Professional Ethics Issue: The Case Where The Essay


Professional Ethics Issue: The case where the professional ethics issue arises is a situation in which the commended obligation for journalists to safeguard the confidentiality of their sources conflict with their supposed duty to help legal authorities in the quest for justice. As a notable case, Time's Matthew Cooper and New York Times' Judith Miller are facing an ethical dilemma with two major options. First, these journalists are faced with the option of cooperating with legal authorities through disclosing their sources, which effectively betrays the sources' trust and that of the public. On the contrary, these journalists face the option of maintaining their sources' confidentiality at the expense of failure to safeguard United States national security and Valerie Plame, an innocent CIA agent. Therefore, the situation is regarded as a conflict between ordinary morality and role morality, which is an interesting and controversial situation that requires extensive analysis.

Background Information:

Cooper and Miller's ethical dilemma is an issue that can be traced to the period when Patrick J. Fitzgerald, a special federal prosecutor, was mandated with the task of investigating the senior sources in the Bush Administration who leaked confidential information to journalists. The investigation was fueled by the probability of the leaked information to threaten national security and the safety of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent. While these professionals were journalists of different media outlets, they were ordered to disclose the confidential source(s) by a federal grand jury (Quinn, n.d., p.320).

The confidential source disclosed Plame's name for political revenge because of the role of her husband in publicly criticizing the Administration's motivation for attacking Iraq. Plame's husband had criticized the Administration's justification for war on Iraq on grounds that it was developing weapons of mass destruction despite of contradicting evidence from government-commissioned investigation. Joseph Wilson, Plame's husband, criticized the Administration following his findings of an investigation on whether the pre-war Iraqi government tried or succeeded in obtaining uranium in order to develop weapons of mass destruction (Quinn, n.d., p.320).

While Robert Novak, a conservative columnist agreed to disclose his sources, Cooper and Miller initially declined on the basis of maintaining their confidential agreements. Together with Time, Matthew Cooper yielded to the pressure and threats of imprisonment while Miller refused and was ultimately jailed for nearly 3 months despite never publishing a story with Plame's name. However, the special federal investigator continues to examine the possibility of Lewis Libby and Karl Rove being involved in the information because of their roles as Vice President's Chief of Staff and senior Bush advisor respectively.

According to the author, the scenario contributes to considerations on whether journalists should break a promise to safeguard a lie. The situation is an ethical dilemma that contributes to several concerns and questions regarding journalists' role in complying with role morality or ordinary morality. The major concerns include whether these professionals should make written contractual agreements with their sources and whether these contractual agreements should be invalidated if the sources mislead them. Furthermore, the scenario contributes to questions on whether these professionals should be granted special social and legal privileges such as comprehensive shield laws due to their responsibilities to inform the public.

The Precise Moral Issue:

In this situation, the moral issue under examination is a normative ethical issue pertaining to professionals regarding their obligations on what to do and what not to do. This is evident in the author's title on whether journalists should break a promise in order to prevent a lie. The situation also incorporates the need to examine which behaviors and actions are justified in professional life. Therefore, the professional ethics issue presented by Aaron Quinn in this article is the conflict between journalists' responsibility to safeguard their sources' confidentiality and the obligation to help legal authorities in their quest for justice.

In essence, Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller are faced with an ethical dilemma on whether they should cooperate with legal authorities through disclosing their sources, which implies betraying the trust of the sources and the


On the other hand, these journalists are uncertain on whether they should preserve this confidentiality and in turn fail to prevent harm to the undercover CIA agent and the county's national security.
The ethical question that accurately expresses the moral problem is "Should professionals ignore role morality in favor of ordinary morality or vice-versa?" This question accurately describes the moral problem because the journalists are faced with an ethical dilemma with two options i.e. whether to preserve role morality or whether to preserve ordinary morality. Are journalists required to focus on professional advancement or maintain their obligations as good citizens when journalistic obligations conflict with obligations as ordinary citizens? The suitability of this question is based on the fact that journalists are always obligated to maintain confidentiality of their sources on one hand. On the other hand, since journalists are citizens, they have a moral obligation to uphold and maintain justice wherever and whenever possible.

