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Ethical Ideals in Journalism: Civic Uplift or Telling the Truth?

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In this article, we explore the tension between truth telling and the demands of civic life, with an emphasis on the tension between serving one's country and reporting the truth as completely and independently as possible. We argue that the principle of truth telling in journalism takes priority over the promotion of civic values, including a narrow patriotism. Even in times of war, responsible journalism must not allow a narrow patriotism to undermine its commitment to truth telling. Journalists best fulfill their civic role by adopting the perspective of a democratic patriotism. We conclude that if news organizations accept the primacy of truth telling and democratic patriotism, they should not embed reporters with military units, or if they do, they have an ethical obligation to implement special editorial precautions.
Ethical Ideals in Journalism:
Civic Uplift or Telling the Truth?
James B. Murphy
Department of Government
Dartmouth College
Stephen J. A. Ward
School of Journalism
University of British Columbia
Aine Donovan
Ethics Institute
Tuck School of Business
Dartmouth College
JIn this article, we explore the tension between truth telling and the demands of
civic life, with an emphasis on the tension between serving one’s country and report-
ing the truth as completely and independently as possible. We argue that the principle
of truth telling in journalism takes priority over the promotion of civic values, includ-
ing a narrow patriotism. Even in times of war, responsible journalism must not allow
a narrow patriotism to undermine its commitment to truth telling. Journalists best
fulfill their civic role by adopting the perspective of a democratic patriotism. We con-
clude that if news organizations accept the primacy of truth telling and democratic
patriotism, they should not embed reporters with military units, or if they do, they
have an ethical obligation to implement special editorial precautions.
Does WMD stand for “weapons of mass destruction” or “words of mass
deception”? In the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and during the war
that followed, truth was often the first casualty. News media accepted too
readily official statements that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruc-
tion. Major American news organizations were too eager to spin a heroic
but largely false tale about Private Jessica Lynch. Leading news outlets ea-
gerly embedded reporters with military units without giving enough
thought to protecting the independence of their war coverage.
In this article, we explore the multidimensional tension between truth
telling and the demands of civic life with an emphasis on the tension be-
tween serving one’s country and reporting the truth as completely and in-
dependently as possible. In the first section, we explore the philosophical
issue of whether, in journalism, the truth-telling principle trumps other
Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 21(4), 322–337
Copyright © 2006, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
principles, such as minimizing the harm that reporting may do to individ-
uals, groups, or government. In the second section, we examine the diffi-
cult relation between patriotism and truth-telling journalism. In the final
section, we critique the decision by news organizations to embed reporters
with American military units fighting in Iraq.
We argue that the truth-telling principle takes priority over principles
and values that stem from civic duty. Even in times of war and insecurity,
responsible journalism must not allow a narrow patriotism to undermine
its commitment to truth telling. Journalists best fulfill their civic role by
adopting the perspective of a democratic patriotism. Democratic patrio-
tism requires journalists to provide critical perspectives and tough-
minded reportage to help the public evaluate military policy and calls for
war. We conclude that if news organizations accept the primacy of truth
telling and democratic patriotism, they have only two ethical options.
First, they should not embed reporters with military units; alternatively, if
they do embed reporters, they have an ethical obligation to implement spe-
cial editorial precautions and procedures.
Part 1: Truth or Civic Consequences?
Journalism today faces a two-part indictment in the wake of numerous
scandals revealing fabrication and bias in reporting, scandals that have con-
tributed to a serious decline in the public credibility of news media. First, jour-
nalists are accused of failing, if not undermining, our democracy, and second,
they are charged with betraying the truth (Fallows, 1996; Gans, 2003). Neither
accusation is new or surprising. Because many journalists claim to play a ma-
jor role in creating an informed, active citizenry, journalists cannot avoid
some of the blame for the increase in public cynicism about politics and dem-
ocratic institutions. Similarly, because journalists also claim to seek the truth
and to report it accurately, they are subject to scathing attacks when they are
sloppy, biased, or worse, deliberately fraudulent. What journalism’s critics
fail to note, however, is that journalists undermine themselves in thinking
they can pursue civic virtue and intellectual integrity equally; by aiming at
both simultaneously, they often end up achieving neither.
Far from emphasizing the independent value of truth telling, some jour-
nalists and critics of news media agree that truth telling is only instrumen-
tally valuable because it promotes civic values. The problem with
regarding truth seeking as entirely (or mainly) instrumental is that where
truth seeking does not promote certain civic values or where negative con-
sequences may follow from a truthful report, the journalist may feel that it
is necessary to restrain the impulse to tell the whole truth.
