The Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, has rapped her paper’s decision to omit a reference to the last baby born at an iconic hospital. The baby died shortly after birth, and the writer of a Page 1 feature about the baby’s closed obstetrics unit chose to gloss over that fact in order to spare the parents pain.

As it turned out, the decision drew objections from the dead baby’s parents.

The reporter was, as English says, only trying to minimize harm. Utilitarian thinking of this kind is common for journalists, and, many say, necessary. But the effort to minimize harm can itself do more harm than good.

The Toronto Star’s public editor has rapped
her paper’s decision to omit a reference to the last baby born at an
iconic hospital. The baby had died and the paper’s idea was to spare the grieving parents’ feelings. The result was the opposite. Ivor Shapiro says the case highlights the danger of journalists trying to predict the consequences of their news-selection choices.

The Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, has rapped
her paper’s decision to omit a reference to the last baby born at an
iconic hospital. The baby died shortly after birth, and the writer of a
Page 1 feature about the baby’s closed obstetrics unit chose to gloss
over that fact in order to spare the parents pain.

As it turned out, the decision drew objections from the dead baby’s parents.

“We
were keen to get the last baby born and the doctor told me the last
baby was not going to make it and asked me not to write about it,” the
reporter, Joseph Hall, told English. “I didn’t want to get into
reporting on a dead baby and thought the parents had suffered enough
without having everyone in the city knowing what had happened to their
baby.”

The public editor’s conclusion: “That’s a humane and
understandable motive…. [I]f journalists agreed to withhold the facts
anytime anyone asked because it might cause distress, there would be far
fewer painful truths reported. But the purpose of journalism would not
be served.”

What’s going on here is utilitarian thinking in the spirit of John Stuart Mill.
Journalists often ask themselves whether a story is worth the harm it
may do, and try to estimate whether, as Mill would have asked, it would 
enhance the greater good (or happiness, or absence of pain).

For
instance, in the case of a prominent person (such as a journalist)
being taken hostage, journalists may decide to keep silent because this
might enhance the victim’s survival chances. That’s what happened in
2008 when CBC reporter Mellissa Fung and the New York Times’s David
Rohde were separately kidnapped in Afghanistan.

After Fung was released, Stephen Ward supported the idea that “no story is worth a human life.” But Paul Knox wondered whether it’s a journalist’s job to guess at the consequences of covering the news:

“Sadly,
more often than we may care to admit, the actions of journalists lead
directly to deaths…,” he wrote. “Editors aren’t actuaries or
philosophers. They get paid to make judgment calls on news, not ethical
constructs or calculations of risk. Instinct tells them what their
audiences demand, and what they will tolerate.  Experience helps them
assess the credibility of sources and assign weight to the factors in
play.”

Though Knox’s column was far from a call to “publish and
be damned,” he was questioning, in effect, the healthiness of
utilitarian thinking in a journalist’s moral diet.

The anti-utilitarian view is reinforced by former CTV news director Tom Walters, quoted in a report on news blackouts from the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics advisory committee:

“As
I see it, the problem with any request to suppress information is not
just that it incites a brawl between competing visions of the public
interest. It’s that, by definition, it requires us to accept a generally
unacceptable premise: that the facts should be held hostage in an
effort to control the way someone might react to them. And it requires
us to accept a generally unacceptable demand; that we choose information
not on the basis of editorial judgment, but in order to engineer a particular outcome.”

As the ethics panel’s conclusions stated, editors’ decisions on news coverage have “potential for harm – harm to the public interest, harm to the credibility of the news media, and harm to the individuals involved.”

There’s
no getting away from that fact, whether the harm is aggravating a grieving parent’s pain or endangering a kidnap victim.

But
the most potent knock on utilitarian thinking, in my opinion, is that
no one can reliably predict the consequences of his or her choices.

Reporter Hall tried to spare feelings and achieved exactly
the opposite. He might have been better served, in this case, by a rule
of reportorial duty, such as to “seek and report the truth as we
understand it” (per the first
clause of the CAJ’s ethics guidelines)  rather than by the utilitarian
doctrine of “minimize harm,” (the second clause of the U.S. Society of
Professional Journalists’ ethics code).
   
It’s noteworthy that
the CAJ code does not use the word “harm.” Whereas physicians are
generally well served by the prime directive of “first, do no harm,” and the American journalists see it as a second
principle, the Canadian code authors may have been spooked by the idea
of journalists doing utilitarian thinking about news choices.

And maybe they had a point.

Ryerson professor and J-Source ethics editor Ivor Shapiro currently chairs the CAJ’s ethics advisory committee, but was not one of the authors of the association’s guidelines. 

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Professor, School of Journalism; Senior Fellow, Centre for Free Expression, Ryerson University