Balancing news reporting with national security in an age of terrorism
Edward R. Murrow School of Communication
Washington State University
P.O. Box 642510
Pullman, WA 99164
[log in to unmask]
April 1, 2003
David Cuillier is a graduate student in the Edward R. Murrow School of
Communication at Washington State University and a former newspaper
reporter and editor. Submitted to the Media Ethics Division of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication 2003
Balancing news reporting with national security in an age of terrorism
In the shadow of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, this paper
examines the ethics of reporting information in the media that helps
citizens but also potentially aids terrorists. Using three cases and
applying the works of ethics philosophers, the paper concludes that the
media's duty to inform citizens outweighs the need to keep information out
of terrorists' hands. Three guiding principles are offered to journalists
and policy makers in balancing the competing interests.
Balancing news reporting with national security in an age of terrorism
At 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001, the first plane struck its target.
Terrorists commandeered a commercial jet and piloted it into the north
tower of the World Trade Center. During the next hour and a half three more
planes would be hijacked and crashed, killing more than 3,000 people,
redefining a generation and launching America's war on terrorism (CNN,
2001). It is a war without borders, where anyone could be suspect, whether
they live in the Middle East or the Midwest. Over a year later, one
casualty of that war, civil libertarians say, has been the public's access
Reporters who cover the military, frustrated by the government's secrecy
during the past year, formed Military Reporters and Editors and held their
first national conference Nov. 15-16, 2002 (Military reporters, 2002). The
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press issued a report outlining
efforts by the government to stifle information in the name of national
security. "In the days immediately following September 11, the United
States government embarked on a path of secrecy unprecedented in recent
years" (RCFP, 2002, p. 1).
Better to withhold information than risk it getting into the hands of
terrorists and used for another attack, say some government officials. "The
government argues the mosaic theory, that if there are enough bits and
pieces out there that terrorists could fit together then they might be able
to carry off another attack," said Scott Silliman, executive director of
the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security (personal communication,
December 4, 2002). "I have not seen any threats to national security, but
the administration has an obligation to safeguard citizens."
So the conflict between press rights and the protection of national
security continues, perhaps heightened, between journalists and government
officials. The conflict also is being fought internally by journalists over
the ethical dilemma: Should they publish information that could help
Americans better defend themselves against terrorists while at the same
time tipping off terrorists? Journalists are considering the ramifications
of their decisions and their own responsibilities in what they report.
"Before September 11 it never crossed my mind," said James Wilkerson, a
reporter from The Morning Call in Pennsylvania who detailed on September
14, 2001, lapses in security at his community's local airport (personal
communication, December 3, 2002). "But now I think about that when I decide
what to use."
This competing interest between national security and the dissemination of
information valuable to Americans is illustrated in this paper by three
1. The Los Angeles Times' publishing on March 9, 2002, information from a
leaked report detailing the nation's nuclear arms strategy;
2. a CNN reporter determining through data analysis the nation's cities
most vulnerable to terrorism;
3. and a nonprofit government watchdog group publishing chemical disaster
plans on the World Wide Web.
While some discussion of this issue in the media already has focused on the
more public ethical dilemmas, such as whether networks should broadcast
tapes of Osama bin Laden speaking to his followers, or whether the press
should have access to troops on the front line, this paper focuses
exclusively on government records gathered and analyzed by journalists or
public interest groups. It is within this realm – accessing, analyzing, and
disseminating public records such as the Pentagon Papers or Committee to
Re-elect the President financial documents – that journalists can, on their
own initiative, affect political discourse and public policy.
The conflict between the competing interests is discussed from a variety of
ethical frameworks, including libertarian and social responsibility. This
paper argues that the duty to report the truth transcends other interests.
A vigorous and independent press, as advocated by libertarians, is
necessary for a strong democracy. So is the need to provide society
information that can be used to defend its cities and neighborhoods. As
Justice Hugo Black stated in his opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court case
over publication of the Pentagon Papers, "The guarding of military and
diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government
provides no real security for our Republic." (NYT v. U.S., 1971, p. 719).
While reporting truth to create an informed citizenry is a prima facie duty
of journalists, even libertarians would acknowledge that measures might
need to be taken by individual reporters to minimize harm to the public.