The list of civic values that may influence journalism truth telling is di-
verse. It includes the desire to serve one’s country, to support one’s sol-
Murphy, Ward, Donovan 323
diers in combat, to serve the overall public good, to foster social solidarity,
to create active self-governing citizens, and to advance the interests of mi-
nority groups that have suffered from discrimination.
The general attitude that truth telling is mainly (or only) a means to a ro-
bust civic life can be seen, for example, in the writings of the civic journal-
ism movement that arose in the United States in the 1990s (Rosen, 1996). In
this view, journalists are to act as catalysts for civic participation on impor-
tant issues and to make sure public life goes well. Citizens of a democracy
cannot exercise their sovereignty unless they are well informed about the
relevant political news and are able to take part in shaping political deci-
sions. The chief duty of journalists is to promote popular sovereignty and
deliberative democracy (Gans, 2003; Merritt, 1995).
Although there is much to admire about this ideal, the danger of civic
journalism emerges where truth telling and civic values conflict. For exam-
ple, if a journalist is motivated to promote certain rights-seeking groups or
to enhance social solidarity, should he or she not report damaging facts
about these groups? Should he or she avoid stories that might cause ten-
sion among ethnic or racial groups? Take another example: Should truth
telling be compromised if negative reports on political activities might dis-
courage citizens from participating in politics? In many contexts, the un-
varnished truth might in various ways stifle or undermine civic values. If
the truth about our politics is too multifaceted and subtle, too overwhelm-
ing and discouraging, or too ugly and shameful, citizens might well re-
spond with cynicism, apathy, and escapism. The Watergate revelations in
some ways damaged democracy by alienating many young citizens from
politics (Eksterowicz & Roberts, 2000).
Civic philosophies of journalism, philosophies that make civic values
primary and truth instrumental, often naively assume that journalists can
create informed citizens by simply offering information. As Gans (2003) ar-
gued, “Merely supplying them [citizens] with information does not make
them into informed citizens. The people have to participate, for example,
by wanting and using the information, perhaps by incorporating it into
what they already know” (p. 56). Being an informed citizen does not make
one an active citizen. Many people take a purely spectator interest in poli-
tics; they want to be informed but not active. Conversely, many active citi-
zens are not informed citizens, and these activists have little motivation to
seek out information unsupportive of their cause (Gans, 2003).
Another problem with making truth telling a means to broader civic
goals is that other, less reputable means may serve the same purpose.
There is no necessary connection between truthful information and the
raising of citizens’ concerns (or the desire to get involved in an issue). Mis-
information, such as a sensational report about the propensity of some ra-
cial minorities to commit violent crime or a biased report on the
324 Ethical Ideals in Journalism
environmental record of a large corporation, may have more effect on citi-
zens than a balanced, nuanced report. Therefore, a journalist seeking to act
as a catalyst may feel tempted to trade in distorted or slanted information
to obtain maximum effect. In this way, an unsightly disregard for the truth
is dressed up in a noble love for democracy.
Journalists need a more
compelling vision of the value
of truth telling, if this central
ethical principle is not
to be compromised or trumped
by other principles.
Journalists need a more compelling vision of the value of truth telling, if
this central ethical principle is not to be compromised or trumped by other
principles. Equally important is the need to construct an appropriate no-
tion of journalism truth seeking that does not presuppose that journalism,
on most days, amounts to scientific knowledge or firm truth. Human be-
ings cannot be said to know something, in a strong sense of know, unless it
is true and well supported by evidence. However, much of what journal-
ists report is too cursory, too immediate, too out of context to be described
as genuine knowledge. Journalists, in their attempt to know, must work
against daily deadlines, restrictions on information gathering, media ma-
nipulators, and a cacophony of conflicting claims from rival groups. In
times of war, journalists face even further restrictions. Combat blocks ac-
cess to war zones, and government propaganda machines target reporters.
The journalist occupies an epistemologically precarious position (Ward,
2005). The journalist’s search for truth is the difficult, evolving, and fallible
attempt to slowly separate fact from fiction and rumor from evidence.
Journalism truth is a “protean thing which, like learning, grows as a stalag-
mite in a cave, drop by drop over time” (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001, p. 44).
No wonder many journalists like to defend their craft on civic rather than
truth-telling grounds.
Even if journalism often fails to achieve truth or knowledge, it is impor-
tant for journalists to adopt the virtues of truth seeking. What are these vir-
tues? Sincerity is important because it is the precondition for trust between
journalists and their audience. Audiences will make allowances for mis-
takes, exaggeration, and even bias, but they will not tolerate being manip-
ulated by an insincere journalist who reports what he does not believe.
