Ethics of Intelligence for the Media: Hello world

This post is part of a series about the ethics of intelligence for the media.


When writing about ethics for media practitioners who collect, analyze, or disseminate classified intelligence or hacked material, one should engage with the public as well as with experts; given that journalism is a social profession with ethics that evolve in part from consensus. Moreover, the information landscape has blurred the boundaries between that profession and other actors.

Despite the low cost accessibility of both information and publication today, journalism is about more than those two capabilities taken alone. Journalism has a public mission and social role like traditional professions: namely, the law and medicine. Yet, journalism neither requires an academic degree or "specialized education," nor is it licensed and/or legitimized by the government. Moreover, no organization holds sway over journalists like the American Medical Association (AMA) or the American Bar Association (ABA) does over doctors and lawyers respectively.

Journalism, however, possesses ethics standards regarding its professional practice. Those ethics are determined by both individuals and the "profession as a whole," notes the Society of Professional Journalists. For example, after four years of research between 1997 and 2001, including 20 public forums and a national survey of journalists, a task-force affiliated with the Columbia School of Journalism and now the Pew Research Center identified nine principles of journalism.[1] SPJs "Code of Ethics," also identifies four corresponding primary ones: "[s]eek [t]ruth and [r]eport [i]t;" "[m]inimize [h]arm;" "[a]ct [i]ndependently;" as well as "[b]e accountable and [t]ransparent."

While I continue to solicit feedback from media and intelligence practitioners about what I have written to date, and I have a pending proposal for qualitative and quantitative research I intend to use to backup my final chapter, I have decided to start a conversation with you, using my blog and Twitter feed.

My work on this subject has been underway for some time and is informed by both my educational background in political science (with an emphasis on theory) and applied intelligence; as well as my experience and evolution as an investigative researcher and analyst. My background provides me, I believe, with the rigor and practical experience to dig into this subject in a meaningful way.

What this will look like on my blog going forward is my breaking down into digestible form the work I have done to date, which taken together form a foundation for an ethical framework.

As I post each section, I will provide a table of contents below.

Please send me your ideas and comments email [at] alexaobrien [dot] com or ping me on Twitter.

What Can I Offer Here?

My work examines the ethics of journalism within this developing environment:

  • I will discuss the similarities and differences between journalism and applied intelligence as professions. While journalism and applied intelligence both deal with information, they possess distinct societal roles, which inform their ethics.

  • I will also examine how espionage and journalism have evolved. In an information age with mass or industrial espionage, the media has become both a collector, analyst, and disseminator of intelligence at scale. However, the media has also played both a witting and unwitting role in espionage operations conducted by state and non-state actors. I will also explore journalism ethics within this environment, as well as its limitations and challenges.

  • Preliminarily and in part, I propose that the ethics of journalism in armed conflict is an appropriate model for operating in an environment replete with cyber and information operations.

  • I will also examine more closely the ethics theories of both media and intelligence practitioners, their similarities and differences.

  • I will also explore the social pact that both journalism and the government have and how it informs the ethics of public interest information and intelligence.

  • In the course of my work I will use statements and claims made by organizations to impeach assumptions that collecting, analyzing, or publishing any and all information is ethically or morally relative.

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[1] They are that "[j]ournalism's first obligation is to the truth;" "[i]ts first loyalty is to citizens;" "[i]ts essence is a discipline of verification," "[i]ts practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover;" "[i]t must serve as an independent monitor of power;" "[i]t must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise;" "[i]t must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant;" "[i]t must keep the news comprehensive and proportional;" and finally "[i]t practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience." In addition, another was added in 2007, namely "[c]itizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news."


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