After all, exposing military secrets does not just affect soldiers on an
overseas battlefield anymore. It also can lead to the death of thousands,
perhaps millions, of civilians in America. One government report estimated
a terrorist assault on a chemical plant could kill as many as 2.4 million
people (Pianin, 2002). The battlefield is on U.S. soil, and that now
increases the stakes of journalists' ethical decisions. The ethical
considerations of minimizing harm are discussed in relation to protecting
national security and reducing the odds of another terrorist attack.
Finally, based on ethics theory, three guiding principles are offered to
journalists, other information providers and policy makers as a way to
preserve freedom while still minimizing harm.
Discussion of this issue is important not only for journalists, but for
government officials and citizens, as the decisions being made today can
set a new course for the nation's safety and for its fundamental character.
"What troubles me most," said Silliman of the Center on Law, Ethics and
National Security, "is that if we look back 10 years from now at the
practices we are now setting, are we going to be proud? After World War II
were we proud of what we did to Japanese-Americans? There is a lot one can
do under the banner of war. We need to do it within the context of the
First Amendment, and by what is right." (personal communication, December
Immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the government began
closing access to information not only at the crash scenes but also in
records libraries throughout the country. Actions included the secret
imprisonment of more than 1,100 non-American citizens. Media pool coverage
was rescinded by the government during military action in Afghanistan.
Government workers were threatened with termination for releasing
information. (RCFP, p. 38)
Government agencies closed records that had been public prior to September
11. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memorandum to government
employees instructing them to deny access to public records if a claim of
invasion of privacy or breach of national security could be alleged. This
contradicted the Freedom of Information Act, which presumed disclosure.
Furthermore, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. in late March 2002
ordered federal agencies to withhold "sensitive but unclassified"
information for national security reasons even if it would be made open
Records were removed from the Web sites of a variety of federal agencies,
including the Department of Energy, Interior Department, Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Aviation
Administration, Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety
NASA and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (RCFP, p. 44). Newly
restricted information includes locations of dams, pipelines,
transportation maps, water quality data, FAA airport security breaches, and
hazardous chemicals stored by companies and governments (LaFleur, 2002).
States also have followed suit, closing records in the name of national
security (Davis, 2002).
Such actions are not uncommon in times of crisis. Fear has been shown to
be related to lower support for civil liberties by the public (Lambe, 2000,
McCloskey & Brill, 1983, Ross, 2001, Stouffer, 1955). However, that does
not necessarily mean the public is willing to give up civil liberties in
the name of national security. A poll by the Freedom Forum in 2002 showed
that 40 percent of Americans feel there is too little access to information
about the government's war on terrorism, and 38 percent said access is just
about right. Only 16 percent said too much information was being divulged
(Freedom Forum, 2002).
The U.S. government's actions have begun to resemble Britain's reaction to
terrorist bombings by the Irish Republican Army beginning in the 1970s.
Following bombings in England, Britain's Prevention of Terrorism Act of
1974 was enacted to forbid media interviews with IRA members (Grant, 1992).
Under the Offenses Against the State Act of 1990, subversive publications
could be outlawed. Both acts grant powers of arrest and detention, making
journalists criminally liable for publishing prohibited information. The
OASA prevents a member of British security forces from talking to the press
about security operations, similar to commands issued by U.S. officials to
federal workers. Prior restraint is not out of the question, either, as the
British government attempted to ban a documentary in 1988 about the
security forces' killing of three IRA operatives.
While the American government has not started to arrest journalists or
commit prior restraint, its policies are beginning to affect the ability of
reporters to do their jobs. After the FAA closed its airport security
enforcement database to the public soon after September 11, even those
journalists who had acquired the information before it was closed were
denied explanation by FAA officials about some of the information within
the database, making it difficult to report accurately (Porter, 2002).
This is frustrating to journalists who see the benefits of information
disclosure. Reporting about airport security lapses throughout the nation
has led to increased action by the government to shore up problems (Porter,
2002). Pipeline maps have provided citizens the opportunity to protect
themselves against future environmental damage or explosions, such as the
1999 gasoline pipeline explosion in Bellingham, Wash., that killed three
boys (Harris, 1999). The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the
Department of Justice had dramatically overstated its record of convicting
terrorists, based on analysis of Justice Department data and federal court
data. The story resulted in a GAO investigation and the firing of corrupt
officials (Fazlollah & Nicholas, 2002).