However, sincerity is not a sufficient condition for truth. Human beings
can sincerely report falsehoods if they genuinely believe them. Beyond sin-
Murphy, Ward, Donovan 325
cerity, the virtues of truth seeking must include the virtues of carefulness:
accuracy, perseverance, and thoroughness. However, even these virtues
are not sufficient because someone can be accurate, persevering, and thor-
ough in the pursuit of a self-serving, fanatical ideology. Therefore, genuine
conscientiousness in the pursuit of truth demands higher order virtues,
such as impartiality, humility, courage, and a willingness to follow the
facts where they lead.
Truth seeking in journalism also requires a diversity of sources and the
avoidance of a narrow notion of balance. Where the truth is unknown or
contentious, journalists often must fall back on providing a balance of
views. Too often, providing balance deteriorates into a mindless reporting
of only two sides of an issue, often two politically partisan views. Just as
some politicians routinely ignore minority, fringe, and radical views, so do
some journalists. There may be good political reasons for structuring elec-
toral contests between only two major parties, but for seeking the truth,
canvassing only two views (and a fortiori two mainstream views) is unjus-
tified. Only radical and fringe perspectives are likely to probe the assump-
tions that both mainstream political parties share. The assumption that the
truth emerges from the clash of just two political views, Republican or
Democrat, is dangerously naïve.
What reasons support the choosing of truth telling over civic ideals
where they conflict? First is the argument from expertise. Most journalists
cannot claim expertise about the nature and promotion of civic values, but
they can claim some expertise in finding accurate information about cur-
rent issues. Although some journalists become experts on their beats, most
journalists ought to aim to be quick studies, that is, short-order scholars.
Hence, they should acquire, as much as possible within severe time con-
straints, the scholarly virtues of accuracy, precision, thoroughness, intel-
lectual humility, impartiality, and courage. They need to test their reports
with the best available standards and methods of verification.
Second is the argument from uncertainty about the effects of reportage.
Except in times of war or other national emergency, journalists are usually
in no position to judge in an accurate manner the civic consequences of their
work. It is difficult to anticipate the effect of even the most mundane stories.
Better for journalists to aim primarily at truth telling than to focus on some
dimly perceived consequences in the future. Democratic values are better
served when we ask journalists to seek the truth without attempting to cal-
culate in advance the gains or losses for one’s country or civic culture.
Finally, there is the argument from the globalization of news media. To
adopt the primacy of civic values in journalism is to imagine a world in
which journalists are attached primarily to their own country and national
community. However, today we receive news largely from a globalized
media industry lacking any particular attachment to national political
326 Ethical Ideals in Journalism
communities. It is absurd to expect a BBC journalist from India to promote
American civic values. A parochial civic philosophy of journalism is ill
suited to the global news media of today, where stories have consequences
that extend far beyond national borders. A global, cosmopolitan journal-
ism may offer more truthful reportage than a journalism attached to na-
tional civic values (Ward, 2005). For domestic or global media, a firm
attachment to truth telling, despite its complexities, remains the best pri-
mary principle of responsible journalism.
Part 2: The Problem of Patriotism
The conflict between truth telling and civic values in journalism is evi-
dent in times of conflict and insecurity. News organizations come under
severe social pressure to report in an uncritical, patriotic manner. Patrio-
tism, in this context, is not just a benign affection for one’s country. It is a
demand that the news media support the government’s policies, institu-
tions, or head of state. If news media cave in to that demand, journalism
blurs into propaganda. Bad news is minimized. Exaggerated stories about
battlefield atrocities and hometown heroes multiply. Truth telling suffers.
The September 11 terrorist attacks showed clearly that patriotism was
still a major influence on journalism, creating a tension between the jour-
nalist as impartial communicator and the journalist as patriotic citizen.
Faced with a nation reeling from fear and anger, U.S. news organizations
came under pressure to support the president’s war on terrorism. In an in-
terview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (2002), CBS anchor
Dan Rather was asked whether watching American coverage of the war on
terrorism was like watching journalists rooting for the hometown football
team. He replied
Yes, and if not rightfully so, which I believe it to be, then certainly under-
standablyso.“9-11”didn’tchangeeverythingbutitchangedsomethingsand
it changed some fundamental things with American journalists, including
this one. I think [in] the coverage of the military operations in Afghani-
stan. … The military got the benefit of almost every doubt, the defense de-
partment, the civilian control got even more benefit of even more doubt, with
probably less reason. I’m an American. I’m an American reporter. I’m pulling
for our military to win whatever the definition of win is. I say that with no
apologies. But I’m also a lifetime journalist, I want to be that ideal honest bro-
ker of information but I also want to be a patriot.
