Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Where Is Line Between The Public Right Vs. Privacy?

The media is all agog because the AP published a picture of Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard as he lay mortally wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is incensed because the corporal’s father had requested that the picture not be published in order to avoid further grief to the family.
During the Bush administration news photographers were not allowed to photograph coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently it was not a good idea for the American people to discover how many good young men were dying for their country. It was as if our nation could fight two wars overseas while maintaining peace and tranquility at home. The Obama administration now allows such photographs to be taken provided the families of the deceased say it’s OK.
But this is a different case. The photo was taken in the field – there was no chance to get the family’s prior permission. It was taken along with many other photos of activity in the war zone that day.
Should it have been published in disregard of the family’s wishes? Which was more important? Spare the family more grief, or inform the public of the high cost in lives of this war. Should the AP have gone with what they considered the greatest good for the greatest number? If so, was publishing the picture really the greatest good?
This is one of those many dilemmas where I can appreciate both sides of the question. On one side, I think the public has been shielded too long from the horrors going on in Afghanistan. On the other hand, I can only imagine the family’s suffering.
An appeal to morality does not help. As a working definition I propose: Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.
Probably most rational persons world wide would agree on a few general moral principles, e.g. Killing people and stealing are wrong, etc. But within that code of morality there are institutional and personal systems that override the general system. Examples include slavery, the death penalty, killing abortion doctors to save lives, etc. in otherwise Christian nations. And of course there are those clerics who have allowed their morals to include pederasty.
Ethics, which involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong  is no help either. This generally consists of applying the “proper” morals to various fields of endeavor: health care, business, the environment, etc. It’s a sure bet that the ethics of news publication includes publishing news. Period.
One other thing: neither the Secretary of Defense, the news organization nor anyone else has the right to pre-censor news. I have to conclude that under the ethics of their profession, the AP had the obligation to publish the picture. It’s what they do. But it’s a tough call as to whether it’s moral. Depending upon your personal moral system, one way is right and the opposite way is wrong.

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