Battlefield Ethics

Friday, April 11, 2008


AP photographer Bilal Hussein has been held by U.S. authorities for two years on allegations that he had ties to Iraqi insurgents. This week, an Iraqi committee ordered Hussein to be freed, though U.S. authorities still haven't announced their plans for him. In the meantime, Bob asks you: To whom and what should a reporter be loyal? Their news organization? The story? The audience? Their country?

Comments [31]

Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

My seventh grade history teacher, Mrs. Seybold (what a crush I had on her!), taught us about "slant" in journalism or even history texts and that NO reporting remains unaffected by the writers', editors' and, most tellingly, the owners' opinions and self-interests. Thus, she advised us to evaluate reporting with the skepticism of adults aware of this reality. Objective reporting is a delusion of adolescent naivety.

Kathleen Carroll’s comment seems right on target regarding Bilal’s "associations" and I find it interesting that this tactic of "guilt by..." was also pulled the other evening on Obama in the debate, though ably rebutted with his Bill Clinton pardons revelation.

As for reporters' loyalty, I would suggest that it should be to their own principles and that those principles should be worn honestly on their sleeves (or, perhaps, on their lapels) so that the reader, viewer or listener might more easily be aware of what they are, as OTM does.

Apr. 18 2008 03:14 AM
john suter

Sophie's Choice 4
Journalist who are expected to just do their job and hand in the story are passing the decision up to the editor, who for all we know, may be in bed with the White House. If journalists plan ahead and devise ways to encode information, they might avoid some of these tough decisions. But if all else fails, I vote for the journalist who can think clearly and know when it's time to make some tough decisions themselves, even if it means sacrifice.

Apr. 17 2008 03:06 PM
john suter

Sophie's choice 3
Again the size of the system and the lack of face-to-face interaction leads us away from seeing and acting in a moral way. One interesting irony of the Fresno family is their continued support of the army and the nation. They are trying to not be bitter but act constructively. Why? I think it is because they know their bitterness would be used by those who hate Bush.
Who will use the information that is gathered from behind enemy lines? Are journalists naive when they think that simply throwing information out there will result in the right decisions being made? Sometimes I think so. Again, it's a system size and lack of feedback problem. Sunshine is not enough. Even here, On The Media, their task is to put things "out there" and hope for the best. I, personally have written to OTM about ways to increase the effectiveness of this already great show. But maybe the people at OTM are too busy to listen, or maybe they're suspicious. Anyway, they haven't asked me any questions about it, and that's a bad sign.

Apr. 17 2008 03:04 PM
john suter

Sophie's choice 2
If the planned target in this case was the journalist's family or community, there is hopefully no doubt what he or she would do. To do otherwise would make that person a pariah, even among journalists. But the question is less clear when one ponders the importance of having good, accurate, useful information and the importance of that information to the larger society.
What is the need for good information? On this issue, I see several ironies. 1. It was bad or insufficient information about WMD's that got us into this war, a position that I think most western leaders would agree on. 2. According to General Petraeus, the US military relies heavily on reports from journalists, many of them Iraqis, for knowing what is going on and making decisions based on that information. 3. The embed program of the military actually makes it more difficult to get good information. Short sighted, no?
In Fresno, California, the third and last son of a family who already lost two sons in the Iraq war, was given the option of an early and honorable discharge. When he took this option however,he had nearly all, if not all of his benefits taken from him. People really hate this kind of treatment of soldiers, they really do. Did the people in the military who make such stupid decisions ever have a chance to see "Saving Private Ryan?" - or was that whole movie a lie, too? Are we all living this lie?

Apr. 17 2008 03:03 PM
john suter

Traitor v spy v Sophie's Choice
These choices are certainly difficult, but made even more difficult when only two choices can be seen, like Sophie's Choice. One could imagine other choices, like the journalist turning to the insurgents and challenging them as a group or maybe challenging one of them face-to-face to consider something other than their planned violent assault. One wonders why the insurgents would even allow the journalist to know information about a planned violent assault in the first place. Maybe they are testing him/her?
A few years ago on Charlie Rose, I saw a panel discuss a similar issue on whether journalists should talk to the enemy. I thought the military officers, who vocalized strong opposition to the journalist, were being somewhat self-righteous, since they probably had spies who were talking to the enemy. The military officers might do well to realize that we have a civilian president who leads the chain of command in our country, but even the president must answer to the people. That's why the people must have good information.
In the Vietnam War, the leadership in Washington would have just kept sacrificing young men and women, none of whom they knew, to the endless machinery of war. It is the size of the system that allows people to act in an immoral fashion. There are fewer face-to-face enounters.