Rather candidly described the journalist’s conflict between patriotism
and honest journalism. Nevertheless, his comments are disturbing because
they suggest that reporters might compromise their truth telling.
Murphy, Ward, Donovan 327
A moderate form of patriotism
is significantly compatible with
ethical journalism. It may
be called
democratic patriotism
.
What is the proper relation between journalism and patriotic citizen-
ship? Is there a type of patriotism compatible with modern democracies
and journalism? What patriotism is and whether partiality is a virtue or
vice, is a source of philosophical and political debate (Cottingham, 1986;
MacIntyre, 1984; Walzer, 1990). Amid this variety of perspectives, in this
article, we argue that a moderate form of patriotism is significantly com-
patible with ethical journalism. It may be called democratic patriotism.
Democratic patriotism is a love of patria understood as a republic, not as
native soil or as belonging to a culturally exclusive group. It is a modern
elaboration of republican patriotism, which goes back to the Italian city
statesof the early Renaissance and,ultimately, Roman antiquity (Honohan,
2002;Skinner,1978).Democraticpatriotismisaloveofthe principles, rights,
institutions, and laws of a republic of free, self-governing citizens. The re-
publicisnotlovedprimarilybecauseofitsphysicalattributesorbecauseit is
supposedly superior in language, culture, or race. The republic is loved be-
cause it is a country that makes possible the existence of citizens as rights-
bearing individuals committed to the ideals of liberty (Viroli, 1995, 2002).
Democratic patriotism is a form of patriotism appropriate to the political
perspective that Rawls (1993) called political liberalism. The democratic pa-
triot is attached to inclusive liberal institutions that allow a reasonable plu-
ralism of philosophies of life to flourish (Rawls, 1993, p. 36).
As an attitude and emotion, democratic patriotism is inclusive, re-
strained, and open to rational evaluation. It is criterion based.1Democratic
patriotism is inclusive because it speaks for the liberty of all citizens. It is
not xenophobic toward other peoples. Democratic patriotism lacks the ag-
gressiveness often associated with nationalism and extreme forms of patri-
otism. Openness to reason is crucial because loyalty is a demanding
emotion, prone to abuse. Patriotism must be limited by what other loyal-
ties reasonably require. Patriotism should be a “judgment-sensitive atti-
tude” that is open to the force of reasons and facts (Scanlon, 1998, p. 20).
Openness to reason is essential because it is not always clear in advance
what actions are patriotic and best promote a republic of free citizens.
To be open to reason means that any appeal to patriotism to support a
country’s foreign or military policy should be judged by three general cri-
teria. One, the claim must survive sustained public scrutiny. Two, the pol-
icy must be consistent with fair relations among countries. Three, the
policy must not violate principles of morality and international law, espe-
328 Ethical Ideals in Journalism
cially principles of human rights. Such evaluation can only be made in a
public sphere that is open and informed by an impartial free press.
Over100millionpeoplewerekilledinwarsduringthelastcenturyalone,
amid patriotic bugle calls and a patriotic press. Tolstoy (1987) inveighed
againstthisextremepatriotism:“Seasofbloodhavebeenshedoverthispas-
sion (of patriotism) and will yet be shed for it, unless the people free them-
selves of this obsolete relic of antiquity” (p. 142). Tolstoy’s warning is
valuable,buthisanalysisismistaken.Thechallengeisnot to eliminate patri-
otism.Rather,itistodevelopapublic discourse of moderate, democratic pa-
triotism that discredits more extreme, authoritarian forms.
Democratic Patriotism and Journalism
Given this brief discussion, we begin to appreciate the complex relation
between journalism and patriotic citizenship. To arrive at a correct perspec-
tive on this relation, we must keep in mind the primary, democratic function
of journalism. The journalist has a democratic role that is different from the
role of the citizen. Every person, as a citizen and patriot, has a number of
broad rights and obligations. All citizens have the right to vote, to influence
public policy, to engage in political activity, to live under the rule of law, and
so on. Democratic patriotism adds the further requirement that citizens har-
bor a special affection for their republic and be ready to defend its values.
When individuals become journalists, however, they take on an additional,
distinctive set of duties and principles that may come into conflict with their
activities as citizens. The distinct duties are based on journalism’s social con-
tract with the public it serves. Through the contract, the public (or society)
grants certain freedoms to the press on the expectation that journalists will
fulfill a range of beneficial social functions responsibly.2
One of the most important functions of journalists is to speak to the pub-
lic in a manner that is different from partisan communicators, such as that
of the social advocate, lobbyist, or public relations expert. Professional
journalism is the organized, socially recognized activity of communicating
to the public, for the public, from the impartial perspective of the public
good. It serves the democratic well-being of citizens as a whole. Journalism
cannot be reduced to the dissemination of data, gossip, or propaganda. It is
the impartial dissemination and analysis of the most important truths for a
self-governing polity. Journalism should be a “particular kind of demo-
cratic practice” (Carey, 2000, p. 22).
