In October 2010, when Wikileaks released around 400,000 documents relating to the Iraq War, the BBC quoted The Pentagon referring to the Iraq War Logs as “the largest leak of classified documents in its history.” Then, in November 2010, Wikileaks began to slowly release a trove of 251,287 classified documents and diplomatic cables through Le Monde, El País, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times.
The United States Department of State subsequently urged Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to keep classified documents off the website, remove records of them from its database and return any material to the U.S. government. The U.S. State Department warned Wikileaks that its decision to publish classified information was endangering countless lives, jeopardising American military operations and hurting international cooperation on global security issues. However, the official Wikileaks website states: “We do not censor our news, but from time to time we may remove or significantly delay the publication of some identifying details from original documents to protect life and limb of innocent people.”
The Wikileaks saga sparked a global debate about journalism ethics, causing media observers to re-examine the forces and principles that influence editorial decision-making in the twenty-first century. The event raised questions about the assumed necessity of balancing the requirement to disclose information with the imperative to minimise harm.
Of course, journalists had been performing that balancing act long before the emergence of Wikileaks. From my own professional experience in the Trinidad and Tobago print media, I can attest that journalism often involves making difficult editorial decisions, often under intense pressure, and at times requiring conscious engagement with complex ethical questions. Admittedly, printed news stories typically give little or no insight into that internal drama that plays out in the heart and mind of the journalist.
My 2011 research publication, Truth-Telling and Harm Minisation in Editorial Decision-Making, is a qualitative study that explored the following research questions:
- How do journalists describe the factors affecting their editorial decision-making?
- How do journalists describe the importance of the principles of truth-telling and harm minimisation in editorial decision-making?
- How do journalists describe their performance of truth-telling and harm minimisation in editorial decision-making?
If editorial decision-making is the high drama of journalism, the ethical conscience of the media practitioner is its centre stage. Journalism ethics is concerned both with the internal principles that guide (or should guide) journalists’ decisions in gathering and publishing information and with the professional practices and behaviours through which those decisions find expression.
While reporters may be autonomous moral agents making editorial decisions about subjective journalistic truth, their publishing decisions are made in the context of an organisation that exists in a wider society. Through this research paper, I hope to give voice to selected journalists and in so doing to provide valuable insight into both the internal operations of their ethical reasoning and the sociological dynamics of external forces impinging on their publishing decisions.