Understanding Our Odd Bedfellow:

  The Trouble with Professional News Media Ethics – A Military Perspective.”




Kent P. Cassella

Major, United States Army

August 2001





“It’s the worst system in the world…except for everything else.”


Winston Churchill

                                                    Referring to the democratic system of freedom 

                                                           of the press with no government oversight.


The military and the media are two essential elements of American democracy. Although at first glance they may seem odd bedfellows these elements are ultimately working toward the same goal – maintenance of the very democracy that produced them. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a free and unfettered press.  This applies as much to coverage of the nation’s military operations as it does to the actions of every other government institution. America’s military, with its unparalleled dedication to civilian authority, preserves the freedom.  This applies to security and the Constitution, which of course includes the First Amendment (Aukofer, 1995: p. vii). 

Continuing with this premise, one would expect similarities in the base values, ethical frameworks and the systematic application of each by both the military and media institutions in the execution of their absolutely essential roles in preserving the democracy.  This essay discusses some of the key factors and differences in how the news media apply their ethics - ultimately revealing that the military has done a vastly better job in thinking through the process.

Complex Ethics – A Vignette.

In the late 1980s at Columbia University a distinguished panel of about 20 leaders from government, military, religion and the news media engaged in several moderated discussions on ethics for a series titled Ethics in America.  The format for the discussions was the presentation of hypothetical situations by a moderator which participants were to ethically analyze and then offer their proposed actions.  In one hypothetical case study the participants were discussing actions on a foreign battlefield.  During the discussion the moderator posed a question to the two news media professionals on the panel, Peter Jennings, anchorman, ABC News, and Mike Wallace, correspondent, CBS News.  A generalized transcript of the exchange follows (1).  Parenthetical remarks are mine.


Moderator:            You are safely traveling with an enemy unit as a foreign war correspondent.  As fate would have it the enemy unit you are traveling with is about to ambush an American unit.


Jennings:               As a reporter you have to make the decision going in that there is a possibility that you may come upon an American unit.  My feeling is that, as a reporter, you have to make that decision before you went.  And that if you are in, you are in.  I would live in fear of coming across an American unit.


Moderator:            So if you made that decision you would then film the enemy unit shooting the American unit?


Jennings:              (Long pause…thinking)  No…I guess I wouldn’t.  I’ll tell you now what I’m feeling rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself.  If I were with the enemy I would do what I could to warn the Americans.


Moderator:            Even if it means not getting the live coverage?


Jennings:              I don’t have much doubt it would mean my life.  I’m glad this is hypothetical.  I don’t think I could bring myself to participate in that fashion, by not warning the Americans.  Some other reporters may feel otherwise.


Wallace:                Some other reporters would feel otherwise.  I would regard it simply as another story I was there to tell.


Moderator:            Enemy soldiers shooting and killing American soldiers?  Could you imagine how you would report that to the American people?


Wallace:                Yes, I can. (Talking down to Jennings) Frankly, I’m astonished to hear Peter say that.  You are a reporter.  Granted you are an American.  But you are a reporter covering combat.  And I’m at a loss to understand why, because you are an American; you would not cover that story.


Moderator:            Don’t you have a higher duty as an American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of American soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting the fact?


Wallace:                No.  You don’t have the higher duty.  You are a reporter.  Your job is to cover what is going on in that war.  I would be calling Peter to say, “What do you mean you’re not going to cover the story.”


Jennings:              I think he’s right.  I chickened out.  I agree with Mike intellectually. I really do.  And I wish at the time, I’d made another decision.  I would like to have made his decision. 


During the next few minutes of discussion Wallace attempts to strengthen his position by likening the battlefield situation to that of a murder in a major city.  Through ethical analysis he concludes that if he had prior knowledge a murder was about to occur he would report it to the authorities to prevent the action.  He then tries to transfer this analysis to the ambush situation on the battlefield and further confuses himself in terms of his initial response. 


Wallace:                Now I’m going back and forth as I sit here.  It’s a hell of a dilemma to be in. Now I don’t know what I think.


This brief exchange highlights a recurring problem the news media profession has in dealing with complex ethical situations.  When a case such as this is presented to a media ethics seminar for discussion, the students usually argue passionately without making much headway.  Analysis degenerates into inchoate pleas that the (victims) deserve mercy or into grandiose appeals to the privilege of the press.  Judgments are made on…the evocative, expressive level – that is, with no justifying reasons.  There seems to be no agreed upon ethical framework for the practicing journalist or editor to use in such instances.  As a result, too often communication ethics follows such a pattern, retreating finally to the law as the only reliable guide (Christians, 1995: p.2). 