This primary role requires that journalists refuse to cave in to demands
that they provide uncritical support for government or war. It requires that
they fulfill their duty to truth telling and maintain their independence from
government. Their duty is to provide objective information and critical anal-
ysis for democratic deliberation (Fishkin, 1991). Even in times of uncer-
Murphy, Ward, Donovan 329
tainty, journalists have a duty to continue to provide news, investigations,
controversial analysis, and multiple perspectives. They should not mute
their criticisms, and they should maintain skepticism toward all sources.
Journalists need to unearth and explain the roots of their country’s problems
and coolly assess alleged threats. Although the journalist may share the pa-
triots’ goal of serving the public, he or she serves that public best by continu-
ing to inform the public in a critical and rational manner. If the journalist
decides that circumstances require that he or she join the military or become
a partisan communicator, he or she should stop acting as a journalist.
The democratic role of journalism makes it almost unavoidable that
there will be tension between how an individual should act as a journalist
and how an individual should act as a patriotic citizen. The democratic val-
ues of journalism will come up against the claims of patriotism when a
country decides to go to war, to deny civil liberties for security reasons, or
to ignore the constitution to quell domestic unrest. In these situations,
some members of the public and the government will call on news organi-
zations to stand up for America.3
The conflict between the roles of journalist and citizen will be greater or
less depending on what form of patriotism is in question. If the appeal is to
democratic patriotism, as defined previously, there will be fewer occasions
for conflict because there is a substantial overlap among the ideals and val-
ues of democratic patriotism and journalism. The democratic patriot and
the journalist, therefore, will be on the same side of a number of public is-
sues. Both will support accurate, unbiased information, free speech, criti-
cal news media, and a public sphere with diverse perspectives. Both will
favor the protection of liberties, transparency in public affairs, and the ra-
tional evaluation of appeals to patriotism.
Extreme patriotism is largely
incompatible with democratic
journalism.
However, if the appeal is to extreme patriotism, the conflict will be
acute. Extreme patriotism is largely incompatible with democratic journal-
ism because it tends to support strict editorial limits on the press, or it ex-
erts pressure on journalists to be uncritical, partisan, or economical with
the truth. However, even where democratic patriotism is in question, there
is room for conflict. When a country mobilizes for war or recovers from a
terrorist attack, even democratic patriots may feel that the journalist
should water down his or her truth telling and become more of a partisan.
This ethical perspective, that the democratic role of journalism entails
special duties to impartial, critical truth telling, rejects Rather’s musings on
330 Ethical Ideals in Journalism
patriotism (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2002). The journalist’s
role is not, as Rather stated, “pulling for our military to win.” It is not to
give the military “the benefit of almost every doubt.” The journalists’ role
is to inquire critically into what their military and their government are do-
ing and where they are taking the public. The role of journalism is not to
keep morale high by refusing to publish stories about body bags returning
home from war. Its role is not to demonize the enemy or to fabricate stories
of heroes. The duty of every journalist is to continue to be an ideal broker of
information and not be distracted by the familiar charge of being unpatri-
otic or the fear of social condemnation.
If journalists abandon their primary democratic role, they will fail to
help the public rationally assess public policy and appeals to patriotism.
Journalists’ well-meaning desire to be patriotic may, in fact, assist the ma-
nipulation of public opinion if they do not question the powerful emotions
of patriotism. Dan Rather was right on one score. Journalists, as citizens,
cannot be indifferent to acts of terrorism or the fate of their country. How-
ever, journalists must be vigilant that no one manipulates these honest
emotions. In the fog of war, truth is the first casualty. A blind patriotism or
a wobbly attachment to truth telling in journalism only thickens the fog.
Part 3: Embedded Reporters:
Access or Independence?
In Part 1 of this article, we raised the general danger of compromising
the primary principle of truth telling. In the following section, we examine
how a narrow patriotism can cause journalists to limit their truth telling. In
this final section, we explore another threat to truth telling: the embedding
of reporters in combat units. The problem of embedding brings together is-
sues raised in previous sections. In their desire to be embedded, reporters
and news organizations may fail to adhere to truth telling as their primary
ethical principle. Feelings of patriotism may cause embedded journalists
to identify psychologically with their military units and, thereby, con-
sciously or unconsciously, bias their reports.
