Monday, 7 July 2008

Do Indian journalists face such dilemas?

This blog is about Media Scene In India, yet I am tempted to reproduce and document the following about a situation in The New York Times for a specific reason. I wondered if Indian journalists and their newspapers debate ethical issues in its day-to-day operations as their counterparts have done. If you know any such instance, do share with this blog:

When Principles Collide: The NYT and the CIA Interrogator

By Bob Steele (
Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values

The New York Times faced a classic journalistic challenge as it approached publication of its investigation into the interrogation of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

As often happens in stories involving national security, the paper's commitment to reporting the story as fully and accurately as possible found itself in conflict with another important journalistic principle: minimizing harm to vulnerable stakeholders.

The story focused on the role of a CIA analyst who played a key role in the questioning of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. According to a Times Editors' Note, officials of the CIA and a lawyer for the analyst told the paper that identifying him would "invade his privacy and put him at risk of retaliation from terrorists or harassment from critics of the agency."

The paper said it weighed its assessment of those risks against its editors' judgment that "the name was necessary for the credibility and completeness of the article."

The Times has wrestled with the question of identification of subjects of prominent coverage at least a couple of times in recent weeks. My colleague, Kenny Irby, explored the paper's decision-making in the case of an injured baby in Zimbabwe in this Q&A with a Times photo editor.

Although the paper reached different conclusions in each case, both exemplify the essence of ethics and ethical decision-making process.

In his Sunday column, Times public editor Clark Hoyt examines the case of the CIA analyst the paper decided to identify, Deuce Martinez. Hoyt asked me for my thoughts, and the following is the gist of my e-mail response to him.

This case powerfully exemplifies the essence of ethics and ethical decision-making process. Times journalists were wrestling with several strong, competing principles:
. A duty to report accurate, precise and substantive information about a significant issue and event
. An obligation to seriously consider and weigh the consequences to a key stakeholder (Martinez) who is described as very vulnerable to harm
. A responsibility to protect journalistic independence in the face of pressure to withhold a key element (Martinez's name) from the story

While not irreconcilable, it is extremely difficult in this case to find alternative choices that honor each of those three principles. Each choice seemingly produces some good and some bad.

I would assign considerable weight to the importance of the first principle - a duty to report accurate, precise and substantive information. I do see this as a significant issue, and I'm presuming The Times' story offers new information that informs and enlightens the public. The Times makes a compelling argument in the seventh graph on the value of this story: "The story of Mr. Martinez's role...provides the closest look to date beneath the blanket of secrecy that hides the program from terrorists and from critics who accuse the agency of torture..."

And there's an equally compelling justification for the story in this sentence from the 10th paragraph: "Mr. Martinez's success at building a rapport with the most ruthless of terrorists goes to the heart of the interrogation debate."

Further on, the story reports on Martinez's role as "a crucial player [that] captures the ad-hoc nature of the program. Officials acknowledge that it was cobbled together under enormous pressure in 2002 by an agency nearly devoid of expertise in detention and interrogation."

This story is powerful in its substance. That power is enhanced by the specific use of Deuce Martinez's name connecting him to the "ad-hoc" program and his surprising role (given his experience and skills) as a key interrogator in the anti-terrorism effort. He is a central character, and using his name gives readers a clear focal point. Using his name - rather than a pseudonym or just referring to him by title - also heightens reliability and validity in the reporting process. The story is more believable. Granted, the Times chose to use his nickname, Deuce, rather than his real first name, apparently to offer him some level of identity protection. But the use of his surname and nickname helps the paper achieve one of its primary objectives: bolstering the credibility of its reporting.

Based on the Editors' Note, I believe that The Times gave significant consideration to multiple requests that Martinez's name be withheld from the story. The reporter and editor had ethical obligations to seriously consider and weigh the potential consequences of identifying Martinez. The primary concern, I believe, is to his personal safety and to that of his family. Was there the potential for profound harm?

I don't believe the suggested "invasion of privacy" issue is a major concern in this situation. Nor would I give great weight to any arguments that revealing his name might have negative impact on his career or on his current employer. There might be impact in all of those areas, but any possible negative consequences related to his privacy or to his career don't appear to me to outweigh a duty to publish the story with Martinez's name included.

So, it comes down to assessing the potential safety risk to Deuce Martinez and his family if he is identified in the story.

That becomes a judgment call. Gather all the facts possible. Verify and scrutinize and make sense of those facts. Consider any missing pieces of the puzzle and how they could change things if known. Hear as many opinions as possible from diverse sources. Identify and recognize various motives of the stakeholders, including the journalists. Examine and challenge any assumptions.

Then explore various possible actions - a minimum of three alternatives is essential - and make a good decision. In this case, The Times could use his full name, use no name at all or use his surname but shield his identity at least partially by substituting his nickname for his given name and withholding family information.

My one concern is whether Times editors went far enough in seeking additional input from knowledgeable, independent individuals who could assess the potential risks to Martinez's personal safety and that of his family. I understand that they heard the views of Agency officials and Bob Bennett, the attorney representing Martinez. Obviously, those voices are connected to the story. They are not independent from the ethical issue to be resolved, whether to use Deuce Martinez's name in the story. Was it possible for the Times to find and hear from additional "independent" voices who might meaningfully assess potential risk to Martinez's personal safety or that of his family?

In the end, this case comes down to a judgment call.

Times executive editor Bill Keller and his colleagues had to make an ethical decision based on which principle deserved the greatest weight. They chose publishing an accurate, precise and substantive account of an important issue that included Deuce Martinez's name. Additionally, they honored the principle of independence through their process of including various key stakeholders in the deliberations. They were transparent and accountable in giving readers information on why and how they made their decisions. And, it appears they attempted to give some weight to the principle that lost out, the concern for potential, personal safety harm to Deuce Martinez. Times editors said they were judicious in what information they reported about him. They chose not to use his real first name, only his nickname (though it's hard to gauge what real level of protection that gave him). They did not report revealing details about his family.

Ethics is about principles and process. Well-intentioned, thoughtful people can and will disagree.

1 comment:

Rahul Bhargav said...

With hindsight, one can say that Indian journalists (esp. those of the television variety) do not face any dilemma when choosing between eye-balls on the one hand and accuracy, minimising damage, responsibility etc (all that is good and right) on the other. Getting eye-balls is the current game, as demonstrated by the Dr. Talwar case... But of course, hindsight is always twenty-twenty...