The lack of a prescribed framework poses a significant problem for the media professional attempting to deal with tough ethical issues.  More importantly, the lack of prior preparation, in terms of considering possible complex ethical issues and painstakingly thinking through them prior to being confronted by them, leaves the journalist in a dangerously vulnerable position of unpreparedness (2).

Upon closer review of the virtues to which media professionals profess one can conclude that this lack of preparedness results from the very ideals upon which the foundation of the profession is built.  Although the belief in a free press is sincere and of critical importance to a democratic system, it often plays tricks on the media’s thinking about ethics.  Ethical principles concerning obligation and reckoning do not find a natural home within a journalism hewn from the rock of negative freedom (Christians, 1995: p.28).

Public perceptions.

The news media, collectively, are often unpopular.  Long-term trends of the Gallup Polls’ Honesty and Ethics Survey reveal a growing skepticism among the American public regarding the ethics of news media professionals. The November 2000 edition reports that the three news professions surveyed all remain significantly lower than when they were first placed on the list. Twenty-one percent of the public says journalists are honest and ethical, a percentage that has declined steadily from its debut of 33% in 1977. Two specific news professions that first appeared on the list in 1981, TV reporting and newspaper reporting, have also dipped significantly. Currently, 21% of the public rates TV reporters as having high ethical standards; down steadily from the 36% they received in 1981. Similarly, just 16% of the public gives newspaper reporters very high or high ethical ratings. Again, this percentage has decreased consistently since 1981, when it was 30% (Carlson, 2000: on-line).   

These trends may be attributed to how the media does business.  They function independently, without rules or regulations, except for some that are self-imposed.  The media’s disparate elements have a variety of interests and goals.  They have their share of rogues, incompetence and avarice.  Yet, at their best, the media provide the nation with a service it can get nowhere else.  The Founding Fathers intended America’s free press to function as the Fourth Estate of government.  It does that (Aukofer, 1995: p. vii).  

For the sake of context and contrast, the military consistently rates very high in honest and ethics polls.  It is perennially popular and, at its best in battle, functions like a conditioned athlete.  To be fair, it too, has its share of incompetence, selfishness and vindictiveness.  When it makes mistakes, they can be monumental.  Lives can be lost.  Appropriately, the armed forces are surrounded by rules and regulations.  They are disciplined, hierarchical and live within a homogenous, closed culture that can be hostile to outsiders (Aukofer, 1995: p. vii).  However, within this structured system exists a strong moral code of behavior consisting of institutionalized values, traditions, ethics and methods of morally dealing with life and death situations.

News Media Professional Ethics.

Most professional journalists and those that study the journalism profession agree that journalists must be concerned about the elusive concept of truth.  But most are also quick to suggest that there are different ways of defining and operationalizing that term, and whether other ethical concepts may be equally or more important.  This results in the profession being divided between two general schools of thought.  The first school focuses entirely on truth as both a necessary and sufficient condition for ethical performance in the media.  The other suggests there are additional elements that must be considered, specifically, the concepts of accuracy and fairness (Gordon, 1996: p. 81).

The First School.  Many hard-nosed reporters, in both print and electronic media, come at ethics from a mainly deontological or principle-bound perspective.  A dominant principle for them is the presentation of a truthful, unbiased, and thorough account of an event.  They believe that it is not only their professional duty to do this, but also their ethical duty (Gordon, 1996: p. 99).

The first school of thought believes that truth precludes any need for further ethical concerns in journalism.  The key thought in this argument is that “truth telling is a first principle, to the point where if choices must be made, truth must be given primacy over any other ethical concerns.”(Gordon, 1996: p.82).  Following this key thought of truth as a “first principle” as fully as possible, journalists follow the spirit of Kant’s categorical imperative.  Ultimately, this argument concludes that everything starts with an emphasis on truth – which certainly should include some context as well as “unelaborated fact.”  If proper attention is paid to truth telling as a key ethical principle, the other ethical concerns will resolve themselves (Gordon, 1996: p. 83).

This argument purports that a journalist who provides as much truthful information as is relevant, and reports the material in context, serves the public well, and need not worry about additional ethical concerns.  Conversely, a reporter would not be serving the public well if they tailor a story to avoid a possible negative impact on some of the people mentioned in it, provided the material at issue is relevant and of concern to the public.  If the subject is important for the public to know about, then even the possibility that it might cause a death, though not to be taken lightly, is an insufficient ethical concern to overcome the principle that one reports accurate information and lets the other ethical concerns fall where they may (Gordon, 1996: p. 87).

This whole argument, despite regarding the truth as an absolute deontological standard, is essentially framed in consequentialist terms - the idea that truthful and complete reporting will produce the greatest good.  Such a perspective requires one to reject alternative ethical principles if they interfere in any way with the greatest good of providing the greatest amount of (relevant) truthful information to the audience. 