The political decision to embed reporters with U.S. combat troops in
Iraq is unique in American history. Hundreds of journalists from print and
television, from conservative and liberal news organizations, clamored to
participate in the program. They were eager to cover a war for a nation that
had become obsessed with retribution for September 11. What is striking,
especially for those outside the field of journalism, is the limited discussion
within journalism about the potential conflicts of interest for embedded re-
porters, despite such ethical principles as journalistic objectivity and inde-
pendence. These principles are essential to claims that the press constitutes
a fourth branch of government. The press is “seen as an independent ob-
Murphy, Ward, Donovan 331
server of political power, having the right and the responsibility to main-
tain its independence of government” (Mermin, 1999, p. 6).
War, with its emotional drain on the national psyche, places a heavy
burden on the journalist to uphold these standards of truth telling. Indeed,
it may fall to the journalist to report on facts that could potentially sway
support away from a war. The responsibility to report such unpopular
facts is urgent, given the public’s dependence on the news media. As
Kuypers (2002) stated, “Americans look to the press to provide the infor-
mation they need to make informed political choices” (p. 197). However,
this information is often shaped by political forces. Those political forces
have historically shaped a significant portion of war coverage, with report-
ers offering stories that were tainted by excessive casualty rates, a persua-
sive political agenda or, as in the case of the dropping of the atomic bombs
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a fascination with the technology rather than
the moral implications of warfare.
Garnering public support for the invasion of Iraq posed a substantial
challenge to the legitimacy of the Bush administration around the world.
The justification for an invasion into the sovereign country of Iraq was
questionable. However, not enough American journalists reported on this
apparent violation of international law. Too many news organizations,
such as the Fox News network, joined in the public’s readiness to support
the Bush administration in its war on terrorism.
News organizations should have taken a more critical approach to em-
bedding if only for the fact that the program was carefully developed and
implemented by government and military leaders to produce the most fa-
vorable coverage of the invasion. On October 30, 2002, as preparations for
an invasion progressed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld an-
nounced the embedded program for reporters in the war against Iraq.
Rumsfeld’s decision came as a surprise given that he had previously stated
that the leak of classified information to journalists was a criminal offense
that was worthy of jail. With this background, it is perhaps understandable
how the administration came to the conclusion that having the media
trained, briefed on a daily basis, and working alongside combatants would
“reduce the flow of classified information to the Al-Qaida terrorist net-
work through American and foreign news media” (Burns, 2002).
The reporters selected for the embedded program were required to attend
a 1-week training session that highlighted the basics of warfare, with an em-
phasis on nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Although the training
was thorough enough for basic competency in the field, a 1-week session can-
not provide a journalist the essential tools for battlefield readiness. That defi-
ciency led reporters such as Robert Jensen (2003) to caution against the embed
program. Jensen stated that once a journalist accepts a Department of Defense
(DOD) position on the front lines, he or she has traded independence for ac-
cess. The notion of impartiality is under threat when journalists report on sol-
332 Ethical Ideals in Journalism
diers who are responsible for the journalists’ safety. Jensen (2003) highlighted
the blurring of those lines with an example from the March 19 CBS News in
which Jim Axelrod, “embedded with the 3rd Infantry, discussed an intelli-
gence briefing he sat in on and said, ‘We’ve been given orders.’ Realizing
what he had said, he revised himself” (p. A8). However, those slips of tongue
were a common occurrence throughout the war, signifying the inherent dan-
ger to the embedding program: that journalistic impartiality is susceptible to
the psychological pull toward group affiliation and security.
Moreover, the DOD selected large news organizations that might pro-
vide the most favorable coverage for the highly prized embedded slots.
When questioned about the practice, Rumsfeld said that the matter was
“too far down in the weeds for his attention. … It’s below my radar screen,
I don’t look and see who’s in and who’s out and who’s doing this and
who’s doing that. I just don’t know” (Gertz & Scarborough, 2003). The Sec-
retary of Defense may have been unaware of who was in and who was out,
but the process was clearly not random. Positions on the front lines were
awarded to major news organizations such as NBC and The Washington
Post; less visible organizations such as Mother Jones and other left-of-center
publications were denied access.
