Tips for making ethical decisions

By · Friday, February 26th, 2010

A story in today’s New York Times under the headline, “Inquiry Poses a Quandary for Cuomo,” covers many aspects of making an ethical decision.

The news in this story is that New York Gov. David Paterson has asked Attorney General Andrew Cuomo “to look into allegations that he or others in his administration had interfered in a domestic violence case involving one of his most senior aides, David W. Johnson.”

The ethical issue: A fierce primary is ahead for the governor; the attorney general might be a political opponent. One stands to lose. One stands to benefit.

The story refers to fuzzy lines, complications, conflicts of interest, perceptions of conflicts of interest and red flags.

Editors, too, are faced with these when making ethical decisions about any number of issues: whether to run a story; whom to include or not include in a story; issues involving minors; stories involving sources who are naive or who might not understand the consequences of talking to journalists; misplaced priorities; exceptions; favoritism.

The issue of ethics is situational, fluid, tangled, confusing and conflicting.

How, then, do editors know how to make ethical decisions? They must follow a process, consider all the stakeholders, and adhere to the principle of minimizing harm. It is never easy.

In our book, “Think Like an Editor,” we share guidelines about ethical decisions, including “10 Warning Signs” and “10 Questions about Stakeholders” in Strategy 39: Ethics.

In the “Think for the Web” portion of Strategy 39, we remind editors that deciding whether to push the “publish to Web” button adds even more stress to making ethical decisions. Still, there are strategies editors can use to handle ambiguities and problems in real time and still post stories responsibly.

Reading about how others make ethical decisions can help, too. You’ll find some of our favorite resources at the Indiana University Web site on ethics and at The Poynter Institute.

Comments are closed.