Considering the "Double Effect"

My undergraduate journalism students never were livelier than when they explored what philosophers and ethicists call the Principle of the Double Effect.

My undergraduate journalism students never were livelier than when they explored what philosophers and ethicists call the Principle of the Double Effect.

Put simply, it’s doing the right thing knowing it could or will cause harm.

That’s not the Lesser of Two Evils. Two evils means neither is right or good; there’s no Double Effect.

Journalism often involves doing our job knowing someone’s going to be hurt. 

What we ask is whether the harm is justifiable. Does the benefit of our reporting/images outweigh the harm? That, in turn, asks, “for whom?” 

We say that telling people what they need to know justifies all but the most extreme harms. That, too, asks, “Who decides what people need to know?”

You can see why it gets lively. 

News media are not democracies. Someone has to exercise news judgment. Traditional ethics — including an active consideration of the harm principle — have stood us in good stead for generations. They still do, despite the exaggerated sense of urgency the Internet and social media have provoked.  

A classic example of the Double Effect would be accurately reporting the arrest of a married sixtysomething public official, formally charged with trying to set up a sexual encounter with a police officer posing online as a 15-year-old girl. 

Most journalists would say the public needs to know this. It’s also reasonable to assume the news stories will harm the official’s career and marriage. 

I was reminded of Double Effect by the evolving stories of Flight 370 and the sinking of a Korean ferry; news media doing their job can appear to make awful situations worse. 

Consider initial images of anxious and grieving relatives, waiting for news they fear will be awful. Most people were blind to cameras and microphones; their minds are on their missing family members.

Now, recall those relatives’ growing anger as news media broadcast contradictory statements from presumably authoritative sources.

Their anxiety was exacerbated as experts told broadcasters that there always are “air pockets” in which people can survive capsized ships. 

These experts, continents away and dependent on the same media images and reports as the families, fueled false hopes. No air pocket would enable a teenager to survive for days in vitality-sapping cold water. 

Similarly, families heard experts suggest how the Malaysia Boeing didn’t crash into the ocean but could have landed secretly and inexplicably on some island or Asian airport. 

Weeks later, we now see these families raging at Korean and Malaysian government officials. 

And they don’t require much provocation to attack reporters, photographers and videographers on whom they depend for news but who appear to be exploiting their grief.   

In our trade, the Double Effect unavoidably kicks in during disaster reporting. People want to know about casualties from fires, tornadoes, lethal crowd crushes at rock concerts or sporting events, explosions, or multi-vehicle pileups on icy interstates. It’s most intense when it’s personal or local. 

People talk about the “fog of war” to describe uncertainty that affects decisions. The same might be said of disaster reporting. And it’s not unique to ferries in Asia, which sink with alarming frequency.

That’s why no one with any sense expects first reports — mass kidnappings, massacres, outbreaks of combat, landslides, dorm fires, plane crashes, ferry sinkings, urban or prison riots — to be accurate. 

The catch is, how do you verify anything under those conditions? That, too, is an ethical imperative, especially when we know our story will somehow harm someone. 

Often, we can’t verify, so we either report nothing or what we’re told by “authorities” or “official sources.” We respond, sharing the best available information, knowing it’s probably incorrect or incomplete. We know our stories will initiate or worsen someone’s misery. 

I’ve been on the receiving end. I was night editor of the Rome Daily American when wire services began carrying stories about a Rome-bound American airliner crashing. My parents were flying to Rome that day but I didn’t know their airline or flight number. 

It was scary. 

Friends at UPI’s Rome bureau expedited a query to New York, asking whether my parents’ names were on the crashed plane’s passenger list. Long before the whole list was released, a UPI wire message came back, saying “client’s” family was not on the passenger list. 

A recent NPR story further illustrated this tension. NPR’s reporter in Korea was approached by a young Korean who wanted to talk about her sister who was missing in the capsized ferry.

It was the million dollar interview when most relatives had become hostile to the news media. The woman’s English was honed at a university in Seattle; no interpreter exaggerated or muted her frustration and anger with what she heard and read about the sinking. 

Korean news media said her sister’s body was recovered. When their father went to make a positive identification, he said it was someone else. The family’s initial attempts to warn news media that they were repeating a mistaken identification went nowhere. Korea, according to talking heads on TV, is a traditional culture that deeply respects authority. “Authorities said…”

Again and again, the family heard broadcasters quote “authorities” saying their daughter was dead. As the father told NPR (in translation), even if there was only an infinitesimal chance his daughter was alive in the ferry, he didn’t want the news media to kill their hope.

No one said Korean reporters were making up identifications; all relied on authorities who were supposed to know. 

However, dogged reliance on authorities when uncertainty became the story was a harm without a benefit. No Double Effect there. 


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]



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