The caution, however, does not rest solely with the government. Newspapers
and television stations might not aggressively pursue information because
of resource constraints and societal pressures to conform. Wilkerson of The
Morning Call in Pennsylvania has been denied information because of
national security concerns, including environmental information about local
industrial plants. For many reporters at small news organizations, a fight
is sometimes not seen as worth the time and money. "We have a
responsibility as journalists to get the information, but the day-to-day
reality is I have 15 databases stacked up to look at. Newspapers also don't
want to put up the money as often anymore for a fight. I don't want to
spend all my time fighting." (personal communication, December 3, 2002).
Journalism scholar John C. Merrill first discussed the decline in press
freedom, autonomy and aggressiveness more than 25 years ago. The movement
toward social responsibility, he warned, would gradually lead to American
journalism becoming one "vast, gray, bland, monotonous, conformist
spokesman for some collectivity of society." (Merrill, 1974, p. 3). More
recently, Merrill notes the gradual shift toward order, social stability
and harmony in the United States, and against individualism and
libertarianism (Merrill, 2000).
In the wake of September 11, journalists have been pressured even more by
government, citizens and possibly their own feelings, to rally behind the
military. Shortly after the attacks, many television newscasters wore flag
pins. They might feel pressure to support American troops and not fight as
aggressively for information as they would under more peaceful conditions.
Whether from the government or journalists themselves, pressure mounts to
Ethical duty to report the truth
Journalists have an ethical duty to report the truth, even if there is a
risk the disseminated information could harm national security. Media
ethics scholars have examined the conflict between the press' duty to
report the truth and other duties. For example, the duty of the press to
publish sex-offender notifications was ethically defended as serving truth
as long as journalists take steps to minimize harm to the offenders
(Johnson & Babcock, 1999). The press was deemed appropriate to report the
shootout in 1993 between the Branch Davidian group and federal agents, but
the media's interference and lack of minimizing harm was deemed unethical
(Blanks Hindman, 1999). Several media ethics scholars have examined the
ethical duties of the media when balancing truth with invasion of personal
privacy (Cochran, 1996, Gauthier, 1999, Johnson, 1994, Reinboth Speckman,
1994, Winch, 1996).
From a legal perspective, journalists are entitled to publish government
information without restraint, even if there is a chance it might cause
harm to the nation. The U.S. Supreme Court determined in New York Times v.
United States (1971) that the media have a legal right to publish
government information, even classified military information, unless the
government can meet the "heavy burden of showing justification for the
enforcement of such a restraint." (p. 714) When the Washington Post and The
New York Times wanted to publish the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam policy
despite the government's objection, the court ruled in the papers' favor.
Justice Potter Stewart acknowledged the dilemma posed by the case between
the public's "right to know" and the nation's need for security but
ultimately agreed with the majority because of the overriding principles of
openness in America. "When everything is classified, then nothing is
classified, and the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or
the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on self-protection and
self-promotion." (p. 729).
However, just because the press has a legal right to publish the
information, does not establish an ethical premise to do so. For example,
reporters who bungled the ATF raid at Waco, Texas, in 1993 did not break
the law, but they probably did not act entirely ethically, either (Blanks
Hindman, 1999). In examining the ethics of publishing potentially harmful
information, we can look at journalists' duty in American society and the
works of Kant, Mill, Ross, and other philosophers.
The moral right to know provides the basis for journalists' freedom to
gather and disseminate information (Cross, 1953). In particular,
information regarding political discourse or important social issues is
likely to be given more support than trivial details about celebrities.
"The primary purpose of press rights to gather and publish information is
to promote informed political and personal decision making through a
mechanism of public discourse." (Gauthier, 1999, p. 198). Indeed, one can
argue that the people's "right to know" is a duty of the press, so that
"while the First Amendment gives the press the right to freely print the
news, the people's right to know gives the press the duty to print it."
(Fink, 1988, p. 11). This is the type of information that Americans want to
know, have a right to know and, more important, have a need to know.
William D. Ross' prima facie duties of fidelity, justice, beneficence, and
self-improvement apply to the publication of information that can aid
public discourse. Ross believes multiple personal duties can be examined in
wrestling with issues of competing values (Ross, 1930). The media have made
a promise with the public to keep citizens aware of what is happening in
their communities and government. Because of the duty of fidelity, they
should keep the promise. Justice is served when wrongs are exposed by the
media. Publishing the information makes lives better. The country has
benefited, particularly through self-improvement, because when the media
exposes problems then the public is more likely to support fixing them,
even if it means paying to fix them.