Apr. 17 2008 03:01 PM
Bill Temps from Austin, TX

"A journalist's first loyalty should be to the truth." You seem to assume that every statement is either truth or a lie. This is not correct. Here's an example from today's Chicago Tribune, "Bombs in two provincial capitals killed more than 50 Iraqi civilians Tuesday, underscoring the continuing threat posed by Sunni insurgents . . ." Is it a fact that this was an attack by Sunni insurgents, who pose a continuing threat, or is that an inference? Most of what is reported in newspapers, on TV, on the radio, on the Internet, is neither provably true nor provably false. At the very least, someone has to decide what to report and what not to report, inevitably introducing a selection bias. Right now, there's a humanitarian crisis in Sudan, which is widely reported in the US. There is also a humanitarian crisis in Somalia, generally ignored. Currently

Apr. 16 2008 12:28 PM
Bill Temps from Austin, TX

The question of battlefield ethics was explored in the TV series "Ethics in America", along with several others. Each episode presented a hypothetical situation, allowed a panel of experts to comment, and then changed the scenario incrementally to make it increasingly ambiguous. One question, having to do with lawyer-client privilege, was relevant: suppose a client, in a privileged communication, confesses to a crime for which someone else has been convicted. Is the proper action by the lawyer to preserve the attorney-client privilege, or to save the innocent by breaching the privilege? One answer was that attorneys need to believe in the value of the system as a whole, which is more important than any single individual. This could apply to reporters as well: the question is not just whether to save one life or not; the question is the long-term consequences of decisions made today.

Another question concerns predictability and commitment. Suppose a reporter says, "In return for access, I agree not to interfere." Does the reporter have an obligation to maintain that commitment, or should it be abrogated whenever it seems inconvenient?

As for saying, "your first obligation is towards your fellow man", what does that mean? Who is the "fellow man"? Does that mean saving the lives of, for example, Iraqi insurgents? Terrorists? US soldiers?

Apr. 16 2008 12:09 PM
Emily Hutto from Eugene, OR

Journalists should stay loyal to their stories. They have a duty to the public to convey accurate information, despite the circumstances surrounding the story. Greg Borowski of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said that his job is to take himself out of the story and merely report the facts. His notion that journalists should stay neutral is specifically important to reporting oversees, as much conflict can occur as the result of bias.

Journalists investigate, but they are not spies. If a journalist can obtain the facts and report them without personal anecdotes, it is unimportant where in fact they find their information. A journalist's ability to find unknown facts reflects his or her information gathering abilities and creativity in research.

Apr. 15 2008 02:04 PM
Karen Hart from Eugene, Oregon

A journalist's first loyalty should be to the truth. We can learn what libel is, what ethics are, how to write a good story and keep the reader interested, but the bottom line is if you're putting down lies or promoting the lies of others without fact-checking, you're failing your news organization, your story, your audience and your country.

Apr. 15 2008 09:46 AM
Jay Tea from

And, of course, Per, journalists never lie.

Reuters photographers would never fake photos.

New York Times reporters would never conceal the deliberate starvation of Ukrainians.

Newsweek would never make up a story about a Koran being flushed down a toilet.

CBS would never use fake documents to support a story on President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service.

The AP would never invent a source -- say, an Iraqi polic captain named "Jamil Hussein" -- and use him to allege all sorts of terorist attacks.

NBC would never rig GM trucks with explosives to fake the dangers of side-saddle gas tanks.

A New York Times columnist as prestigious as Maureen Dowd would never edit quotes from President Bush to utterly pervert the meaning of what he said.

Oh, wait... they did, didn't they?

My bad.


Apr. 15 2008 05:29 AM
Curtis Morisaki from Eugene, OR

Reporters should be loyal to their story because their job is to put readers at the scene of the news. Journalists should not be limited by the circumstances they are working in and need to be allowed to carry out their duties. Hussein was carrying out his duties and trying to get images of the scene. Just because Hussein is from Fallujah doesn’t mean that he is guilty of being a spy for the terrorists. He was doing what he was hired to do. Why should people care about where and journalists get their information as long as they give a factually unbiased story? Many journalists live by a don’t ask and don’t tell mantra because they don’t wanted any classified information to be leaked out.

Apr. 15 2008 03:22 AM
Per Fagereng from Portland, Oregon

A journalist's loyalty should be to truth.

As IF Stone said, Governments lie.

Apr. 14 2008 11:24 PM
Jay Tea from

Funny how no one ever discusses the circumstances around Mr. Hussein's arrest -- rounded up in a raid on a Ramadi apartment where he was with an Al Qaeda leader, how his clothes tested positive for explosives residue, and (I believe) he was held for some time before he identified himself -- he was just an "unknown suspected insurgent/terrorist" for at least a couple of days.

