Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Ethics of Covering Prisoner Abuse

I’ve recently discovered a most worthy foil for my conventional wisdom - the estimable “Chap”, of Chapomatic, referred to me by my old buddy Barry Campbell, who maintains the most eclectic and entertaining Enrevanche. A conversation/debate Chap and I had over the past week, served as the inspiration for the final assignment for my AP US history class.

I asked the students to grapple with the ethical issues confronting newspaper and broadcast media editors when information comes to light regarding possible and demonstrable abuse by American soldiers towards detainees in their custody.

Here's the assignment:

The following assumptions were posed by me, and stipulated to, by the class:

1. The US is a democracy
2. The
US has a free press.
3. American citizens have an exceptionally strong belief in a vigorous free press.
4. Transparency of government action is essential to informed decision-making and voting.
5. Stories of prisoner abuse and/or atrocities towards civilians tend to overwhelm, in the public mind, stories of military and/or humanitarian progress.
6. Stories of prisoner abuse and/or atrocities towards civilians tend to diminish essential public support for the
US’s military/geopolitical objectives. Such stories can also inflame the enemy, causing him to fight harder and longer than he otherwise would.

Given the above, as a newspaper editor or television news director, what is your responsibility when you uncover or are handed credible stories of abuse and/or atrocities. Do you print the story? Downplay the story? Make sure that it is only running along a more positive story? Please discuss with your parents.

The students were given a copy of the most recent prisoner abuse story, that being the NY Times story last Friday, May 20th, detailing abuse at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, resulting in deaths of two detainees.

Yesterday, we circled up to compare notes. Here's what they came up with, with yours truly trying not to steer, and only asking clarifying questions:

Of the 24 students, 12 thought the Bagram story was legit material for the front page, excepting terminology they felt was biased and/or needlessly inflammatory. Several in this group thought that the story’s lead was over the top and not reflective of the broader facts in the story. Bottom line for this group: run the story, run it on the front page, but no “yellow journalism.”

The next largest group, 6 students, said they would have run the story as is, on the front page. The two biggest reasons were their hope that publication of the abuse would lead to immediate corrective action. They also felt that the public had an inherent right to know.

Four students would have run the story essentially as written, but thought the story should not have been on the front page citing that there are a lot of deaths in the world everyday, and that the deaths of the two detainees, while noteworthy, didn't deserve the front page of the most prestigious newspaper.

Two students would have run the story only when they could have found a more positive story about American servicemen's actions to run along side of the negative story.

Then, trying as hard as I could to get them to move to a decision to not print, none of the students would budge, much less adopt Pat Buchanan's recent position that the printing of such stories, true or not, constitutes sedition.

My head and my gut tell me that the distribution I got in my class would be very close to a poll of the public at large, though I believe 2 – 5% of the American public would go along with Buchanan’s call, and another 10% or so would have not run the story on the grounds that it was damaging to broader American interests even if it wasn’t actually seditious.


Chap fleshes out the assignment nicely with his suggestions here. Look out philosophy class -- you're about to learn about narrative frames and memes.