There is also an occupational duty involved (White, 1984). In this case, it
is a journalist's occupational duty to report the truth. The Society of
Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, first adopted in 1926 and updated
four times since, calls for journalists to seek the truth and report it:
"Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public's business is
conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection."
(SPJ, 1996). The code also suggests journalists act independently: "Be
vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable."
Ethical behavior, however, should not have to be learned from an employee
handbook or a code posted on the wall. It comes from within.
Eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative would
suggest that telling the truth is supreme, no matter the consequences. It
is the means, Kant says, and the morality of the means that matters.
Actions are justified if done with the right motive, out of a sense of duty
(Kant, 1785/1965). This deontological approach to ethics focuses on duty.
Telling the truth is a fundamental moral right in American society. The act
of reporting information and keeping government and public discourse open,
in this country, is universal law.
Libertarians would maintain that the information needs to be reported,
regardless of the outcome. This kind of information should be placed on the
most prominent shelf in the marketplace of ideas.
John Milton argues in Areopagitica that people can reason for themselves
and that government should not interfere. He believed that we can find
truth if we have the information and that it is the media's role to
enlighten the public and safeguard personal liberties (Milton, 1644/1971).
John Stuart Mill, another libertarian, would suggest a utilitarian
philosophy, approaching it from a practical perspective by looking at the
consequences. What decision would do the most good for the most people? If
government infringes on First Amendment rights by restricting information
that would be helpful for the public, then the rights of 280 million people
are damaged. On the other hand, if that information aids terrorists,
perhaps the lives of thousands or a few million could be lost. How does one
balance certain erosion of civil liberties against possible deaths? That is
a hard choice that government and journalists must make: Restrict
information, therefore guaranteeing harm to everyone, or keep information
open and possibly cause harm to a fraction of the population. A utilitarian
approach would likely favor disclosure, guaranteeing knowledge and a free
flow of information for the benefit to the many despite the possibility of
harm to the few.
What makes determination even more challenging is the difficulty of
predicting whether a decision will lead to loss of life. It is difficult
for anyone – the press, public or government – to predict what information,
if made public, would harm the nation. It is apparent, however, that
terrorists' motivation, including learning how to pilot commercial
airliners, would allow them to accomplish their goals without reliance on
American newspapers and television. And if the government becomes secretive
then that would prevent citizens from making informed decisions to protect
themselves and their communities. The American pro-gun slogan can be
adapted to this case: If information is outlawed then only outlaws will
Those who promote social responsibility also can argue for disclosure. The
Commission on Freedom of the Press (Hutchins Commission) in 1947 advocated
that the media accept the responsibilities that come with their rights.
They include providing a truthful, comprehensive account in a meaningful
context, and providing full access to the day's intelligence (Blanchard,
1977). Also, the media should present and clarify goals and values of
society, such as open government. Social responsibility dictates that the
media continue to aggressively publish information that can help society
Ethical duty to minimize harm
Extolling the values of press freedom is not going to go far at Ground
Zero in New York City. Many Americans are afraid, and the threat for future
attacks is very real (Pianin, 2002). Nobody wants to see another terrorist
attack, and no journalist or public official wants to be responsible for
divulging information that might aid in an attack. In deciding between two
competing interests – in this case, national security in contrast to
providing the public information – truth should prevail. Considerations,
however, should be made by journalists to minimize harm.
In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists amended its code of ethics
to include a section about minimizing harm. The code suggests that
journalists "recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause
harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance."
Even libertarian John Stuart Mill would suggest that harm to others should
be taken into account in a decision. In his essay On Liberty, Mill uses
such phrases as "for any purpose not involving harm to others" and "a
definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or
to the public." (Mill, 1859/1975). The key here is "definite." Vague
government notions of possible damage, such as the terrorism mosaic theory,
do not count.
Merrill, too, would acknowledge the need to consider whether the
publication of information could harm lives. Yes, freedom, individualism
and humanism are imperative, "but it does not suggest irresponsibility.
Contrary to what many people seem to think, one can stress freedom without
condoning irresponsibility." (Merrill, 1996, p. 5) Further, Merrill urges
that the true existential journalist "considers consequences of
journalistic action and takes responsibility for it, not 'passing the buck'
or 'copping out' by offering excuses or saying that he is simply following
orders of a superior." (p. 32)
In deciding whether to publish or keep information hidden that could aid
terrorists, journalists consider omission of truth, or suppression of news.