This puts a considerable burden on journalists and their editors to determine when any particular item of information is so important to the public that it justifies the risk of personal harm resulting from its publication.  This becomes very much a situational ethics issue because one must weigh the importance against the likelihood of harm.  In addition, one must consider whether the information is so crucial to the topic that the story can’t be told fully without this particular item. Referring back to the ethical discussion at the beginning of this essay, in this case Wallace would agree with this argument in that the story of the war is important and has to be told and the only way to tell this story completely is to remain impartial, unbiased and silent as the American patrol enters the enemy ambush. 

However, this argument has difficulty in determining the range of the concept of truth when faced with the toughest of ethical dilemmas.  This may explain Wallace’s initial stance on the truth as an absolute but then his inability to nail down the ethical issues involved and to work through a framework to an appropriate conclusion.  Judging from both journalists final reactions it seems that the almost inevitable likelihood of a human life being lost, in this case lives of fellow countrymen, may justify considering the withholding of truthful information.  The key point is that their ethical framework or lack of understanding of the framework left them in a position of uncertainty.   

The Other School.  The second news media school of thought revolves around the central idea that the social value of journalism requires high-quality practices reflecting ethical considerations that go beyond truth and objectivity and more toward accuracy and fairness.  It argues that many journalists are wrong having accepted the concept of truth as a compulsory deontological standard and not as a consequentialist standard.  The key thought is that if the media are, as is traditionally held, surrogates for the citizens in a democracy, providing information that is necessary in order for the citizenry to make valid and reliable decisions, then even standards of truth higher than those of the courtroom may be inadequate.  Hence, the truth alone is not sufficient for the journalist to claim to be acting ethically (Gordon, 1996: p. 91).

Instead of relying solely on the concept of truth this school of thought suggest that journalists must meet two other aforementioned standards or factors, interwoven with but distinct from truth and objectivity - accuracy and fairness (Gordon, 1996: p. 95).  They define fairness as the act of keeping an open mind, of the reporter or editor suspending individual judgement until enough information is available so that judgments or decisions validly can be made.  It is impartiality, but not ignorance.  The media are not merely a conduit, and have the responsibility to assess the validity or truth of the information they disseminate (Gordon, 1996: p. 96).

Following this thought journalists should do what is “right”, what will help them to sleep well nights and what will create the greatest credibility for the news media institution.  The public good fits in on both levels: Not only should that which is “right” benefit the greatest number of people, in a utilitarian sense, but without credibility the media will not be believed even when acting strictly for the public good.  In other words, with respect to affecting public opinion, credibility is much more important than truth, which may not be believed (Gordon, 1996: p. 97).

This school of thought is essentially framed in proportionalism, considering the act itself in so far as one can measure its future good or bad effects.  However, this argument opens itself to the basic problem with the proportionalistic approach – the methodology is subjective and it is extremely difficult to accurately identify the future implications of the act. 

Returning to the video example, Jennings seems at first to believe that there are additional ethical factors at issue and thus determines that maintaining his personal credibility as an American and the professional credibility of the media institution was paramount to telling the truth at the expense of the lives of his fellow Americans.  This can be viewed as proportionalism in that the comparative proportion of good (saving Americans) and evil (telling the truth) determines the morality of the action – in his initial decision, to warn the Americans.

Jennings is then persuaded to retract his initial decision and state, “I chickened out.  I wish I had made his (Wallace’s) choice.”  It is evident from this exchange that there are two very different ethical methodologies being applied by two esteemed members of the same profession.  If one assumes these two journalists are an adequate representation of the best of their profession, one can conclude that the news media profession has not done a good job at thinking through its ethics, especially as they apply to violent and difficult situations.  From the video example, when two premier journalists have such difficulty agreeing upon the ethical issues involved, categorizing and prioritizing them, and working through an appropriate ethical framework to reach appropriate conclusions, one can conclude a weakness exists in the profession.

The dialog between Wallace and Jennings in this situation highlights the key differences between the two schools of ethical thought and the confusion among the profession’s practitioners.  Their dialog reveals that, when viewed from the deontological perspective, the reporter who would shape the story in the name of proper consequences is not really a reporter.  They may be a good person, a person concerned with ethical action, but a flawed reporter.  In one sense the more a journalist becomes concerned about treating people fairly, the poorer reporter they are.  The consequentialist reporter is, indeed, being ethical, but hardly reportorial.  A significant object for him or her is fairness to somebody, not providing an accurate reflection of the real event.  The disclosure-bound reporter, on the other hand, is dedicated to the truth of the event, not to fairness to somebody.  If this reporter thinks of fairness, it is only fairness to the integrity of the story (Gordon, 1996: p. 99) (3).

