Media Ethics Essay Assignment (maximum 20 points)
The Edward Snowden case: Distinguishing between legal and ethical principles
PART A: Background
One of the cases we studied this semester was the 1971 landmark case New York Times v. the United States. This Supreme Court decision made it possible for the New York Timesand Washington Post to publish a series of articles based on the Pentagon Papers—a classified report documenting U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, and the lack of an exit strategy. The Nixon administration tried unsuccessfully to convince the Supreme Court that news stories based on the Pentagon Papers threatened national security. Nevertheless, government officials and some members of the public accused the media of violating ethical standards by reporting classified, stolen and leaked information. Similarly, we covered United States v. The Progressive. This significant 1979 case emerged after the federal government filed an injunction to prevent The Progressivemagazine from publishing an article purporting to reveal the “secret” of how to build a hydrogen bomb. The Progressive case also raised a number of ethical issues.
Although we devoted time analyzing the legal principles in these cases, for this assignment the goal is to examine the ethicalaspects of publishing material with the potential to harm the public or national security, generally. For this assignment, we will consider the current, and multi-faceted, debate over whether U.S. and British journalists were morally justified in 2013 when they produced work revealing the National Security Agency (NSA) routinely conducts surveillance on domestic phone conversations, email exchanges and Internet searches. Clearly, NSA contractor Edward Snowden broke the law when he stole and leaked classified documents about the PRISM surveillance program. Less clear, however, is whether Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and other members of the media violated ethicalnorms by reporting on the information contained in those documents—as some fellow journalists and members of the public allege.
Several aspects of the Snowden case make it ideal for an analysis of ethics. First, the U.S. government is prosecuting Snowden under the Espionage Act. By contrast, a federal judge in a 2005 Espionage Act case wrote that because journalists do not work for the government, they have not exploited a relationship of trust when they legally obtain, and then disclose, national defense information. Furthermore, Greenwald, Poitras, and their colleagues were performing their jobs—reporting the news—and are protected by the First Amendment. However, this legal reality has not prevented some high-profile journalists and elected officials
from questioning whether journalists acted ethically in reporting on a secret program purportedly designed to protect Americans. In a New York Times review of Greenwald’s book about Snowden (released May 2014), Michael Kinsley raised the question of who should decide which classified information should be made public. Kinsley wrote:
It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy, that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision making—whatever it turns out to be—should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.
Similarly, soon after the Snowden leak surfaced in 2013, Greenwald appeared as a guest on the “Meet the Press” show. Host David Gregory asked him, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime? If the leaker can go to prison, why should the leakee be exempt?” Then, in October 2013, New York Times business columnist Andrew Sorkin commented that he’d “almost arrest Glenn Greenwald.” In January 2014, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper referred to Greenwald and other journalists as Snowden’s “accomplices.”
The American public is also split over whether media outlets acted ethically when they reported on the classified surveillance program. A 2013 Gallup poll asked whether The Washington Post and The Guardian were right or wrong to publish the information once they got it. A solid minority, 33 percent of respondents, said the journalists were wrong to inform the public about the PRISM initiative.
PART B: Readings/supporting materials
• Rich, C. (2013). Writing and reporting news: A coaching method. Chapter 15, Media Ethics.
• Harrower, T. (2010). Inside reporting: A practical guide to the craft of journalism (second edition). Chapter 7, Law and Ethics.
• Eyes everywhere: Book review by Michael Kinsley. If the links below don’t work, copy and past them into your browser and then open them.
• Glenn Greenwald will basically dare American authorities to arrest him
• The case for arresting Glenn Greenwald
The Case for Arresting Glenn GreenwaldDon't use plagiarized sources. Get Your Custom Essay onDistinguishing between legal and ethical principlesJust from $9/Page
• Ethics quote of the week: Glenn Greenwald
Ethics Quote Of The Week: Glenn Greenwald
• Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (on Beachboard)
PART C: Key ethical philosophies
In journalism, there exists multiple codes of ethics—or moral rules of conduct meant to guide reporters’ decisions. Professional organizations and individual media outlets have their own codes (above, I suggested you read a code from the Society of Professional Journalists). Below is a list of key ethical philosophies. More detailed information is available online, and I posted a Powerpoint that covers these ethical philosophies (as well as strategies for resolving ethical dilemmas):
Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which mandates that if an event is significant, timely or of the public interest, the media must report it—regardless of the consequences.
Relativism, the philosophy that consequences should determine whether an act is ethical.
Dewey’s ethics of Pragmatism, which involves attempting to determine appropriate action based on the probable outcome.
Rawl’s Veils of Ignorance, which proposes treating all sources equally, regardless of social status, race gender, age, etc.
Mills’ Utilitarianism, which urges journalists to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Aristotle’s Golden Mean, which urges journalists to find balance in their coverage.
PART D: Your grade will be based on responses to these questions (20 points total):
1) What values are in conflict in the case of reporting on a classified NSA program? What harm did journalists cause? What benefits did their actions bring?
2) Do you agree that reporting on the leaked documents was unethical, even if legally allowed? Why or why not? Make an argument by weighing the competing ethical values in this case.
3) If you were in Glenn Greenwald’s position, what would you have done and why? (You must cite the ethical philosophy to which you would adhere, and describe the logic you followed for solving this dilemma.)
4) Would you change your position if you knew that your coverage of Snowden’s leak would lead to a loss of life among U.S. intelligence agents? What about if it would save lives?
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