Publish and be Damned

When should journalists censor themselves?

Last week secret US military files about the war in Afghanistan were published on WikiLeaks. The reaction from the US government was swift and furious. The US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that WikiLeaks may already have blood on its hands. One fear is that information provided about informants will lead to reprisals. 

WikiLeaks dismissed this concern. But suppose they’re wrong: suppose the documents they’ve exposed do put lives at risk? Should they therefore have withheld the information?

Successful countries function through a balance of power between the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and the press. A lawyer who secretly believes that a client is guilty, is nonetheless under a duty to defend that client to the best of his/her ability – even if he worries that were the client to be released there might be a danger to the public. The lawyer would be guilty of gross negligence if s/he calculated on an act-utilitarian basis. It is the role of individual lawyers to do their individual bit to pursue justice, though justice on occasion has terrible consequences.

Similarly, it’s an essential part of the journalist’s job to bring important information to light. One can imagine extreme situations where the journalist would be right to withhold information (e.g. ticking bomb scenarios). More likely, it’s conceivable that everything important about a story could be released without lives being put at risk (e.g., in the WikiLeak case, by redacting names).

But the strong presumption for the journalist should always be, publish, publish, publish…

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5 Responses to Publish and be Damned

  • Nick Beckstead says:

    Not sure what level of rationale you’re suggesting for the journalists, but it seems unlikely that a rule-consequentialist one would work. It seems like a rule along the lines of “publish, publish, publish, unless it will probably result in the deaths of the innocent” would be an improvement over “publish, publish, publish, unless there will be a catastrophe involving hundreds or thousands of people” (the first rule may not be the best conceivable rule, but it beats the second).

  • Carl Shulman says:

    “The lawyer would be guilty of gross negligence if s/he calculated on an act-utilitarian basis.”
    The small probability of ‘tipping’ the norms in enough cases is a perfectly act-utilitarian consideration. It’s similar to the act-utilitarian case for voting, or funding medical research with a small donation.

  • Dennis J. Tuchler says:

    Thanks for bringing up role differentiation in ethics! That’s exactly right. There is no ordinary ethics because there is no ordinary person; only persons in different (and sometimes conflicting roles.

    There seem to be two constraints on role-differentiated ethics. there is a general cultural prohibition on awful things applicable to all ethics (taboos?). The journalist may not kill someone in order to get the story to the publisher. A lawyer may not kidnap a witness in order to prevent damning evidence from coming to light. etc. There is also a political constraint, call it intolerability. We accept the roles as socially useful (we reject socially destructive roles, e.g. the role of burglar; we deny burglars role differentiated ethics to justify house-breaking, etc. So, we accept the tailoring to ethics to the need to fulfill the socially useful function of that role. But some limits are imposed because, whatever the needs of the role-player to do his job, there are some things we can’t let that role player do. So, lawyers may not suborn witnesses or knowingly allow a witness to lie in a judicial proceeding. A mother may prefer her child over all others (indeed, she’s supposed to), but the criminal law imposes limits on what she may do.

  • David Edmonds says:

    Thanks for all your comments. I agree with Dennis.

    I don’t think a rule ‘publish, unless it will probably result in the deaths of innocents’ will suffice. Nor am I convinced that act-utilitarianism will do the job.

    An example from personal experience. A person who may be extremely dangerous, has been illegally detained and is the victim of terrifying procedural injustice. Highlighting his case helps lead to his release – who knows what he will do, once free. There is no norm to tip here: if the journalist’s findings were kept to himself, nobody would know he’d pursued the story. Yet he was clearly right to expose it.

  • Michelle Hutchinson says:

    An act utilitarian might say that in this last case, the journalist was right to highlight the case only insofar as the benefits to the system outweighed the harm of letting the person out. It seems quite possible that the benefits would outweigh the harm. The journalist’s work highlights to those in justice system that they cannot act outside the law without there being repercussions, thus preventing harm from being done in the future (since the laws, in general, exist to benefit people, and so there is good reason to think that strict adherence to them will lead to a better outcome than every person acting individually as they see fit), and reassuring the public that breaches of the law are the exception, and are taken seriously. Therefore, the journalist’s having done right in this situation is not necessarily a counter-example to act consequentialism.


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