Odd how those little details never come up, nor how he seemed to be on the scene just in time to get so many terrorist attacks just as they unfolded...


Apr. 14 2008 06:57 PM
Tom Mason from Cleveland, OH

My understanding of the reasoning of our Founding Fathers is that competition of diverse viewpoints encourages good decisions. If that makes sense, then we want a range of agendas being pursued by reporters, hopefully identified as bias and hopefully published.

Apr. 14 2008 07:56 AM
Lucas Adams from San Diego, CA

I have been following this case through the excellent reporting of Scott Horton at Harper's. All of his stories on Hussein can be found on the Harper's website, and his latest story can be read here:

Apr. 13 2008 09:39 PM
Lucas Adams from San Diego, CA

Also, what sort of loyalty are we talking about? As a journalist, Hussein's loyalty is to investigate and tell the truth to the public; he has no other loyalty as a journalist to any person or organization. His loyalty as a journalist cannot really conflict with his loyalty to country unless you believe that it is disloyal to expose the lies of a given administration. I don't see how he has any obligations as a journalist to participate in battles by trying to save wounded soldiers, as that would mean he has an obligation to risk his own life. He may have some moral obligation to try to help other human beings, but that's irrelevant to a discussion of an occupational obligation.

Finally, talking about 'loyalty' in regards to an Iraqi is amusing, since presumably his duty would be to be loyal to his own country and people, and - given that the majority of the Iraqis want us out - not to the US or the occupation.

Apr. 13 2008 09:35 PM
Lucas Adams from San Diego, CA

First of all, the premise of this discussion is flawed since it seems to be based on a hypothetical question: should a journalist take a picture or save a life? Was there any corroborated story that this was a choice Hussein was faced with? Arguing a hypothetical that journalists have to choose between taking a picture and saving a life is like the ridiculous hypothetical about choosing between not torturing a terrorist and a ticking time bomb; it is a false construct that does not inspire debate but shuts it down.

Secondly, the argument is also flawed insofar as it is based on the case of Bilal Hussein. He had been held since 2006 without any charges, so it's hardly fair to argue about how his case brings into question the concept of 'loyalty' in journalism when nobody has even proved he has done anything wrong, or even told us what he was alleged to have done! The investigating judge of the Iraqi court- under intense US pressure - imposed a gag order. So we don't know what they actually tried to argue in court that he did. In the end, despite all assurances that he would be convicted, he was not, and is now to be set free. To use him as a springboard to begin an argument about loyalty is to accept the administration's argument that he's guilty - which ignores the ruling of the court as well as the real crime: that an AP Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist could be imprisoned at all and then held for so long without charges.

Apr. 13 2008 09:34 PM
Bryan Richhart from Fort Worth, TX

I think a journalists loyalties should be:
1. Their Organization
2. Their Country
The journalist, should not be influenced by their politics, or the politics of the place that they are in. Fair and unbiased reporting is in my view, the foundation of journalism

Apr. 13 2008 07:25 PM
Doug Hofeling from Salt Lake City

There are no absolute answers to these questions because every situation is different. Does taking a picture of a dying soldier rather than rendering aid do more to save life by raising awareness, or is it simply exploitation? Does informing someone of an impending attack endanger all journalists and therefore cause more long term violence, or is not passing on that information simply immoral? The rules that apply to one situation may not in others, that is why this debate should never be settled, and why it is incredibly important that journalists be highly educated people.

Apr. 13 2008 02:28 PM
elizabeth Niemeyer from New Jersey

If action on the part of a reporter might save the life of a soldier or civilian in a specific situation where it seems that no one else can do so - that should be the reporter's FIRST obligation.. such action covers loyalty to: country, story, audience - the values on which our nation was founded.

The "news organization" shouldn't even be considered in this type of situation and, the fact that it is, speaks of the hold that financial interests have on our society.

Apr. 13 2008 11:59 AM
Merri Ferrell from Northport NY

Regardless to your profession, your first obligation is towards your fellow man.

Apr. 13 2008 10:25 AM
Jayson R. Jones from Mt. Gilead, OH, USA

The 'LOYALTY' question is the same for Journalists as it is for everyone; To thy self be true. Facts are facts, and the facts should be reported. Beyond that, everything is personal choice. Like everyone, a Journalist has to live with their choices. Whether it is the "right thing" to save the 'soldier' or get the defining photo is a function of who we are as a person AT THAT INSTANT, and highly situational. Should have...Would have...Could have bedevil us all. While hindsight is said to be 20/20, it is still dependent on the lens through which we view it.