The program was designed by DOD personnel, under the guidance of
BryanWhitmanandVictoriaClarke,and was closely monitoredinDOD’sJ–
5 Strategy Division by military personnel who were keenly aware of the
power the press would have over national opinion on the war. In an unclas-
sified information paper written by Colonel Jerry Sullivan on March 24,
2003, the DOD laid out its position on embedding. Key points included the
factthatmanyAmericansbelievedthat the media had been“co-optedbythe
Department of Defense and are part of a USG [United States Government]-
sponsoredpropagandacampaign”(p.1).On the other hand, Sullivan’s one-
pagereportalsoincludedthe far-right perspectivethattheliberalmedia“in-
sisted on embedding for the sole purpose of defeating or thwarting the ob-
jectives of the coalition” (p. 1). Those two extremes were mediated by a
majority of Americans, who according to the report, were merely tiring of
round-the-clock coverage. What the DOD hoped to gain from the embed-
ded experience was a better public perception of the soldier’s experience
and a greater appreciation of combat operations from the reporter’s per-
spective. The DOD also hoped for increased recruiting efforts and better re-
lations with foreign countries through embedded reporting. The DOD also
hada number of fears: possible information leaks, an increased cynicism to-
ward the government and its state-sponsored media, and a resentment
amongsomemilitarypersonnelagainstreporterswhoreceivespecialatten-
tion from the DOD. The DOD accepted, albeit cautiously, the administra-
tion’sdecision to embed reporters in hopes ofgaining more than they might
lose.Thisshiftinpolicywasmonumentalfor active military personnel, who
traditionally regard news media as dubious vehicles of truth telling.
Murphy, Ward, Donovan 333
The reporters who signed on to the embedded program agreed to limi-
tations on their reporting. Some journalists, such as Bernard Shaw, a for-
mer Gulf War reporter, explained the problem of embedding in a CNN
television interview:
The idea of journalists allowing themselves to be taken under the wing of the
United States military to me is very dangerous. I think journalists who agree
to go with combat units effectively become hostages of the military, which
can control the movements of the journalists and, more importantly, control
their ability to file their stories. (Bushell & Cunningham, 2003, p. xx)
In addition, reporters covering the Iraq war were under the pressure of
Internet time, throwing stories onto the internet with very little time to check
facts or corroborate points. However, in the end, the American public got
what Rumsfeld described as a “slice of war.” Journalist Tom Rosenstiel de-
scribed the war coverage as “largely anecdotal, both exciting and dull, com-
bat focused, and mostly live and unedited. Much of it lacks context but it is
usually rich in detail” (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2003).
A number of reporters were pulled from the war zone in Iraq when they
crossed the line between reporting “details of tactical deployments, precise
location,specificnumberoftroops, or identificationofcasualtiesbeforenext
ofkinhadbeennotified”(Katovsky & Carlson, 2003, p.xv).Itissignificantto
note how few embedded reporters violated the DOD prohibitions against
revealingthesespecifics.Amongthereporterswhofell into trouble with the
military during the war, many of the most notable—Peter Arnett, Geraldo
Rivera, and Phillip Smucker—were not embedded reporters.
Professional self-regulation rather than military censorship was the
norm for the more than 600 embedded reporters. Moreover, the Bush ad-
ministration reacted strongly to reporters who asked politically insensitive
questions that annoyed military and civilian leaders. For example, during
the invasion of Iraq, Michael Wolff, the New York Magazine media critic,
asked General Vincent Brooks at a CENTCOM (United States Central
Command) press briefing
A series of rapid-fire questions … “I mean no disrespect, but what is your
value proposition? Why are we here? Why should we stay? What’s the value
we’re learning in this million dollar press center?” Brooks responded, “you
are here on your own volition and if it isn’t satisfactory to you, then go home.”
(Katovsky & Carlson, 2003, p. 39)
The danger of embedded reporting, aside from the potential loss of in-
dependence and impartiality, is that it elbows out other forms of journal-
ism. War reporters cease to be careful interpreters of information. They
become human conduits for the relentless flow of fragments of text, im-
ages, audio, and hurried commentary. In the excitement of war, news or-
ganizations forget that journalism is more than breathless spot news from
334 Ethical Ideals in Journalism
embedded reporters. It is about explaining what one is seeing, it is about
questioning and investigating, and it is making sure that one’s overall re-
portage has a diversity of voices and perspectives. Good reportage delves
into causes and consequences. It reveals as propaganda the dubious claims
and simplifications by both sides.
For now and for the foreseeable future, embedding is part of the future
of war reporting. So, news organizations need to debate urgent ethical
questions such as these: Does embedding serve the public interest? Is it
compatible with journalistic principles? Will news organizations embed
reporters in the future? No journalist who believes in free and independent
journalism should feel comfortable about simply accepting the restrictions
of embedded reporting.
In this article, we argue that the preferred option is to avoid the use em-
bedded reporters wherever possible. However, if a news organization de-
cides to embed reporters, it has an ethical obligation to put in place
editorial policies that reduce the potential negative effects of embedding.
Embedding is irresponsible unless every precaution is taken to ensure ac-
curate, comprehensive, and diverse coverage.
Some basic editorial provisions for embedding news organizations are
Invest in nonembedded journalism: News organizations that embed
mustalso assign unilateral (nonembedded) journalists to the conflict.
