Lisa G

Ethics issues paper

October 1, 2001

Blown-up Bioterrorism

In news articles like the ones attached, reporters are rushing to talk to people who are going to extremes and buying gas masks and other protection against bioterrorism, believed by some to be the terrorists’ next strategy. I believe that having news stories focused solely on this minority’s reaction is unethical.

In order to define the ethical problem, one needs to examine the larger scope of the situation. The two World Trade Center towers in New York, along with the Pentagon, were the targets of terrorist attack. The president has activated our military forces as a result. However, there is no proof that terrorists are for sure going to use biological warfare (i.e. releasing diseases such as anthrax) to combat the U.S. war effort. According to an October 8th Time magazine article entitled “Shopping for Protection,” federal officials are not advocating extreme action on the part of citizens, such as buying gas masks and suits. Yet news articles like those attached are capitalizing on the sensational nature of the frenzy of some individuals who deem it wise to purchase such items. 

By placing the news stories in the second quadrant of the Potter box model, this approach to coverage clashes with the professional journalism values of fairness and comprehensiveness. These stories use only safety equipment supply storeowners and their customers as sources. They have neglected to interview local government leaders or police, or even to interview anyone who thinks buying masks is unnecessary at this point. A more balanced story would look to other sources like these, and would also give a more accurate assessment of what percentage of locals are really making these purchases, rather than assuming it’s the majority of residents.

Looking at ethical principles, I believe the situation requires looking to Aristotle’s virtue ethics. News stories need to be balanced; to avoid extremes. These stories look only at the extreme citizen reaction to the terrorist acts on the U.S. and their fear for the future. While Aristotle might agree that it’s necessary to include these extreme reactions in a story about U.S. local citizen reaction to the terrorism, he would also advocate finding a middle ground between extreme reaction and extreme indifference. To bring utilitarianism into it, the story might do better if it tried to serve the majority of the readers. The greatest good for the greatest number would involve finding sources who would have advice on reasonable precautions for everyone to take. 

Finally, the matter of loyalties should be considered. While these news stories seem to appeal that they are loyal to local readers, I think their loyalty is really to their own news company. There are many stories like this out right now, covering the local scene and how people are buying masks. These news sources don’t want to be left out of the loop; they want to show readers that they are covering this story like their counterparts are. I think they should have been more loyal to the majority of their readers by assessing whether such a response is necessary, whether they should be preparing in such a fashion or if something else is warranted. Talking to government sources and experts on warfare and terrorism would have helped in this more balanced approach.