Honest journalists try to minimize harm

MARC ALLAN | mallan@butler.edu | Public Editor

When it comes to journalistic dilemmas, few are dicier than the one The Collegian faced last week in trying to report about former Butler student Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig, who was kidnapped by the terrorist group ISIS a year ago and is being threatened with execution.

On the one hand, the newspaper had a huge story in its lap. It had easy access to professors and students who know Kassig, giving the staff a jump on all other media and, therefore, the opportunity for an enormous international scoop.

On the other hand, the staff had to balance that with concerns for Kassig’s safety. Anything they wrote might risk his life. (Not that ISIS is reading The Collegian, but other media do, and they would jump on anything The Collegian reported.)

Ultimately, the staff decided to be cautious and err on the side of Kassig’s safety by reporting on the situation, not on Kassig himself.

That, of course, is the right call.

The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that includes four basic principles: seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; and be accountable and transparent.

Under the heading of “minimize harm” are these tenets:

– Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.

– Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.

Editor-in-Chief Marais Jacon-Duffy wrote the initial web story on Oct. 3, when the news first broke. She said that, though she’d talked to a number of people about Kassig—and she had been in a class with him—she kept the initial story basic. The plan was to run the bigger story Wednesday in the print edition.

But soon after she posted the web story, the Kassigs asked the Butler community not to talk about their son.

Although she’d already gathered information, Jacon-Duffy acceded to the family’s wishes and omitted the personal information from the story that ran in the print edition.

She noticed, though, that when she told other students—and even family members—what she was working on, nearly all of them knew little to nothing about ISIS and the situation in Syria. So she asked a staff reporter, freshman Cassie Eberle, for help, and they decided to give Collegian readers a thorough background.

“It was a good way for us to be able to inform the Butler community about what was going on,” Eberle said.

They included a small amount of personal information about Kassig in the print story, sharing that he Skyped into a class and that he had participated in service learning. But even then, they took an extraordinary step.

“We never give content to anyone before it goes to print except for people in the newsroom, and we ended up sending those sentences to the spokesperson for the family,” Jacon-Duffy said. “That was a big deal for us to do that.”

She and Eberle also consulted with faculty adviser Loni McKown to make sure they were handling the situation properly. (In an upcoming column, I’ll have more about that conversation and the role of the faculty adviser.)

When I picked up The Collegian last week and read the story headlined “Former Butler student held captive by ISIS,” I hoped the reporters would tell us about Kassig and what motivated him to risk his life to help the Syrian people. But our need to know is not nearly as important as Kassig’s safety.

There will be time for the personal story—hopefully when Kassig is on his way home.