Sometimes we talk to bad people, and they have to trust us – a podcast talking point

Radiolab’s recent podcast The Buried Bodies Case is a brilliant piece of storytelling. The producers’ newsgathering; the choices of elements and how they are arranged; the tight editing and use of silence — all these make for a masterclass in longform narrative that any journalism student would benefit from exploring.

But it’s not that which prompted me to blog about it.

The content of the podcast is perhaps the best exploration of journalist-source ethics I’ve heard, without it actually being about journalists.

Spoiler alert: if you want to enjoy the podcast without knowing where it goes, then stop here, listen to it, and then come back.OK?


You can’t tell anyone

It’s a story about a lawyer whose client told him where a body was buried. The lawyer had to verify this information himself by checking out the location, but due to lawyer-client privilege once he knew this, the lawyer could not tell anyone else this information, including the father of the missing teenager whose body he had found.

It’s about as extreme a case as you’re likely to find – and as a result, one which prompts some very thorough critical reflection.

This is why it’s such excellent source material for journalism students.

Around the 13’50 mark is where the lawyer Frank Armani explains his conversation with the client: a murderer.

And here’s the first great quality of this podcast for discussion: sometimes as journalists we talk to bad people: criminals, terrorists, exploiters and the corrupt. In doing so we also typically make a promise to protect our sources.

Why journalists speak to bad people

Why? Because part of journalism’s a role is to provide a safe space for discussion, understanding, and even progress. If we want to understand why criminals commit crime, or how that can be prevented, sometimes we need to hear from them.

Terrorism is a particularly sensitive example: are you ‘providing a platform’ for terrorism to propagate their views when you speak to one? Or are you contributing towards some sort of progress towards peace?

Both crime and terrorism are defined by authorities, both have been abused in the past, and both can change over time (policies too: in another recent podcast, 99% Invisible, we hear about the difference between crime prevention and a ‘war on crime’ for example).

So if you only listen to one side of the story, or receive facts or evidence from that side, how can you provide an objective report on the situation?

Around 38 minutes in we get to hear from the mother of the person whose body Armani discovered. This is important: making an ethical decision can be tough, especially when those negatively affected cannot understand it, are emotionally damaged, and/or openly criticise you. People get hurt by your decisions, but sometimes whatever decision you make, people will get hurt.

It is important in the story to note that the lawyers involved faced legal action as a result of their decision. In the end they were vindicated and ultimately hailed as heroes — but only years later. Making a tough decision often means having to fight against people, systems, and public opinion, which may be highly critical. (Notably local newspaper editorials attacked the lawyer for protecting his client).

No ‘right’ thing to do

The key thing about ethics is that it is not about the ‘right’ thing to do in all situations, nor is there one model of ethics that everyone follows.

Journalism organisation codes of ethics can be misleading in this respect: a ‘code’ suggests a set of rules to follow, but instead ethics is about weighing up conflicting pressures and principles.

The buried bodies case illuminates this particularly well. At play are different models of ethics:

  • Deontological, or duty, ethics is the model whereby you obey a set of rules. In this case it is the rule that lawyers must never breach their client’s confidence, or that journalists must never betray their sources.
  • Virtue ethics is a model based on ‘being a good person’. This can be pretty vague: in the situation above you might say “A good person would inform the parents and the police” or “a good person would keep their promise”; the key thing to some extent is that the individual feels they are virtuous (in the lawyer example he would have told the parents, because he felt awful about not doing do). But it does not consider the wider impact of such a decision.
  • Consequentialism, or utilitarian ethics, then, is a model which seeks to make a decision which has the best consequences for everyone. In the lawyer example, for example, breaking that confidentiality will have a wider impact on the justice system and lawyers’ ability to properly represent the accused (especially when innocent), or on journalists ability to build trust with sources and therefore provide a space for safe discussion.

Different models come into play in different situations, and an awareness of each allows us to make better informed decisions as journalists.

Knowing that sometimes that decision is only the least worst decision, and that you may never be entirely comfortable with it, is something we should prepare students for.

The podcast, in its interview with a lawyer who suffered precisely from having to make that decision, is a memorable exploration of that. Listeners can take strength from not being the only ones to experience it.

And if you need more discussion fodder…

For a contrasting example, Bastiaan Vanacker‘s research “Just Doing His Job” explores a situation of “rule utilitarianism” where, he argues, the news media ignored “troubling ethical aspects” of a source protection case where a journalist (Fox News reporter James Rosen) “acted illegally by soliciting secrets from a government employee”:

“When it comes to explaining practices regarding leakers and handling confidential information, journalism failed this accountability test. It did not explain to its public the decision-making process involved when journalists come into possession of sensitive information. It did not discuss how far journalists should go in prodding sources to give up information they swore to keep secret and in convincing them to engage in conduct that may land them in jail. It did not discuss the ethical responsibility of the profession to sources who face negative consequences for leaking information.”

If you know of any other good discussion fodder, let me know.

2 thoughts on “Sometimes we talk to bad people, and they have to trust us – a podcast talking point

  1. Pingback: Ethical Journalism Network Newsletter - 21 June 2016 - Ethical Journalism Network

  2. Pingback: Ethical Journalism Network Newsletter - 21 June 2016 - Ethical Journalism Network

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