Do No Harm

Many professions abide by a strict code of ethics. Doctors swear to do no harm. Lawyers pledge to seek justice and uphold the integrity of the legal process. Journalists are no different; above all else, we dedicate ourselves to pursuing and publishing truth. The preamble to the code of ethics published by the Society of Professional Journalists states that “the duty of the journalist is to further [justice and democracy] by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.” In this code of ethics, seeking truth is prioritized above providing a full account of events. Presenting a full account of stories and perspectives, including perspectives of those who propagate misinformation or harmful rhetoric over truth, contravenes a journalist’s code of ethics.

It is important to make the distinction between presenting different sides of a debatable topic and giving harmful and misleading information a public platform. By characterizing falsehoods as an “alternate opinion,” news sources legitimize factually incorrect statements and, consequently, act as agents of disinformation. It is not the duty of a news platform to cater to all sides of the argument. It is rather their responsibility to provide the whole and accurate truth. In order for the media to carry out this role, they must actively dismantle misleading and false information. Neutrality on misinformation impedes this task.

Media outlets are responsible for presenting both facts and opinions on those facts. It is left up to the viewers to decide how to interpret the facts, given some points of view published by media sources. Presenting a reaction to information is not unethical for the media to do. The issue arises when media and journalists present opinions or falsehoods as if they are facts. This breach of ethics can be blatant, seen in false charts or statements. But it can also be more insidious, appearing as a falsehood without clarification that it is not true, or a falsehood presented with such pomp and importance that it begins to feel like truth.

Some argue that media sources can still publish misleading opinions as long as they denounce them. However, this solution is simply a way to skirt the difficult fact that giving a platform to lies, even a critical platform, is a breach of journalistic ethics. Offering a lie alongside its refutation does not undo the damage. It does not guarantee that those hearing the lie will understand that it is false. Additionally, there are ways to report about lies without elevating them. The refutation can stand alone as an individual piece of journalism: it does not need to be published as a supplement to the lie.

Adhering to truthfulness above all else in journalism is critical not only to the health of the profession, but also to the health of democracy. A democratic system cannot survive unless its constituents have a shared epistemology. When the media gives blatant lies a platform, it undermines these shared truths, and in doing so undermines any meaningful discourse on the issues that truly matter. The conflict between publishing truth and publishing events as they happened is complex and ubiquitous in journalism. However, in order to do no harm to the body politic, the truth must always win.

This editorial represents the views of The Phillipian, vol. CXLIII.