Frankly, it’s phronesis: ethical insights from an outsider

First, a health warning for ethicists: I am not an ethicist.

Second, it gets worse, a lot worse: I am a journalist.

According to measures of moral credibility, my profession ranks marginally above cold-callers for accident claim firms and hedge fund managers.

Journalism and ethics have had, for want of a better phrase, a bad press of late. Illegal phone-tapping, corrupt payments to officials and the vilification of individuals in wholly appalling circumstances (I am thinking of the treatment of Madeleine McCann’s parents) have not reflected well on the Fourth Estate.

A profession whose fundamental role is to shine a light in awkward, uncomfortable places has found itself squirming under the spotlight; it has not been an edifying spectacle.

Big questions focusing on conduct, accountability and responsibility have been asked and, in truth, the industry is some way off clarifying the new ethical terrain. The rules of media engagement remain muddled. Take the old-fashioned “death knock,” a rite of passage for trainee reporters which entails calling at the home of a bereaved family to ask about the death of a loved one, typically in hugely distressing circumstances. Are such practices now deemed off limits? When does the quest for information and truth become an infringement of privacy?

It was with some relief that I discovered my profession is not alone in facing difficult, seemingly intractable, challenges. In fact, the penny dropped within a few seconds of casting my eye over the programme for the Jubilee Centre’s recent “Character and Virtues in the Professions” conference. You think it is hard being a hack? Try being a nurse.

Nursing was just one of the professions highlighted at the conference. It was fascinating to hear Andrea Hughes, in one of the seminar sessions, report her findings about acute care nurses’ perceptions of so-called bad practice. For just as there are practitioner cock-ups in newspapers, the area of the media in which I have worked predominantly, so there are cock-ups in nursing. Some of the causes are similar (lack of diligence, ethical drift, plain laziness) but the outcomes, generally, are far more serious in hospitals and clinics, where lives are potentially at risk.

Hughes related how the NHS paid out more than £8 billion in negligence claims between 2008-2015 due to medical mistakes. “How many hospitals could you build if you didn’t have to spend that?” she asked delegates. (Birmingham’s new Queen Elizabeth Hospital cost £545 million – so the answer is: “Quite a few.”)

Having experienced newsroom meltdowns, I was interested to hear about the parallel reactions of nurses to bad practice, the reluctance and uncertainty about challenging mistakes and, in particular, the trepidations of challenging senior members of staff.

What I had not appreciated was the personal effect of bad practice on nurses, including feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame. It is suggested that ethical education has an important role to play in stopping professionals being placed in the invidious position of having to turn whistle-blower. Because once the whistle is blown, in a sense it is too late; and in the sphere of critical care, time, or the lack of it, is a crucial factor in patient outcomes. If a reporter is late, he or she may commit the cardinal sin of missing a deadline; if a nurse fails to act with sufficient haste and diligence, the results can prove fatal.

Notions of guilt and shame also featured prominently in a compelling presentation by Georgetown philosophy professor Nancy Sherman, whose book Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of our Soldiers is a must-read for anyone who works in, or is interested in, the psychological trauma experienced by military personnel.

In recent years, 2.6 million US troops have been sent to war, numbers not since seen Vietnam; the soldiers have 4 million “military-connected kids.” Sherman argues that conventional treatments alone are inadequate to deal with the moral dimension of psychological injury: the guilt and shame (recurrent themes in the professions); resentment and indignation; and the feeling of being responsible for doing wrong, or being wronged.

In one of the presentation’s harrowing battlefield examples, Sherman recounted the case of Major Jeffrey Hall, who saw members of an innocent family killed by crossfire in Baghdad. Hall liaised with the surviving family members but bureaucratic incompetence meant it took more than a month for the bodies to be returned for burial. The bodies had not been embalmed and were unrecognisable.

Hall was given just $750 to present to the family as “solace” money for the tragedy. The uncle threw the cash in the dirt. When the major fulfilled the grieving relatives’ final request to obtain death certificates, the paperwork was stamped in bold red: “ENEMY.”

Hall’s moral injury left him feeling suicidal. “My injury has everything to do with betrayal,” he said. Sherman told delegates: “He had the sense that he lost his goodness.”

Now the default position of a good journalist is to be sceptical about everything – and then be sceptical some more. Academics are no exception. So I have been raining scepticism on the subject of character and virtues and confronting the idea that it is possible to teach character and virtues. In my quest for understanding, I have been getting to grips with Aristotelian virtues, deontology and consequentialist theories. Please do not test me yet. My phronesis, frankly, is flaky. But I am working on it. Resilience is my guiding light.

And as I work on it, I am starting to see the huge benefits – for individuals, organisations, stakeholders and society at large – of raising awareness of, and putting into practice, the fundamental workings of what we might, in Major Hall’s words, call goodness.

The Jubilee Centre’s important work, of which the conference was a snapshot, crosses so many personal and professional fields in ways I had not appreciated or imagined. And that, I guess, is the point, albeit the starting point.

Richard McComb, Freelance Journalist


Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: