Politico was justified in publishing a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade this week, several journalists argued Friday.

The Deseret News hosted a panel discussion on ethical journalism as part of the BYU Management Society’s Mid-Atlantic Conference on Moral and Ethical Leadership in Washington. The panel, moderated by Deseret National editor Hal Boyd, included McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic; Dianna Douglas, a freelance podcaster and former NPR journalist; and Nkoyo Iyamba, a freelancer and former KSL journalist.

“This is a no-brainer, that you publish that story as a journalist,” Coppins said, to approving nods from the other two panelists. “They authenticated it best they could. They were very confident that it was real. The Supreme Court subsequently confirmed the validity of the draft while saying that it isn’t necessarily the final ruling.”

Iyamba noted she would draw the line at publishing if it put American national security in jeopardy, but agreed that in the case of informing the public of the Supreme Court, she viewed it as ethical. “In matters of national security, that’s where I really have to think a little harder on releasing information,” she explained.

Douglas said that “shedding light on the workings of government is the job of the press,” but noted that the most consequential part of Monday’s news was the ruling, not the leak. “I will also just anecdotally say that I’ve talked to women all over the country since this thing leaked, and not a single one is talking about the leak of the opinion, but they’re all talking about the opinion,” she said.

Boyd referenced a Deseret News op-ed written this week that argued Politico was not justified in publishing the previously unseen Supreme Court draft, since “reporters and editors must include in their calculus the impact on democratic institutions.” Coppins disputed this, stating that a concern for protecting institutions journalists cover would have negated some of the most important exposes of the last half-century, such as Watergate and the Pentagon Papers.

“It is not the job of journalists to protect the credibility of the government institutions that they cover,” Coppins said. “The job of journalists is to inform the public of what those institutions are doing.”

Opinion: Did Politico do the right thing? A BYU journalism professor weighs in on the leaked Roe v. Wade document

A significant portion of the panel was spent discussing declining trust in American media, and what journalists and readers alike can do to resurrect confidence in the “fourth estate.” Boyd cited data from Gallup suggesting Americans’ trust in mass media is nearing an all-time low. While 55% of Americans trusted the media in 1999, that number has since slipped to 36%.

The panelists acknowledged that rebuilding trust in the media is a joint effort of journalists and the public writ large. Douglas said that unethical practices by some journalists — like unfairness to the communities they cover or “punching down” — quickly erode trust. Iyamba suggested that all individuals go through some sort of media training, helping them to better understand the media’s role and how the general populace can best engage.

Coppins admitted that much of the declining trust in media is “self-inflicted,” but he recognized that some of it may stem from political polarization. “I also think that there is a lot of political upside by candidates of various stripes to demonize the media and that’s contributed to it,” he said.

Podcaster and former NPR journalist Dianna Douglas, center, discusses journalism ethics as freelance journalist Nkoyo Iyamba, left, and McKay Coppins, a writer for The Atlantic, listen during a panel discussion at the BYU Management Society’s Mid-Atlantic Conference on Moral and Ethical Leadership in Washington, D.C., on May 6, 2022. The Deseret News hosted the panel. | T.J. Kirkpatrick, for the Deseret News

Coppins made the case that the decline of local news plays a significant role, too. “Since 2000, a quarter of local newspapers have closed in America,” he said. “And the ones that remain are hollowed out.” Coppins’ October 2021 cover story for The Atlantic explored the impact of hedge fund Alden Global Capital on local newspapers.

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Readers can play a role in holding the media accountable, Iyamba said. “Take it upon yourself to be educated on news practices,” Iyamba said. “If somebody reports something that sounds ridiculous to you, you’ll say, ‘No’ … because you know better.”

“I just hope that everybody here sees that journalists are just really nice moms and dads,” Douglas said.

The panel discussion was part of the BYU Management Society’s two-day conference on Moral and Ethical Leadership. Earlier in the day, presenters included Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins and Theranos whistleblower Tyler Shultz. Also in attendance were the deans of Brigham Young University’s business and law schools, Brigitte C. Madrian and D. Gordon Smith, respectively.

The keynote speaker during Friday’s Rex Lee Lunch, hosted by the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, was Thomas Griffith, former judge on the Court of Appeals of the D.C. Circuit. He spoke about increasing polarization in the U.S. politic and echoed President Dallin H. Oaks’ injunction to “moderate and unify” in “contested” issues.

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