If vital information, such as vulnerabilities in airport security systems,
would be likely to help terrorists kill civilians then the journalist would
be ethically responsible for minimizing harm by being selective in what is
reported. For example, perhaps a story explaining the overall problems in
the security system and what is being done (or not done) to correct the
problems could be published while leaving out the descriptions of specific
materials or weapons that can move through the screening process
undetected. Journalists can make these decisions through their skills of
information gathering, consultation with experts and critical analysis, as
well as their relatively neutral position in society.
Minimizing harm is ethically justified in order to protect the community
from identifiable harm. Just as journalists reporting live from battle
zones generally do not broadcast troop movements, so now do journalists
reporting on the home front take care in reporting information that might
cost lives. Journalists should consider other duties – to their fellow man
– as well as to truth. These principles can be applied to real-life scenarios.
Three case studies
Following are three cases of journalists or other information providers
obtaining and publishing what government officials have considered a risk
to national security. In all three cases, individuals obtained substantive
factual information that was deemed important to the American public but
also potentially useful to terrorists. And in all three cases, the decision
was made to publish most of the information with efforts taken to minimize
Nuclear arms strategy
In spring 2002, someone secretly provided The Los Angeles Times part of a
confidential government report titled "The Nuclear Posture Review." The
information was a detailed account of U.S. nuclear arms planning,
explaining how the Pentagon was preparing nuclear strategies against China,
Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria. It also included
inventories of the nation's nuclear arsenal with specific numbers and types
Editors at the paper held the story for 10 days as they verified the
information, sifted through the materials for newsworthy information,
consulted experts, and assessed the ramifications of publication (Leaks
spark debate, 2002). The editors described to government officials what
they were contemplating publishing to get comments and to see if anything
would compromise national security. The Times eventually decided the
public's right to know outweighed possible damage to national security, so
stories were published on March 9. The gist of the report was included in
the stories, including the countries that were viewed as threats, but no
details of the nation's nuclear arsenal were published.
"When a leak occurs, it can be handled in a way that protects the public
interest and government's interest," said Doyle McManus, Washington bureau
chief for the paper (Leaks spark debate, 2002). Doyle said reporters'
"guiding theology" dictates that revealing information is better than
keeping it secret. There was no question something would be published from
the report, Doyle said (personal communication, January 7, 2003). It was
only a matter of what.
The editors, Doyle said, attempted to balance national security concerns
with the benefit this could have for open public discussion on nuclear
policy. Details about specific numbers of warheads were left out. "That was
a level of detail that was so far down in the weeds it wouldn't have been
of interest to readers," Doyle said. "And people in the nuclear strategy
community said that was the most sensitive part of the report." However,
information about the new direction in nuclear policy was relevant to
readers, Doyle said. "Here you have the administration formulating a new
strategy with enormous implications for foreign policy and nuclear
proliferation, in to which the public had not been allowed to know about.
We did a lot of good by letting the public know what the government was
about to do." (personal communication, January 7, 2003).
Following publication of the report, Pentagon officials declined to talk to
the media about the specifics, but they did further explain the nation's
direction in nuclear proliferation. It opened the discussion, and arms
control advocates expressed their views strongly. "For 56 years, the world
has avoided nuclear weapons use despite many grave crises. The Bush
administration is now dangerously lowering the threshold for wreaking
nuclear devastation," said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a
Livable World (Schweid, 2002, p. 1).
Government officials denounced the leak. Tim Sample, staff director of the
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called it "a break down
in our security discipline" (p. 1). He also said because there is no threat
of prosecution, people are not afraid of providing information to the press.
Also, government officials said that not only could such information tip
other countries off to U.S. strategy, but it also could hurt diplomatic
relations. Russian officials expressed dismay at the government report, and
it put a wrinkle in the vice president's plans to visit the Middle East the
day after the story broke. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior
administration officials gave public assurances there were no plans on
President Bush's desk for attacking Iraq or any other nation (Schweid,
2002, p. 1). Just a few days later, however, at a press conference on March
14, President Bush announced that he would not rule out using nuclear
weapons against rogue nations, including Iraq.
