If you were a newspaper editor, would you run a picture of a young woman and toddler falling from a fire escape? Of a man plunging to his death from the World Trade Center on 9/11?
If you were a reporter witnessing heartbreaking scenes as you documented the lives of children sharing homes with drug addicts and alcoholics, what would it take to make you intervene?
If you were a reporter writing a blog, would you let your inner snark out to play?
Journalism's moral landscape is littered with tough questions, some as old as the manual typewriter, some as new as the Internet. In a new book, written as a text for journalism students, former Inquirer managing editor Gene Foreman draws on half a century of journalism experience to chart a path through the thicket.
Foreman's book, The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News (Wiley-Blackwell, $59.95), is a practical guide to ethics for novice newsies and veterans alike - and for anyone interested in the media. Using case studies, anecdotes, and short essays, the book focuses on the real-life experiences of working journalists, both print and broadcast.
Foreman, who taught journalism at Pennsylvania State University until 2006 after retiring from The Inquirer in 1998, discovered during 16 semesters in the classroom that journalism ethics textbooks tended to rely on theory rather than example.
"What a lot of the current books do is to say, 'You figure it out,' " Foreman says. "I think [students] ought to know, 'Here are the consensus guidelines in the profession.' Here are all the experiences, good and bad, that practicing journalists have had."
He opens with a dramatic account of the dilemma that journalists at the Portland Oregonian faced when they covered the assisted suicide, permitted by Oregon law, of a 62-year-old woman who was dying of lung cancer.
The Oregonian staffers, Foreman writes, asked themselves whether their coverage would influence the woman's actions: "Would she feel free to change her mind? After all the attention, would she feel obligated to go ahead and take the lethal dose?"
Sitting in the basement den of his home in St. Davids, Foreman, 74, white-haired, and soft-spoken, talked about the 24 case studies at the heart of the book. (Others are on its Web site.) Each focuses on an ethical dilemma: How close to a source is too close? When is a photo or videotape too disturbing to run? When is it time to become a participant instead of an observer?
Case studies have caught on as a journalism teaching tool.
"Today's news environment, with its unending deadlines, requires split-second judgments," says Robert Schmuhl, director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.
"Journalists need to develop strong ethical instincts as students, so they perform with moral sensitivity in their later work," Schmuhl says. "Case studies help condition the mind and prepare future news people to make sound decisions under pressure."
David Boeyink, associate professor of journalism at Indiana University, also favors using case studies - so strongly that he and a colleague also have written a textbook built around them, Making Hard Choices in Journalism Ethics: Cases and Practice, to be published in spring by Routledge.
Journalism ethics has spent "too much time focusing on top-down reasoning as a way of resolving ethical issues," Boeyink says by phone. Students need to learn how to make decisions "from the bottom up, focusing largely on the details of cases."
Such an approach doesn't produce canned solutions. "Even when you talk something through, people have different opinions on what was the right thing to do," says Fred Brown, retired political writer for the Denver Post and vice chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee.
Case studies help students learn to ask the right questions, says Brown, lead editor for a journalism ethics book, with 50 case studies, that SPJ plans to publish next year.
Foreman says the primary ethical issue for journalism, as it has always been, "is getting the story right, putting it in the right context, being accurate, being fair."
One of the most important lessons, he says, is that journalists must recognize and set aside their biases when covering news. "The book says that bias exists in journalism because it is a subjective art and there are innumerable steps in the process of reporting and editing the news that journalists' biases can filter in," he says.
"Early in my career, I personally detested Gov. Orval Faubus," the segregationist governor of Arkansas, "but when I covered him, I treated him fairly."
Foreman winds up his book with a chapter on ethical challenges nobody could have imagined when he started out in Arkansas back in 1957.
One is the financial difficulties that plague newspapers these days.
Newspapers have a social responsibility to provide readers with the information they need to "make governing decisions as a citizen," Foreman says. "If we fail to do that, because of lack of resources, then we've failed an ethical obligation."
News organizations need to create a new business model to support journalism, Foreman says, but nobody has come up with one so far.
The Internet, with its "blink of the eye" immediacy, poses a special ethical challenge, he says. Because it's a new medium, some journalists think the old rules don't apply.
The common practice of allowing newspaper staffers to write unedited blogs for online readers annoys him.
"I detest that," he says with understated vehemence that is as close as he comes to swearing. "I've read arguments written by intelligent people who say, 'Let's let the readers be our editors, that if we get something wrong, they call us, we check it out, and we put up a correction.' Now, this is really, really bad because harm can be done by erroneous information getting online."
Online, on paper, on cable, on air - the ways of delivering news may change, Foreman says, but the ethical challenges endure.