© Media Watch 11 (1) 50-66, 2020
ISSN 0976-0911 | E-ISSN 2249-8818
What Is It Good For? Towards A Millian Utility Model for Ethical Terrorism Coverage
Philip A. Stauffer Todd
Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication
The University of Oklahoma, USA
Journalism, the “first draft of history” (i.e. Barth, 1943, p. 667), often drafts a history of tragedy and violence – “the oldest kinds of stories” (Coté & Simpson, 2000, p. 3). Throughout history, war and storytelling are intractably linked: “Because of the far-reaching effects of war, we want to know as much about it as possible. For that … we turn to media” (Copeland, 2005, p. xvii). However, because war “has no equivalent in a settled, civil society” (Walzer, 1977, p. 127), historians and journalists alike perennially struggle to find a framework suitable for investigating and reporting it. In much of the ongoing public discourse surrounding war – as well as its coverage –arguments on both issues often resonate with the philosophy of utilitarianism. More than 150 years after its publication, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism continues to exert a perennial influence in philosophical musings on both war and journalism. Utilitarian arguments appear especially in discussions of just war theory (JWT), a consequentialist tradition that demands that wars must be justifiable in why they start, how they are fought, and how they end. Most recently, William H. Shaw (2011) synthesized disparate elements of debate into what he called a new utilitarian war principle (UWP) for considering recourse to war. Increasingly, war coverage focuses more on the experience of those fighting and less on why and how they fight. In 2004, The New York Times published an unprecedented apology for failing to do enough of the latter in its coverage leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq the previous year. Reviewing Mill’s Utilitarianism, and building on recent Millian scholarship, this paper reacts to this confessed failure by proposing a more utilitarian model for how journalists might more comprehensively cover the wars we wage – especially when terror is a tactic, and the media itself risks complicity in amplifying the effect of the action.
Keywords: Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, war, terrorism, journalism, media ethics
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Philip A. Stauffer Todd (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma, USA, 2019) is an independent scholar and media practitioner. His research interests include media literacy, media ethics and law, new media, ethnomusicology, and cultural studies.