Journalism values accuracy and facts. But as videos go viral on social media and are accepted by their vast audiences as indisputable evidence of what occurred at a certain place and time, the line of what journalists use to back up their reported facts has started to blur into questionably ethical territory. Seasoned Atlantic writer James Fallows fell into this trap when publicly commenting on a video that appeared to depict a confrontation between a group of high school students from Covington Kentucky and a Native American elder in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on January 18, 2019.
Before obtaining a fuller picture, numerous media outlets were quick to criticize the Covington Catholic High School students for taunting the Native Americans on the Mall, but then reversed their position when more videos and information surfaced. The incident serves as a useful demonstration of the tensions in journalism between speed and accuracy and between reporting based on perception and on provable fact. It also highlights the power of social media to time and again tempt us to react to a controversy without the requisite humility and courtesy we might afford one another in a face-to-face disagreement.
The Senate’s consideration of William Barr for Attorney General has brought renewed attention to the legal rules and ethical norms that apply to the recusal of government attorneys and to the independence of law enforcement officials. At this time, it is worth revisiting the commitments made by attorneys Elliot Richardson and William Saxbe when they were nominated, successively, by Richard Nixon to be attorney general during the Watergate investigation. Famously, Richardson committed to “pursue the truth wherever it may lead” and to do so “without fear or favor and with regard solely to the public interest.” In other words, legal rules and ethical norms must apply irrespective of the politics of the day or the identity of the President.
Should the Attorney General and other government attorneys be asked to go above and beyond statutory requirements and the rules of professional responsibility? How should the Attorney General balance Department of Justice policy and a broader obligation to the public interest? Can we find guidance in other ethical frameworks, such as the Indian concept of dharma, which suggests that when civic and private interests conflict one should prioritize civic responsibilities?
In a world in which democratically elected governments seem increasingly unable to enact policy while large companies exercise outsized influence, what is the appropriate role of a corporation? Is it solely to maximize profits? The world’s two largest asset management companies made headlines this month: Vanguard Group for the passing of its founder John C. Bogle, who popularized the index fund, and BlackRock Inc. for Larry Fink’s annual letter to CEOs. Institutional investors, such as Vanguard and BlackRock, now own approximately two-thirds of U.S. equities and thus can exert broad influence over managerial practices. While Fink’s motivations and effectiveness may be debated, institutional investors will continue to shape discussions of corporate purpose. This op-ed examines Fink’s call to view social purpose as a company’s “fundamental reason for being” and as inextricably linked with profitability.
He Jiankui, a Chinese biophysicist, claims that he has edited twin human embryonic genomes with a new technology called CRISPR-Cas9 to produce the first humans born with artificially edited genomes. The reception by the scientific community has been primarily one of intense criticism. Despite being impressed by He’s state-of-the-art technology, leading researchers have described this as a “failure of self-regulation.” He’s work raises questions regarding how broadly a medical researcher’s responsibility extends to the potential unintended consequences of his or her work and how critical is that researcher’s obligation to existing patients who may benefit from unrefined research and technology.
He, a researcher at China’s Southern
University of Science and Technology, edited a gene, named CCR5, which provides
the route by which HIV infects the immune system. Given the high prevalence of
HIV in China, removing both copies of CCR5 would theoretically protect someone
from contracting HIV. One of the twins, whose genome He manipulated, had both
copies of the gene removed, while the other only had one gene successfully
removed by the technology (meaning that he would still be at risk for HIV).
Regardless of this difference, the parents decided to have both embryos
implanted in the mother.
The literature regarding the ethics of
gene editing usually breaks down into a discussion regarding cure vs
enhancement. Interestingly, He’s actions are an example of enhancement for the
sake of disease prevention.
The backlash has been severe. Some have stated flatly that this technology was not ready for human application, while others wished He had targeted other genes for elimination that would cure a disease, like Huntington’s or Tay-Sachs. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has condemned this work, the top scientific societies in China have stated that He violated human rights laws, and Francis Collins (director of the US National Institute of Health) has called for the development of a “binding international consensus” to regulate this type of research. A secondary ethical dilemma wrapped into this case is how scientific norms are discovered, agreed upon, and enforced, and whether medical scientists are bounded by these norms even at the potential expense of a particular patient.