Ethical Journalism During the Vietnam War
During the Vietnam War, a rift between government officials and journalists emerged. The American government felt the need, for various reasons, to censor many war developments. In an attempt to act ethically, the press fought the censors, trying their hardest to report the truth to the general public. Despite claims of bias and distortion by several prominent government officials, these journalists acted completely ethically, allowing the general public to obtain a fair, informed opinion.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) provides a very clear and thorough Code of Ethics, which serves as a good definition of ethical journalism. According to this code, an ethical journalist must try to minimize any potential harm done to people directly involved with the event being reported. Such a journalist should also act independently of any personal biases, and be responsive to any criticism of their work. Finally, a truly ethical journalist must seek to find and report the truth (Society). Common sense reaffirms these guidelines. When one thinks of ethical behavior, one usually thinks along terms of being truthful, appreciative of others, acting responsively and using fair judgement. All of these concepts are explicitly stated in the SPJ's Code of Ethics.
Minimizing harm done by journalism in times of war is a difficult task. Naturally, there are bits of information that the government needs to keep secret for one reason or another. There is also the danger of victims' stories being exploited and sensationalized. The SPJ's Code of Ethics recommends that journalists should "treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings worthy of respect" (Society). During the extremely controversial Tet Offensive of 1968, the ethicality of journalists in this regard was put to the test. Researcher Clarence Wyatt described this incident vividly. The South Vietnamese had captured and beaten a prisoner. In front of several reporters, Brigadier General Nguyen Loan, who was chief of the National Police, shot and killed the prisoner at point blank range without saying a word. Unbeknownst to Loan, there were cameras rolling as he executed the prisoner. Eddie Adams, a photographer from the Associated Press, took a picture that would later prove to be one of the most memorable images from the war. As if that was not enough, Vo Suu, cameraman for NBC correspondent Howard Tuckner, shot film of the incident. The photo and the film would dramatically shock the general public (Wyatt 165-167).
By reporting this simple event without sensationalizing anything, Adams and Suu gave a classic demonstration of the ethical nature of American Journalism. As Wyatt states,
The photograph and film speak of the presence and characteristics of American journalism. Adams, Tuckner, and Suu were skilled reporters with an instinct for the dramatic incident. The pictures they shot that day were valued examples of that sort...