Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
Paul Martin Lester, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

The Outrage of Governmental Distortion

American military forces, along with several hundred journalists, conducted a war in Iraq.

Local officials used a fire truck, ambulances and private vehicles to block journalists from viewing removal of immigrant bodies from a truck trailer where they had died.

President George Bush, wearing a pilot's jumpsuit, hopped out of a jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier to announce that military action had ended in Iraq.

What these three recent events have in common is that they are examples of successful governmental control of news stories and pictures. Government is increasingly sophisticated in shaping news coverage. The inappropriate manipulation of media that horrified citizens during the McCarthy era of the mid-20th Century has been neutralized into the now accepted notion of "spin."

It is reasonable to ask just what is wrong with governmental officials, whether on the Federal or local level, working to control news coverage to suit their purposes. (Although, we must acknowledge that such a question would be unthinkable if citizens trusted public officials to tell the truth.)

Government and journalism both exist to serve the needs of citizens, but the jobs of these two essential social institutions are different from one another. Government exists to keep the peace, to promote the common good and to protect citizens from various harms. Law enforcement and fire protection come easily to mind as two ways that our government protects citizens from harms.

But, government is not required to provide citizens with information, except in very narrow circumstances, covered by the Federal Freedom of Information Act and state-based Sunshine Laws. The Patriot Act and other reactions to the threat of terrorism have further narrowed what government is required to tell. It is reasonable to argue in a democracy, that the government should tell citizens everything that is happening in our name. While that is reasonable, it is not required; we rely on the press, with agendas separate from governmental interests, to tell us what is going on.

Journalism, a social institution equally important to government, has the job of giving citizens information that we all need to make educated decisions regarding our self-governance. That needed information is the backbone of news. In this country, the First Amendment allows news media owners to do whatever they want with their publications and programs. But, virtually all mainstream news organizations have promised readers and viewers that they will provide the news.

Unfortunately, the moral requirement that news organizations give citizens information is not backed up by a legal requirement that government, or anyone else; provide journalists information or special access to develop information. Generally speaking, journalists have no claim to access different from that of any citizen. But, it is also conventional for public officials to provide information and access to journalists far beyond what they provide other citizens.

So, the social institution of journalism has the job of giving citizens important information but the government has no corresponding duty to give journalists special access to information. As we saw with the embedding of journalists, special access can mean media management under a different name. But, whether or not journalists get true special access, the problem of governmental officials not going out of their way to provide special access is importantly different from governmental officials preventing journalists from covering legitimate news.

The Pentagon did far more than provide "special access" for embedded journalists. Military minders controlled where embedded journalists could go and what they could cover. They also actively prevented un-embedded journalists from accessing information.

Coverage of the recovery of the bodies of 18 illegal immigrants who died in the back of a truck trailer was almost impossible, according to Victoria (TX) Advocate staff photographer TC Baker, even though the locked trailer had been abandoned at a public rest stop. "No matter where we moved (behind the crime scene tape)," Baker said in an e-mail message, "the officials would point out the 'herd' and then move vehicles to obstruct viewing of the scene." In this situation, public officials actively worked to deny journalists viewing access to a legitimate news event happening in public.

And, when President Bush landed aboard the Abraham Lincoln, his handlers created a manipulated scene with an eye toward campaign footage, while calling it news.

These examples of media management are better called governmental distortion. If citizens are prevented from seeing the images that journalists are attempting to provide, government can construct citizens' perceptions to suit governmental purposes.

As citizens are coming to understand in the post-analysis of the war in Iraq, we were misled in the months leading up to the war because journalists were repeating as fact governmental exaggerations and speculations.

More importantly, journalists fail to provide citizens needed information when they refrain from reporting on the extent of citizen misperception. It is amazing, but true, that more than 30% of Americans polled in the weeks prior to the start of the ground war believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks of 9/11 or believed that some or all of the hijackers that day were from Iraq. This profound confusion merited little media attention. Yet, part of what it means for journalism to provide citizens needed information is that news organizations look for opportunities to present the truth.

The consequences of governmental deception or distortion create a set of news stories that do not lose their importance in the re-telling. Visual messages that show public officials obstructing access to legitimate news and visual messages that illustrate journalistic willingness to look where officials are not pointing provide the best defenses. Enough examples might even provoke citizen outrage. Although citizens don't seem to care about whether governmental officials lie or if journalistic accounts are accurate, perhaps that is because journalists are not giving them enough reason to care.

Arrow that returns to the columns.

return to the columns