Ethics is often a matter of judgment, not rules. When one value conflicts with another, a choice is required, not a checklist.
That’s the case with one of the most read stories in Stars and Stripes last week, an account from Stuttgart, Germany, of the court-martial of an Army major convicted of raping his three daughters. The Stripes newsroom made the right call in deciding not to identify the major, on the grounds that it would indirectly identify his victims.
Though some readers objected, the Stripes journalists’ judgment, explained in the story, was consistent with policies and practices in most modern newsrooms. The value of accuracy — a complete account would ordinarily accurately name the person convicted — conflicted with the value of fairness — journalists should be sensitive to their impact on victims. In this case, fairness to the daughters trumped letting readers learn the identity of their rapist father.
Especially in the age of the limitless digital archive, the newsroom was right not to “brand” the daughters as rape victims. Should the daughters themselves later choose to make that information public at some point — some victims do, for various reasons — that’s up to them.
“Fairness” in news coverage is often over-simplified as political fairness — giving opposing viewpoints equal treatment. Leaving aside (for now) a discussion of the reflexive impulse that twists fairness into inaccuracy by giving crackpot notions equal treatment with substantial, verifiable information, this story is a good example of the larger meaning of fairness as a “news value.” It’s not just political balance, it’s how you treat the people you write about.
Here’s how the Stripes newsroom ethics statement puts it, with appropriate special reference to the military:
“Injury, personal tragedy and sometimes death are a not infrequent part of the daily experience of the U.S. military community overseas. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units plus the U.S. government military community abroad must deal with painful experiences while Stars and Stripes and other media look on. Staff members must strive to be highly sensitive to the plight of families and unit members in time of tragedy. Every effort must be made to record these stories but never at the price of insensitivity to the men and women of the U.S. military and their families.”
In the reader comments attached to the original story on stripes.com, a commenter argued that the major should have been identified. Indignantly, he argued that somebody — Stripes? the court? — was protecting an officer but would have hung an enlisted member out to dry. Indignant, but just wrong. As almost any newsroom would have judged (and as another commenter responded), the rationale was to protect the victims.
Unfortunately, the moderators at Stripes had to close the comments on that story because a commenter was encouraging readers to post the major’s identity in the comments — in other words, attempting to undo the Stripes newsroom’s decision not to publish his name. The moderators made the right call.
Before the comments were closed, the initial commenter responded that the public had a right to know what this public official had done, and readers should be able to see if their daughters might have been at risk by being near him. Legitimate concern for the rape victims overwhelms the rote public official argument. If the government was withholding this public information, I would object, but that’s not the case. The information is a public record, but the Stripes newsroom — not the government — made an independent, ethical decision not to publish it.
But what about the risk that others might have been the major’s victims? That’s a legitimate concern, too, but limited — and not a reason to publish the victims’ identities in Stripes’ channels worldwide, and permanently in Google-space. Awkward as it may be for a journalist to suggest, I’m betting that back channels in the military family community are relaying the identity of the major and his daughters where it needs to be known. That’s imperfect, of course, and subject to error, but it’s probably a pretty effective way to get that information to the right places while minimizing bad consequences for those who are victims without any question — the major’s daughters. Think of it as “need to know” versus “right to know.”
Again, ethical choices are often contests between legitimate values — and judgment, not dogmatic reflex, delivers the best result.
Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States. For several links associated with this column, please go to Ernie Gates’ blog. It can be found at stripes.com/blogs