Since the events of September 11, 2001, in New York City and Washington, many people in media have taken to preparing more thoroughly for emergencies. Among the preparations are discussions of ethical ends for which media work during emergencies.
Often the people of media do not do business as usual in the thick of an emergency. Advertising revenue takes a lower priority than in usual times. Entertainment takes a lower priority. Real time information shoots to the top of the list, while emergency-related advice and analysis tend to increase. Actions to serve public needs seem to grow quickly.
Yes, the usual codes of professional ethics apply. The broad canons of the Society of Professional Journalists, for example, are important in times of emergency: Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable. Justice and democracy are the goals.
Two more imperatives seem to come to the fore during emergencies. Save lives, and save property. Survival is the aim.
Each kind of medium has its own role to play in emergencies. Print media seem especially strong in preparing the public for an emergency, and in public recovery operations. Electronic media usually lead in moment-by-moment news and advice near peak times of emergency.
Emergencies differ widely in proximity, onset, peak, and decline. One wildfire might be near, intense, and brief, while another is farther away, long, and less threatening to lives and property. Epidemics show similar variations, as do hurricanes. The exact role of each medium tends to vary with proximity, duration, and intensity of the emergency.
Before a medium is able to serve justice, democracy, saving lives, and saving property, it must exist. A rational course is to do that in advance which permits the medium to continue or, being unable to continue, to hand off responsibilities in an orderly way.
If employers and employees in media organizations prepare jointly before a crisis or disaster for the ethical choices of service and survival, they tend to show themselves to be well prepared when emergencies arrive at the doorstep.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2004 (16:1), p. 15.