn’t make that addition someone would have brought up the Utilitarian argument of “Well what if he does something bad in the future.” (Because in Utilitarian ethics not every life is worth the same.)

    @The Animanachronism –

    But then, the whole world of the show is a bit of a thought-experiment rather than an attempt at realism.

    You know I was going to write an entire post about that. 🙂

    But really as far as the censorship troops, I can see that. In fact, I can see that as more likely than a bunch of people getting together and defending non-censorship stuff. You should take a look at freedomforum.org. They actually do a survey every year about the state of the First Amendment. Almost invariably the results are, “I want freedom for everyone that is like me.” Although it has gotten better over the last few years.

    Hrm.. Embedded reporters. Now that one’s tough. Ethically, if the paper/station/news source is paying for the reporter’s lodging and food then it’s more ethical than if the government is paying for it. Granted, they should also pay for the soliders who are guarding the reporter. Although depending on the war, reporters usually have some level of autonomy. I seem to remember people reporting from inside of Iraq during the invasion. Now, the real question is of course, “Can they report fairly?” And I think the answer is an astounding maybe. But then again having reporters in with the troops is better than having them stuck behind the lines and being fed information by some PR guy, when they know it’s likely that it’s wrong. So personally, I think it’s not the best situation. But probably the best situation that the media is going to get.

    And war is one of the tricky things, at least here in the US, because generally things like the Freedom of Information Act don’t apply to documents concerning National Security. Although that opens an entirely different bag of cats.

    @ Author – If you’re talking about the Reuter’s picture of American forces bombing Beirut, I think the important thing to note is this paragraph.

    Reuters’ head of PR Moira Whittle said in response: “Reuters has suspended a photographer until investigations are completed into changes made to a photograph showing smoke billowing from buildings following an air strike on Beirut. Reuters takes such matters extremely seriously as it is strictly against company editorial policy to alter pictures.”

    But I agree that it was unethical and just plain wrong for the photog to do that. But it’s also important to note that he was fired for it too.

    And what is wrong with taking pictures of a terrorist firing a missle at a plane? I mean it is news. In fact, it would probably be LESS ethical to not take a picture of it.

  7. I can’t quite fathom what the problem with this question is supposed to be. I save the kid. If I don’t then write about it afterwards it’s only because I can’t think of a non-awkward, non-self-aggrandising way to describe it. I sure let someone else in my news group do it if the opportunity comes up.

    I also lend my helicopter to the anti-censorship people. Is the only reason I shouldn’t that people might think I was lying or exaggerating it? Then that’s more of a question about not getting caught than ethics. -I- know I’m honest.

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding something or maybe I’m just depraved and missing out on some fundamental ethical principle here.

  8. I still haven’t seen Library Wars (I’ll have to finally check it out after this) but based on the situation you gave, I would have not offered the military a news helicopter at the risk of being non-cooperative to the national army. If they wanted it, they would have commandeer it from my crew. However, if there were a policy that required me to hand over the copter, I would have to explicitly state my voluntary aid of the military if I were still able to file a report.

    That is a more sticky case than the drowning boy one – I would save the kid but the rescue could not feasibly be reported without a personal bias. It could still be reported by another reporter/publication as an after-the-fact case but that article would mainly hinge on the experiences of the survivor, his family, and the rescuer and thus have suspiciously subjective elements.

    The mention of a helicopter reminded me of an in-air accident last July where two rival Phoenix news helicopters crashed into each other while covering a police pursuit. An everyday chase turned into an unusual story for some area reporters but the stations involved handled the story objectively as they should have.

  9. […] we have iniksbane’s at least equally brilliant blog entry, but in a complete different way. I admit that it has been a long time since I have studied […]

  10. I see the argument, it is like inner politicians and pay-offs among contractors. I find something wrong with using the benefit, if the stimulus was for benefit. Say, if the reporter purposely executed the situation in which the child was drowning. That is obvious though.

    Whether the reporter uses the story or not may matter to some more than others. Most would agree that if the child was saved, it was a good thing, and if the reporter reported, it would sound somewhat boastful. More than likely, I would not expect a journalist/reporter to report on such a thing, as it serves no purpose for a reader to know what the reporter did. Though, if it was something the reporter was part of, but the result was an important matter, then it would seem reasonable to self-report (a little).

    I don’t know how accurate such a situation was, but I remember in the movie “We Were Soldiers” the photographer, who ended up fighting in battle, still wrote the story.


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