By Bob Steele
Ethics Trump Law?
criteria to help you decide when it's OK to break the law.
Should journalists ever break the law to report
a story? Is there a justification for putting ethical obligations above legal obedience?
Those questions are at the heart of the debate about
the ABC News report that tested security at American ports. ABC News producers shipped a container containing depleted uranium
from Jakarta, Indonesia to the United States.
ABC News said its "project involved a shipment to
Los Angeles of just under 15 pounds of depleted uranium, a harmless substance that is legal to import into the United States."
ABC NEWS reported that U.S. Government screeners
failed to detect the depleted uranium in that container. ABC News said this was the second year in a row that the government
screeners failed this same test.
The ABC News website quotes Tom Cochran, a nuclear
physicist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, "which lent the material to ABC News for the project."
"If they can't detect that, then they can't detect
the real thing," Cochran said. The ABC News website reports "Cochran said the highly enriched uranium used for nuclear weapons
would, with slightly thicker shielding, give off a signature similar to depleted uranium in the screening devices currently
being used by homeland security officials at American ports."
Some government officials say ABC News went too
far in their reporting methods. The Washington Post quotes Homeland Security Department spokesman Dennis Murphy: "It
appears they violated the law, and the Justice Department is taking a look at that. Does a news organization have a right
to break the law? Can a reporter rob a bank to prove that bank security is weak? My understanding of journalistic ethics is
you don't break the law in pursuit of the news."
I think Mr. Murphy offers a simplistic, black and
white picture when the issue is much more complex and full of gray.
I believe it's essential for journalists to respect
the law, but respect doesn't mean blind obedience nor does it require absolute compliance.
There are times when individuals choose to test
the limits of the law. Some citizens have chosen civil disobedience - including law breaking - to honor what they believe
to be a higher ethical purpose. Some citizens have broken the law to protest what they believe to be unfair or discriminatory
laws. Others violate the law to make their point on issues of social injustice and violations of civil rights. Others have
chosen to break the law to challenge government policy.
Over the years, some news organizations have tested
the legal line to reveal great system failure by government agencies and to prove significant wrongdoing by powerful people
who victimize the vulnerable.
I'm not advocating law breaking as a routine course
of action. A society's laws serve multiple essential purposes. But there may be those rare instances when someone believes
his or her personal responsibility or professional duty trumps a particular law.
It's unclear to me, in this case, whether ABC NEWS
violated a law or, if they did, whether they should be prosecuted.
ABC NEWS reports on its website that "On the night
the shipment left the Los Angeles port, on Sept. 2, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security began a weeklong investigation
of ABC NEWS personnel and others involved in the project, suggesting possible violations of felony smuggling laws."
Post story quotes Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) as saying, "I would urge that significant caution must be
used by the federal government to ensure that legitimate reporting is not chilled. If my neighbor told me my barn was on fire,
my first instinct would be to thank my neighbor and get some water for the fire ... Time and again, I find federal agencies
devoting time and energy to attacking whoever put the spotlight on a government mistake."
Murphy: "My understanding of journalistic
ethics is you don't break the law in pursuit of the news."
Journalists and news organizations have a professional
duty to scrutinize our government and its ability to measure up, particularly on such weighty matters as national security.
This scrutiny is part of the time-honored watchdog role of the press in a democracy. Journalists reveal important truths so
that citizens are well-informed.
There are times when a rigorous watchdog may test
the limits of the law in fulfilling the ethical responsibility to "hold the powerful accountable." To be sure, those decisions
and actions are inherently subjective. Human beings are weighing competing values and loyalties.
Any decision to test the limits of a law should
be made with great deliberation and full recognition of the consequences. One test is to apply threshold criteria, similar
to those I've offered in the past for determining whether it is ethically justifiable to use deception to reveal truths.
Since each of the six criteria addresses a different
threshold, you must fulfill all of these criteria to justify your actions.
The journalist's ethical duty to reveal important
truths may justify the testing or breaking of a law:
When the information sought is of profound importance.
It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing great "system failure" at the top levels, or the information must be
necessary to prevent profound harm to individuals.
When all other alternatives for obtaining the same
information have been vigorously examined and exhausted.
When the journalists involved are willing to fully
disclose their methods and the reasons for such actions, including any violations of law.
When the journalists and their news organization
employ outstanding craftsmanship as well as the commitment of the time and funding needed to pursue the story fully and fairly.
When the journalists involved have conducted a meaningful,
collaborative, and deliberative decision-making process on the ethical and legal issues and weighed the potential positive
and negative consequences to all stakeholders.
When the journalists and their news organization
are willing to accept and justify the consequences that can occur if they are charged with violating the law. They must consider
consequences to themselves and to their profession, including public opinion and precedents from legal proceedings.
presented a compelling report on what they believe to be a serious weakness in the security at U.S. ports. The ABC journalists
also must defend their modus operandi.