Possible Answers to the Ethical Question:

One of the possible answers to the question expressing the moral problem in the situation is that journalists should ignore ordinary morality in favor of role morality. This is primarily because journalists are usually inclined to comply with journalistic role morality in which they are required to maintain confidential agreements and their public trust. Moreover, their compliance with subpoenas in cases where they are not protected by shield legislation makes them informal members of law enforcement that can be used and abused at any time.

The second possible answer, which conflicts the first one, is that journalists should ignore role morality in favor of ordinary morality. In essence, journalists are sometimes faced with legal duties that conflict with their obligations to maintain confidentiality agreements. An example of such situations is where journalists are required to help law enforcement agencies to maintain justice, especially when these agencies have few to no other sources of information. Since this scenario is an example of such situations, Cooper and Miller should ignore role morality and cooperate with law enforcement agencies in order to maintain justice.

Necessary Considerations and their Effect on Possible Answers:

From a legal perspective, journalists tend to make written agreements with their sources of confidential information with regards to necessary conditions of the confidentiality agreements. Miller's refusal to disclose her source and the eventual 85-day imprisonment was attributed to legal bounds of her confidentiality agreement through a written contract. On the contrary, it's unclear whether Cooper and Novak had written contracts or more conventional oral agreements with their sources of confidential information. These are important facts to consider when examining each of the possible answers.

As previously mentioned, the first possible answer in the scenario is for these journalists to ignore their role morality in favor of ordinary morality. While this solution would help law enforcement agencies in their quest for justice and prevent any harm to the U.S. national security and the CIA agent, it would have significant impacts on the journalists' protection of their sources' trust and that of the general public. The basis for such a solution would be the argument that journalists are ordinary citizens with legal and moral obligations to promote justice just like every other citizen (Quinn, n.d., p.321). Furthermore, this solution would be based on the rationale that journalists do not have a legal obligation to preserve confidential information like doctors and lawyers are required to do about their patients and clients respectively.

However, the suitability of this solution is hindered by several major considerations that make it ineffective to resolve the issue. The main advantage of this solution is that it contributes to maintenance of justice by journalists, especially in situations that could harm the country's national security and innocent people like the undercover agent. In contrast, this solution has more disadvantages that outweigh its overall value in resolving the moral problem.

First, the solution enhances the likelihood of journalists to be used and abused by law enforcement agencies and personnel at will. This is likely to occur because requiring journalists to disclose their sources and violate contractual confidential agreements makes them an illegal branch of law enforcement. The situation is likely to be worse in areas where journalists are not protected by shield laws. Secondly, journalists have never had an authorized professional status requiring them to reveal their sources except in scattered shield laws. These demands are relatively illegal since the federal investigators did not prove that they have few or no alternative sources of information other than the two journalists. Neglecting role morality in favor of ordinary morality would hinder the trust in which the profession's social value is founded.

The second possible solution seems to be the most appropriate solution to resolve the moral problem i.e. journalists should ignore ordinary morality in favor of role morality. Journalists' failure to comply with ordinary morality does not contribute to weakening the justice system as much as it jeopardizes the journalist's public trust by breaking confidential agreements. As evident in many of their ethics codes and conventional practice, these professionals are rarely comfortable in breaking confidentiality agreements because of the probable long-term impacts…

Sources Used in Documents:


Er, R.Y.G. & Xiaoming, H. (2002, December 1). Journalism Ethics: Mainstream vs. Tabloid

Journalists. Asia Pacific Media Educator, 12(9), 139-155. Retrieved from

Quinn, A. (n.d.). Case Study: Breaking a Promise to Prevent a Lie. Journalistic Ethics, pp. 320-

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