Provide context: Explain the disconnected facts of embedded reports by
the use of a diversity of experts and sources. Seek out reports that con-
tradict or balance embedded reports. Include analysts who do not
support the war.
Edit skeptically: Question official reports and numbers from all sides.
Show the human face of war: Balance reports on the technology of war with
coverage of civilians killed, maimed, or displaced by the technology.
Avoid cheerleading: Hold embedded reports to the same standards as
other news reports. Avoid patriotic prattle, excessive military jargon,
fluffinterviews with “heroes,” and the biased language of we and they.
Monitor embedded reporters: Consider rotating or removing reporters
who appear to be identifying too strongly with their military units.
Be transparent: Provide the public with transparent (and repeated) ex-
planations about editorial restrictions. Publish information that had
been restricted immediately after the conflict ends, if not sooner.
Conclusions
In this article, we have stressed that the future of independent, public-
interest journalism in the political climate of today depends on a reaffirma-
tion of the primacy of the principle of truth telling. The need for a reaffir-
mation of truth telling is shown by the serious compromising of this
Murphy, Ward, Donovan 335
principle during recent coverage of the war on terrorism, including the in-
vasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the continuing conflict in Iraq. The
distorting effects of patriotism in general, and embedded reporting specifi-
cally, places an ethical onus on journalists to rethink their commitments to
impartial and independent journalism and to consider their role as mem-
bers of the fourth estate. Ultimately, however, news organizations must do
more than affirm the principle. They need to articulate for the public and
for their reporters their standards of war coverage and how they intend to
respond to any future program of embedding.
Notes
1. Nathanson (1993) outlined a moderate, criterion-based patriotism in his Patrio-
tism, Morality and Peace. A criterion-based patriotism expects one’s country to
satisfy a number of criteria and values. This makes the country worthy of loyalty
and pride. MacIntyre (1984) and Oldenquist (1982) have argued that a criterion-
based patriotism—what Oldenquist called an “impartial patriotism”—cannot
be a true patriotism because loyalty to my country is based on a particular at-
tachment to this country as mine. Patriotism cannot be a loyalty to abstract
moral principles. Democratic patriotism does not deny that patriotism is an
emotion based on the contingent fact that this is my country. However, it insists
that this loyalty, like all loyalties, must be open to criticism and evaluation.
2. On the idea of a social contract and the expectation of public benefits, see
Klaidman and Beauchamp (1987, p. 126–38). The benefits include the provi-
sion of accurate and balanced information on the economy, health, politics,
and other essential areas. Also, the press is expected to act as a watchdog on
other institutions and to provide a forum for the exchange of views.
3. A July 2003 opinion survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press
found that 70% of Americans thought it was a good thing for news organiza-
tions to take a “strong pro-American point of view,” although 64% also fa-
vored “neutral” coverage of war. Available at www.pew.org.
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This essay was first presented as the Morgan Lecture at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1989. 1. Mario Cuomo’s speech at the 1984 Democratic party convention provides a nice example of this sort of argument. 2. The writer was the superintendent of New York’s public schools. 3. See Kallen’s account of how British-Americans were forced into ethnicity (1924: 99f). 4. On the complexities of “nativism,” see Higham (1975: 102–115). For an account of the Know-Nothings different from mine, to which I am nonetheless indebted, see Lipset and Raab (1970, chap. 2). 5. It is interesting that both nativists and pluralists wanted to keep the market free of ethnic and religious considerations. The Know-Nothings, since they thought that democratic politics was best served by British ethnicity and Protestant religion, set the market firmly within civil society, allowing full market rights even to new and Catholic immigrants. Kallen, by contrast, since he understands civil society as a world of ethnic and religious groups, assimilates the market to universality of the political sphere, the “common city-life.” 6. The song is “Accentuate the Positive,” which is probably what I am doing here. 7. Quoted in Kates (1989: 229). See also the discussion in Hertzberg (1970: 360–362). 8. The current demand of (some) black Americans that they be called African-Americans represents an attempt to adapt themselves to the ethnic paradigm—imitating, perhaps, the relative success of various Asian-American groups in a similar adaptation. But names are no guarantees; nor does antinativist pluralism provide sufficient protection against what is all too often an ethnic-American racism. It has been argued that this racism is the necessary precondition of hyphenated ethnicity: the inclusion of successive waves of ethnic immigrants is possible only because of the permanent exclusion of black Americans. But I don’t know what evidence would demonstrate necessity here. I am inclined to reject the metaphysical belief that all inclusion entails exclusion. A historical and empirical account of the place of blacks in the “system” of American pluralism would require another paper.
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