Terrorists now know that America's largest cities least prepared for a
terrorist attack are New Orleans, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Milwaukee,
Boston and Detroit. A CNN special report on January 17, 2002, listed the
country's 30 largest cities and their level of preparedness for a terrorist
attack. The scale was developed by analyzing a variety of data, including
police officers per 1,000 population, transportation data, hospital
information and surveys of emergency management directors. The city most
prepared? New York.
Mike Fish, the reporter who did the story, along with an earlier story
about the nation's 25 busiest airports most vulnerable to terrorist attack,
said the story was done with care. "We were determined to produce a
thoughtful package that would both enlighten and address people's concerns,
yet at the same time wouldn't serve as a blueprint for would-be terrorists
and criminals," he said (Fish, 2002, p. 12). "We found this also to be the
top concern of the experts who were interviewed or assisted us in
evaluating the cities."
Fish said he decided to leave out some data that could have been helpful
to terrorists. He said he was satisfied with the results. "If a terrorist
wants to know who to attack, they'll do their own research and find out on
their own. Our reporting isn't going to tip them off. But it did provide
results." (personal communication, November 13, 2002).
On September 12, 2002, CNN aired a follow-up story, explaining how many of
the cities previously ranked low had instituted more stringent security
measures, modified incident response plans and gained support for more
funding (Siff, 2002).
Worst-case chemical scenarios
OMB Watch, a nonprofit public interest group, has posted on its Web site
since 2000, executive summaries of risk management plans submitted by
companies and government agencies that store chemicals. The plans detail
the types of chemicals stored, how much and the street address.
The group decided to keep the summaries online after September 11, despite
the Environmental Protection Agency's request that they be removed. The
information remains searchable by city at OMB Watch's Right to Know Network
online site, and an e-mail address is required in order to have the reports
"Our board weighed it carefully," said Gary Bass, OMB Watch executive
director (personal communication, December 3, 2002). "They (the EPA)
claimed we were aiding terrorists. There is one record that describes
chemicals being stored near two schools and a daycare center, and the
critics said it was a blueprint for terrorism. But don't the parents of
these children want to know their children are in that danger zone? They
can do something about it. Hiding the information doesn't make the
Bass said one factor in the decision to continue providing that information
to the public was the fact that it could be easily obtained anyway from a
variety of other sources. "Terrorists can get that information anyway by
talking to people who work at the company, getting a job at the company or
from other data that is publicly available," Bass said. In a similar case,
Bass said, public records brought to light a 90-ton rail car filled with
chlorine at a wastewater treatment plant near the White House. The rail car
has since been moved.
Information dissemination does have its limits, Bass said. For example, he
said he would not publicize floor plans to nuclear plants. "There are some
lines to be drawn. That information doesn't help the community. However, I
do want to know what dangers are in my community."
Guiding principles for balancing interests
As a result of CNN airing the most vulnerable cities, those cities are more
prepared now and more lives might be saved if they are attacked. Because of
OMB Watch, people throughout the country are able to take steps to protect
themselves from accidental chemical releases near their homes, which is
more likely to happen than a terrorist attack. And information such as that
reported by The Los Angeles Times about nuclear arms brought hidden agendas
out in the open for frank discussion and public discourse.
The journalists in the three case studies all sided with disclosure and
truth telling, but they still considered how they could minimize harm to
the country. The CNN reporter left some details out of the vulnerable-city
reports. The Los Angeles Times did not report the specific numbers and
types of nuclear warheads in the nation's arsenal, and OMB Watch requires
an e-mail for gaining information, which may discourage requesters who have
In all cases the journalists made the decisions on their own, consulting
their consciences, their peers, experts, government officials, and other
sources. The cases demonstrate that reporters can make their own decisions
without imposition by the government or outside groups. Journalists, policy
makers and the public do not have to make their decisions in a vacuum.
Based on the ethical principles of presenting information to the American
public that can help them while still trying to minimize potential harm,
good ethical decisions can be made.
Sissela Bok might encourage decision makers to go through a three-step
process, similar in deciding whether to publish information at the expense
of invading someone's privacy (Bok, 1983). Bok suggests a person struggling
with whether to publish potentially harmful information first consult his
or her conscience. Could the information help society, perhaps in defending
against terrorists? Will the information aid terrorists? Are there ways to
Second, seeking expert advice is important in making ethical decisions, Bok
said. The CNN reporter consulted a panel of terrorism experts to make sure
the reporting was accurate and helpful, but not helpful to terrorists.
