Contemplation on Ethics

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I just got home from the movie Contagion, and I am thoroughly disturbed by what I saw. The main issue came from the character played by Jude Law. I shall do my best to refrain from spoiling the plot for those who have not seen the movie as of yet, but I am not certain I can accomplish that objective while leading into my main point.

Jude Law plays a freelance journalist who has "over 18 million unique visitors" to his blog. He is out reporting news and, when a virus outbreak begins to emerge, he does something questionable. At one point in time he makes a video blog post where he explains the symptoms he has from the virus and then takes a particular medicine, saying that if he is still alive in a day or two it works to cure this epidemic.

When he doesn't drop dead everyone wants this drug and, when everywhere begins running out of it, violence breaks out and anarchy reigns across the cities.

Do not read this next statement if you do not want a part of the plot spoiled... he never really had the virus.

This made me think about the ethics of a journalist. At what point should the line be drawn between a breaking news story and a dishonest fabrication? Where does a person learn how to tell when the line is being crossed?

There is a code of ethics posted on the Society of Professional Journalists website. In the preamble it states "Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility." Johann, whom I blogged about yesterday, has lost a piece of that cornerstone with his plagiarism. Jude Law's character, if the truth would be revealed to the public, would lose credibility and some of those unique visitors.

According to the code of ethics posted, there are four components that are mentioned: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable. Jude Law's character only really followed one of those. He was more concerned with giving the people "what they wanted" and providing a solution to their problems. That answer turned out to cause more harm than could have been predicted.

Which leads to the question of how do you know whether or not a choice is ethical. It is highly likely that over the course of a career in journalism you will be faced with a scenario where reporting the truth would cause immense harm. There will be times when reporting something might jeopardize your job. How would you handle those situations?

I don't know if that is something you can really plan for.


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