Apr. 13 2008 09:07 AM
Jose A. Stoute

I listened with great interest to the segment on the show today about the Iraqi journalist/photographer Bilal Hussein. I have to say that I am in the US military. I speak as a private citizen when I say that I am ashamed of the way we went into Iraq. I think in the months preceding the start of the Iraqi war our media failed us as much or more than our government. The media has an obligation to hold the government accountable. Journalists have access to politicians that we the regular people do not have. Instead of asking the hard questions, journalists ate up what the government was saying instead of seeking independent confirmation. American journalists were and are incredibly confused and torn between patriotism and journalistic objectivity. They failed us and are still failing us by not covering both sides of this conflict. We may be surprised by how much we can gain if as a people we understand our "enemies". We know very little about them. What do they want? What drives them? Instead of covering both sides of this conflict our journalists have played it safe and feed us what the government says. Enough of that!

Apr. 12 2008 04:36 PM
Chris Carter from Ogden, UT

These questions are hardly "silly". We are beings with a capacity to empathize with hardship, an ability to minimize suffering, and therein a responsibility to consider these issues and recognize their relevance.

To the humanist, the answer is simple; be loyal to your fellow man. Life is life and it wears no uniform, is loyal to no nation or company.

To the realist, we understand that human development as a species is not yet at a stage where perfect humanism is always appropriate. For this reason alone, I'd say be loyal to the entity with the least capacity for malintent, the hope being that while every decision will be harmful on some level, the choice made will be the least harmful in a global sense.

Apr. 12 2008 04:33 PM

Reporter should avoid bias -- that's the editor's job...

I love those embeds, for example -- no moral hesitation -- but their editors should be lashed w a wet noodle for assigning zero non-embeds. (And I'm just talking about covering the Obama campaign!)

Apr. 12 2008 02:01 PM
John Petesch

Many have given their lives on battlefields and off, for centuries, to defend myriad concepts of those things which ensure true democracy and the greater good. One of the most central tenets of democracy is the existence of a free and independent press, so the forefathers of our country knew they had to establish the rights of a free press in nothing less than the constitution itself. If the press itself begins to jeopardize its independence by becoming involved in stories rather than impartially covering them, then the sacrifices of the lives of millions over centuries will come to naught. Let the press do its job impartially, for the sake of democracy and the greater good. Why ask soldiers to die defending democracy, only to blow it by giving up the people's right to objective truth?

Apr. 12 2008 10:43 AM
Dorian Benkoil from New York (

If you're going to explore the ethics of journalism in a future show, may I recommend you speak with Brian Storm of They've produced some very strong pieces on international conflicts and issues, won prestigious awards, too. Brian says it's imperative that journalists take a position on the stories they cover -- that sometimes it's obvious one side is right or wrong.

“If you’re a journalist and you don’t have an agenda, you don’t have a pulse,” he recently said at a Columbia Journalism School talk:

Apr. 12 2008 10:05 AM

Question just hit the nail on the head!

While listening to the show I read an article off Yahoo News -- good example as any in a reporter exercising bias at the expense of unbiased reporting or even coherent storytelling...Long on fear and short on facts or even quotes -- brought me right back to the lead-up to the Iraq War.
The story:
"Polygamous sect encouraged fear" by Associated Press Jennifer Dobner

Another situation in which your question rings true, which perhaps many naive Americans cannot conceive of, is the VERY slippery slope between competent journalist and spy. The amount of info a correspondent can obtain by doing his job -- especially in a foreign country -- is infinitely higher than that which can be acquired by a great spy. Unless that spy plays the patriot card with the reporter...which they always do.

Apr. 12 2008 08:17 AM
Richard from Jamaica Hills, NY

Yes, it is a silly hypothetical question. Anyone who has the time to craft a convoluted response should better spend this time doing something useful, like writing a sonnet.

Apr. 12 2008 07:36 AM
Kevin McKague from Davison, MI

Are you kidding? Most people would agree that a free and unfettered media is one of the pillars of a democracy, but there are a lot of professions necessary in a modern civilization, and you don't hear members of those groups asking hypothetically if one should save a life or take a picture. Silly hypothetical questions such as these do more harm than good to the professional reputation of journalists, and quite frankly, insult the intelligence of your audience. You're important, we get it. You're preaching to the choir, though, we are, after all, listening to a show called "On the Media".

Apr. 12 2008 03:52 AM

Loyal to your audience: you are them.

Apr. 11 2008 09:21 PM

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