Reporters can go beyond the technical experts, however, and consult other
thinkers, living or dead, in contemplating ethics. For example, one
potential media expert in the area of making ethical decisions during times
of war is Edward R. Murrow. As he covered the bombings in London during
World War II he felt he was operating out of morality, integrity, and
reason (Godfrey, 1993, Leslie, 1988). His research method was to hold a
mirror to society and report what was seen. He was principled and followed
a strict, religion-based code from his Quaker family upbringing.
Third, journalists can conduct conversations with the people involved. The
Los Angeles Times explained to government officials what they were planning
to publish in order to let them make their case for what could harm
national security. The CNN reporter not only talked to experts, but he
considered his viewers and what they might think, as well as the victims of
terrorism and their family.
Based on Bok's suggestions for ethical reasoning as well as the discussed
philosophies and practical examples, journalists and public officials can
ask themselves three questions when considering whether to release or
publish sensitive government information:
1. Is there benefit to society?
If so, the presumption should be to publish the information. Is it a need
to know, not just a right to know? Journalists should determine this
independently and not allow government to make the call. Only through
discussion and exposure can problems in society be fixed. Vulnerabilities
of cities, dangerous chemicals stored in neighborhoods and public policy
that could lead to nuclear war are issues that are best discussed openly.
2. Is there a specific reason to believe the information could be used by
Consult experts and consider arguments from government officials. The
reasoning should be specific and definite, not vague. A decision not to
publish the information should be considered only if the danger would be
imminent and certain. The burden is on the government to prove harm would
result because of publication of the information.
3. Are there ways to minimize potential harm?
Can some information be left out that may not be needed for public
discourse? Often the most sensitive information, such as the number and
types of warheads in the U.S. arsenal, also is the least interesting or
valuable for public discussion. For example, following September 11, the
Federation of American Scientists removed from its Web site about 100 pages
out of several hundred thousand pages because of detailed floor plans and
building layouts of nuclear power plants and weapons storage facilities. "A
picture of a fence or lock of a building in Virginia doesn't add value to
the discussion about public policy," said Steven Aftergood, director of the
group's Project on Government Secrecy. "Like everyone else, we want to be
responsible citizens." (personal communication, December 3, 2002)
Journalists should take the time to weigh the options, as The Los Angeles
Times did before publishing the nation's nuclear-arms strategy. Competition
should not lead to rushed decisions.
The government, too, should consider adopting suggestions to help public
officials who struggle with complying with open record laws while still
protecting sensitive information. The current laws and conflicting
government memos appear to be causing confusion. "The administration should
enunciate a clear set of guiding principles, as well as an equitable
procedure for implementing them and allowing for appeal of adverse
decisions," states Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists
(Aftergood, 2002, p. 1).
Terrorism has changed how the United States views the world, itself and
public information. The war is here, among us, where the troops now include
the citizens. The troops need information to fight this war, even if it
means tipping off the enemy. How Americans react to the threats could shape
the future of democracy and the First Amendment.
As information is controlled and made secret by the government, advocates
from all political spectrums are challenging the reductions of civil
liberties. The conservative Heritage Foundation has joined with the ACLU in
opposing the government's attempts to whittle away at civil rights in the
name of national security. Based on ethics philosophy, the media have an
ethical, legal and moral duty to continue to aggressively report public
information that furthers public dialogue and understanding about the
threats around us.
"Our democracy demands an open society," said Bass of OMB Watch (personal
communication, December 3, 2002). "Any information can and will be misused
in an open society. We have to minimize harm. 9/11 has scared the heck out
of us and we are able to forego our rights to make us safer. I don't think
the public understands that openness can make us safer."
Open reporting can be done with positive results, as demonstrated by CNN,
The Los Angeles Times and OMB Watch. Solid reasoning can be applied through
principled questions, such as whether the information could benefit
society, whether it could cause imminent harm, and whether that harm could
be minimized. Journalists must seek to minimize harm and raise their
standards of fact checking and take time in making decisions. The rush to
beat the competition should not lead to hasty judgments. More is at stake
than prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
It is possible there will be journalists who report information that
inadvertently helps terrorists kill Americans. Not all media will conduct
themselves in ways that are approved of by the government, public or their
peers. That is the price Americans pay for an open society. Despite the
risks, journalists have a duty and an ethical obligation to report
information that can help citizens defend themselves in an age of terrorism.
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