Military ethics.

Returning to the dialog from the ethics panel discussion at the opening of this paper - following the exchange between Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace the moderator turns to Colonel George M. Connell, United States Marine Corps, and asks his response to the dialog he had just heard.


Moderator:            Colonel Connell, I can see the venomous reaction you are having in hearing all this.


Colonel Connell:                 (Angrily) I feel utter contempt.  Two days later they (the reporters – Jennings and Wallace) are both walking off my hilltop and they get ambushed and they’re lying there wounded.  And they’re going to expect I’m going to send Marines up there to get them.  They’re just journalists.  They’re not Americans.  Is that a fair reaction?  You can’t have it both ways.  But I’ll do it. And that’s what makes me so contemptuous of them.  Marines will die going to get…(grippingly) a couple of journalists.


As one would expect an awkward, stunned silence of several seconds followed Colonel Connell's statement.  His remarks, however, highlight two critical aspects of professional ethics and the absolute importance for true professionals to address both.  First, the importance to the profession of having an established framework of ethical decision making so that all members of the profession understand the standards, values, and ethics involved.  Second, and arguably more important, is the habitual systematic practice of thinking through the process to ensure the practitioners are familiar with the process and well prepared when faced with a complex ethical issue.  In this example Colonel Connell’s remarks very succinctly show that, no matter how distasteful the correct action of sending Marines to rescue the journalists is to him personally, he has arrived at the proper ethical solution to his dilemma and his Marines will die for it.


The small vignette of the dialog between the members of the ethics panel offer a glimpse of evidence of major differences in how media and military professions deal with complex ethical issues.  Following Colonel Connell's remarks then Georgia representative Newt Gingrich summed up the exchange he had just witnessed stating, “The military, I think, has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have.”

When measured against each other, in terms of ethical decision-making, the military seems better prepared than the media.  The military, realizing its actions to be absolutely essential to the survival of the democracy and that it operates near exclusively in violent or potentially violent environments, has recognized the importance to the profession of having an established framework of ethical decision making and a shared systematic practice of thinking through the process to ensure the practitioners are well prepared when faced with a complex ethical issues. 

It is evident from this essay that the military has done an infinitely better job at working through their professional ethics than the news media.  To be fair to the media profession, they have a tough job to do in a democracy.  Failing to recognize the importance to the profession of having an established framework of ethical decision making and a shared systematic practice of thinking through the process may simply be due to lack of contact with violent, ethically complex situations.  The media, unlike the military, does not operate primarily in violent environments.  Normal day-to-day reporting, important to the maintenance of the democracy, may have lulled the profession into believing there is little need for an established ethical framework and the exercise of such.  Sadly, this leaves the news media profession and its practitioners wholly unprepared to adequately deal with complex ethical issues when confronted with them in the field (4).





1.      From the video series Ethics in America, Program 7: Under Orders, Under Fire, Part II, produced by The Annenberg/CPB Collection.  This particular session was moderated by Charles Ogletree from the Harvard Law School and was recorded October 31, 1987.  It features a proverbial who’s who of current government, military, religious and moral and news media leaders and thinkers.


  1. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics lists four key areas of focus that should shape professionals conduct.  They are: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.  As this essay will later reveal, several of these aspects are conflicting or in opposition.  It is this conflict that results in practitioners of the profession being unprepared.


  1. The preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states that the duty of the journalist is to seek the truth and provide a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues; that journalists from all media and specialties should strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty; and that professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility.  However, the Code lacks clarity as to the order of importance or the priority of values when applying a system of ethics.


  1.  The results of this study perhaps raise a serious question as to whether journalism is, in fact, a profession.  Most writers define a profession in terms of a commonly shared standard or code of conduct that is also self-policing.  However, this study reveals that those essential characteristics are arguably lacking in a blatant way. 





Aukofer, Frank and William P. Lawrence, “America’s Team: The Odd Couple, A Report on the Relationship Between the Media and the Military,” (The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, May 1995), p. vii.


Carlson, Darren K., “Nurses Remain at Top of Honesty and Ethics Poll,” Gallup News Service Poll Releases (November 27, 2000), [news releases online]; available at Gallup Poll Releases-Nurses Remain at Top of Honesty and Ethics Poll.htm.


Christians, Clifford G., Mark Fackler and Kim B. Rotzoll, Media Ethics Cases and Moral Reasoning (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman Publishers, 1995, 4th ed.), pp. 2-28.


Gordon, David, John M. Kittross, Carol Reuss and John C. Merrill, “Controversies in Media Ethics,  (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman Publishers, 1996), pp. 81-99.


Society of Professional Journalists. 2001. “Ethics In Journalism” http://spj.org/ethics/code.htm. (July 2001).