One has an ethical dilemma only when there are competing ethical values at stake in a decision. On the other hand, when an ethical value such as honesty or promise-keeping conflict with nonethical values such as personal wealth, prestige or comfort, it may take a strong person to sacrifice self-interest to follow the moral principle. Thus, the moral response to a conflict in values is to choose ethics over expediency.
The problem with this analysis is that people rarely see choices as being between ethical and nonethical values. Instead, they see ethical dilemmas arising from almost every clash caused by what they want (often construed as what they need) and ethical principles that might cause them to deny their desires, especially if the ethical principle seems to require deprivation of money, power or position. An automatic rationalization process often transforms fundamentally self-interested nonethical motives into others-centered ethical ones, thereby creating a false ethical dilemma.
Thus, journalists sometimes justify deception (even outright lying), breaking commitments, violating laws, disrespecting the autonomy and privacy of others, failing to demonstrate caring, compassion and charity in order to advance a professional or personal interest disguised by noble-sounding sentiments like the people’s right to know.
While there are stories of monumental social importance that can justify, on utilitarian grounds, the sacrifice of some ethical principles to achieve the greater good, these are rare. The fact is that journalists, like police officers, politicians and lawyers, often operate on an instinctive unreflective level that presumes and invariably exaggerates the importance of professional and personal goals. More objective scrutiny would reveal that, in many cases, we are motivated by the desire to get the job done, to build our reputations, to satisfy our professional pride, for the sheer joy of winning (or avoiding the awful shame of losing) and that our claims of nobler motives are just excuses.
For example, responsible journalists ought to ask whether many stories that injure reputations, cause great emotional harm and invade privacy are really so socially significant that they invoke the people’s right to know – a right that, if it exists at all, is probably based on our democratic tradition that in matters of self-governance the citizenry should have all the relevant facts. Thus, the printing of names or addresses of victims of sex crimes, the cause of death in obituaries where the family would suffer needlessly (e.g., suicide or AIDS), private facts about public figures may sometimes be justifiable but hardly ever on such a lofty principle as the people’s right to know.
The fact is that people are interested in a lot of things that they have no intrinsic right to know, including the private lives and activities of others. If a news organization chooses to cater to that desire for entertainment value and to increase its audience, it ought to do so without the cover of First Amendment self-righteousness.