What were they thinking?

8 Jul


It would be wrong to assume the law-breaking actions of News of the World journalists could not happen in the United States. (Latest developments here.)

Yes, British journalism operates under different legal and ethical constraints and British journalists occasionally engage in behavior their American counterparts find problematic.

By all appearances, the World journalists who hacked phone and voicemail records were motivated by something increasingly common to journalists on both sides of the Atlantic;  intense competitive pressures to get the story, whatever the cost.

American journalists, driven by the demands of a 24/7 news cycle and an emerging clicks-at-all-cost economic model, cannot say they are immune to such pressures. It is not too great a leap, after all, from purchasing interviews or printing stolen documents (Wikileaks) or stalking celebrities to hacking cell phone accounts.

What is the lesson for media ethics students?

When we start an ethics case study, the first question I ask students to answer as they analyze their options is “what is the right thing to do?”

Sometimes, there are many right alternatives to evaluate and so the problem is choosing the best of several good options. Sometimes the challenge is choosing the best of several bad options, all of which might have negative consequences of one sort or another.

Sorting through the options is the process of ethical decision-making.

If I were to build a case study around the News of the World scandal, it might begin with this central question: “We have the ability to tap into the cell phone records of someone crucial to a big story. Should we do that, should we authorize the hack? What is the right thing to do?”

At the heart of that question are a number of conflicting values. Values are core beliefs that drive our actions.

So an editor who believes firmly, to his very core, that private citizens have a right to privacy that extends to their personal phone calls and voicemail might say: “Because I believe so strongly in every private person’s fundamental right to privacy, I will not allow the cell phone hacking.”

This is where I get hung up on the News of the World case.

What core value, expressed as a belief, would drive an editor to authorize the hacking?

“I believe my primary responsibility is to my news organization and to improving its competitive standing. I believe this to the core of my being and so I will violate the privacy of private citizens to make manifest that value.”

Louis Day, the author of the ethics text I use in class (“Ethics in Media Communications”) would argue an individual who makes ethical decisions only on the basis of personal (or organizational) benefit cannot , by definition, be ethical.

Discussing this in class, I would push students to craft a belief statement for the hacking that is tied to a higher value than corporate or personal economic self-interest. Is such an argument possible given the specific details of the World case?

I can’t find it.

In class we learn that behavior that is legal is not necessarily ethical. And sometimes behavior that is ethical is not legal.

In the case of the World, the hacking behavior was both illegal and unethical.

What were they thinking?



One Response to “What were they thinking?”

  1. elenacasilda July 24, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    It seems to me that the cell phone hacking was performed simply to advance the News of the World tabloid. The hacking allowed the tabloid to receive information otherwise unknowable through legal and ethical practices, and the attainment of such information allowed the tabloid to gain further recognition and prominence, especially regarding its competitors. The possibility of gaining this secret information obviously outweighed the consequences involved in such a risk.
    The editors of News of the World took a heavy risk in hacking cell phones, and with such risk came serious consequences, in the given instance, anyway. But, what about similar instances in which such unethical risks end up reaping heavy rewards? Is the mere possibility of such a gain truly worth the possibility of being caught in a career-ending scandal? Obviously, to some it is.
    I believe there are a few things that make an editor take such a high risk. There is a sense of strong competition and the misguided belief of invincibility, all in the company of the shining belief that if such a risk pays off the rewards would outweigh all else. This set of beliefs lead a person to feel they must do everything possible to rise above and beyond the competition through any means possible, while also finding themselves and their actions to be somehow exempt from the normal order of things. It seems lately many people of prestige have been caught in indiscretions, which leads me to believe that power is a driving force in corrupted actions.
    Whether it is an intricate affair discovered to publicly derail a reputation, career and marriage or a hacking scandal that shuts down an entire tabloid, it seems many people in power are behaving badly. It comes down to a high risk decision due to position, possible outcome, and power. Maybe the people making these high risk decisions just feel invincible. That must be it. Otherwise, how could a person look at the possible downfall and find it to be worth the risk? Seeing the consequences play out, it seems different actions would be much more beneficial.
    It is a little disheartening, especially as a future media professional, to see such blatantly unethical behavior within the field. However, in an age of technology it may be wise to take note that, more than ever, things done in secret will be uncovered.

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