Minimising harm is a cornerstone of responsible journalism

The concept of responsible truth-telling in journalism can hardly be fully understood without a discussion of the imperative to minimise harm. As Grundy (2007) points out, “Choosing what to cover is the first issue. Choosing from that what to present is the next” (p. 335).

Broadly speaking, harm involves the setting back of a given interest, such as property, privacy, reputation or social stability. Klaidman and Beauchamp suggest that the selection of relevant (or newsworthy) journalistic truth and the rejection of avoidable harm are complementary principles at the heart of editorial decision-making for public benefit:

Because the basic responsibility of the press is to provide the public with information it needs, a central question in any process of decision-making about whether to withhold publication will always be how much the public needs the information and how successfully that need competes with the principle that we should avoid the harm that would result from its publication. If the two seem roughly even, because journalism exists to benefit the public, preference ordinarily must be given by journalists to publishing in the public interest; but when the public benefit is marginal and the harm potentially great, the harm should usually be avoided, no matter how engaging or interesting a story might be to some readers (p. 105).

According to Klaidman and Beauchamp, the duty to minimise harm is an “obligation to weigh benefits against harms, benefits against alternative benefits, and harms against alternative harms” (p. 136) before deciding what news is published. Therefore, journalists are tasked with “minimising harm while trying to keep audiences fully informed” (Black, Steele, & Barney, 1999, p. 20).

According to Black, Steele and Barney:

This principle of minimizing harm all too often clashes head-on with the principle of truthtelling. These principles, however, are seldom mutually exclusive. Our challenge as ethical journalists is to gauge the significance and importance of the truth we are pursing, and to anticipate, estimate and understand levels of harm we may cause through our actions in gathering and disseminating information. Then we could be adept at developing, considering and implementing alternative courses of action that honor, to the greatest degree possible, both the truthtelling and the minimizing harm principles. (p. 28)

Black, Steele and Barney proposed a Truth-Harm Diagonal that conceptualised these two obligations as one continuous, integral responsibility. Instead of an either-or polarisation of the options of truth-telling and minimising harm, the authors propose a schematisation that projects both principles on a pair of horizontal and vertical axes. The degree of truth-telling is represented along the vertical axis and the degree of harm minimisation along the horizontal axis. The minimum standard of justifiable harm is met when the truth value is equal to the potential for harm, which is represented below by the dotted diagonal line bisecting the right angle of the axes.

Figure 4: The Truth-Harm Diagonal represents the minimum standard of justifiability in causing harm

In this schema, “bad” journalism involves low truth and high harm, which occurs “when we do a lousy job of truthtelling and when sources or subjects are harmed for no good reason” (p. 30). According to this schema, “better” journalism occurs when a lot of harm is caused during the process of telling stories with higher truth value, or only a small amount of harm is caused while telling a story with low truth value. “Ethical and excellent journalism, of course, maximizes the amount of truth and the minimization of harm” (p. 30).


One thought on “Minimising harm is a cornerstone of responsible journalism”

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