Sunset Thoughts and a Moral Dilemma


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As I stepped out of the Herald student newspaper office at nearly 9 p.m. tonight, after eight long hours of work, a beautiful sight greeted my tired eyes. A narrow band of the sky glowed mellow orange and pink entwined with stormy black -- only on its western edge -- while the surrounding horizon swathed itself in utter darkness.

That colorful, yet slim band of light and beauty was being crowded from above by darker forces trying to push it down and squelch its cheer.

The effect of the scene on my spirit was instantaneous. I immediately remembered why my mind has been so clouded and restless today. I remembered it all in a flash, and sighed, knowing I would need to write it all out in order to deal with the thoughts and feelings I'd been pushing back all day.

The problem stemmed from a heavy ethical discussion this morning in my Mass Media Law class. Honestly, I think I've learned more from that class this semester than in all the others combined. But along with its good and positive lessons, it brings an equal amount of the dark, troubling aspects that tend to burden my soul.

Today was such a day. We sat discussing a chapter about Media and the Justice System, and the role members of the news media should or should not play as we exercise our First Amendment privileges to cover trials and interview criminals.

The sub point we stopped on longest posed the question of whether a journalist should a) grant anonymity to sources and b) if so, when that anonymity should be compromised in favor of a greater good.

The hypothetical our professor posed was this... (Disclaimer: This is not supposed to be a real-life scenario)...

You are a respected journalist with a reputation for accurate reporting. You are approached by (or you approach) a gang member or serial killer who has agreed to let you interview him about his recent crimes, only on condition that his name, identity and likeness will be kept completely confidential. You agree, in light of the fact that the murders are unsolved (police are still investigating) and you believe the story needs to be publicized. BUT, then when you begin to interview the killer you learn he is planning two, if not three more murders. He gives you vivid detail about locations, people, planned weapons, the whole deal. You write your story without using his name; only you and your editor know the source's identity. The police eventually indict several suspects for the murders, and they read your story, and subpoena you as a witness to the trial, presumably because you know the prime suspect's identity.

Do you go, and give up your source in the name of preventing him from killing more people, or do you resist the subpoena with an explanation of your qualified constitutional right to resist disclosing your sources?

I could not answer this question in class.

Now if you've ever taken a class with me you'll know there are very few instances in which I remain silent when a question is posed. I almost always have a response of some sort, whether it is my final conclusion or just a brash initial reaction.

This time I was torn.

I believe justice is one of the most important virtues humans can pursue. It is a desire planted innately within our hearts by a God who is a God of justice. Furthermore, human life is granted by Him and protected by Him.

But I also know the function of the media. I know we are supposed to be third-party agents, not controlled or connected to the government and its justice system, and certainly not agents of law enforcement. We report the news; we don't make it, and we don't provide its antidote.

To maintain credibility, the word of a journalist is everything. Once given, it should be binding.

So the question left in my mind, is how do I, as a Christian, balance those two objectives?

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