Some news organizations this February faced the same ethical dilemma, but chose different and opposing answers. How should newspapers handle information that may endanger a life?
Monday 21st Feb the Guardian revealed that Raymond Davis, an American now in prison in Lahore after being charged with the murder of two Pakistanis in Lahore, worked for the CIA.
As the article reported, Davis has been subject of widespread speculation since the fatal shooting on 25 January, but the Obama administration said he was an "administrative and technical official" attached to its Lahore consulate and had diplomatic immunity.
Citing a senior Pakistani intelligence official, the Guardian said of David's link with the CIA, "it's beyond a shadow of a doubt".
The paper also revealed that "a number of US media outlets learned about Davis's CIA role but have kept it under wraps at the request of the Obama administration" because his life might me at risk if his identity was divulged.
Among those US news organizations were The New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press, as Yahoo's the Cutline reported.
The Guardian's readers' editor Chris Elliott and NYT's public editor Arthur S. Brisbane both reflected on the matter and showed the completely different approaches of the two papers. Interestingly, this story, which involves big and authoritative news names, shows how many nuances there can be around ethical questions.
"Such decisions are not as rare as readers may think and are not confined to events of high drama on an international stage. It is not unknown for journalists at court to be told by a distressed relative of the person in the dock that publication of the case will lead to the death of the defendant, either at their own hands or at the hands of others. It is not an idle remark", wrote Elliott in the Guardian, trying to explain why the paper decided to publish and whether it was wrong or right in doing it.
The Guardian's correspondent in Islamabad, who wrote the story, spoke to many people involved, including the Punjab law minister and human rights groups and they confirmed all the measures that were taken to ensure Davis' safety. The determining factor, however, which convinced the paper to publish was that Davis' CIA link wasn't actually a secret in Pakistan, as many newspapers described him as a spy and the Pakistan's national paper The Nation, titled on Sunday 20 February "Raymond Davis linked to CIA".
As Elliott reported, the Guardian was contacted by a CIA spokesman, who tried to persuade the paper not to connect Davis to the CIA. The UK security services MI5 also called the Guardian to ask for him not to be identified. The decision was discussed between the correspondent, deputy editor in charge of news Ian Katz, and editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.
Elliott wrote that Katz said the story was about how the CIA behaved abroad and that all the Guardian's investigative work suggested that the Pakistanis were taking exceptional care to keep the agent safe. It was clear that the assumption in Pakistan is that he is CIA, so the question was, what's the risk created by confirming his role?
Rusbridger said: "We were asked by the British government not to run the Yemeni cables during the WikiLeaks investigation because it would undermine the fight against Islamists. We refused. Two months later that looks like the right decision."
At the end, Elliott concluded that it is impossible for newspapers to operate in any effective way without sometimes having to make decisions that could lead to physical harm or reputational damage. The role of newspapers - he argued - is not to shy away from such questions but to apply a set of ethical tests against as much information as they can find - which he thinks happened in this case - and then bear the consequences.
The New York Times took a totally different approach, as Brisbane explained.
In confirming the Guardian's revelations, NYT and other US media had also admitted they had withheld information at the request of the US government.
"As profoundly unpalatable as it is, I think the Times did the only thing it could do" - Brisbane wrote. "Agreeing to the State Department's request was a decision bound to bring down an avalanche of criticism and, even worse, impose serious constraints on The Times's journalism. The alternative, though, was to take the risk that reporting the C.I.A. connection would, as warned, lead to Mr. Davis' death".
"In military affairs, there is a calculus that balances the loss of life against the gain of an objective. In journalism, though, there is no equivalent. Editors don't have the standing to make a judgment that a story -- any story -- is worth a life", he continued.
As Yahoo! article noted, the Washington Post and AP also cited risks to Davis' life as the main reason for holding back the information.
The AP, however, added more details. The news organization noted that it found out Davis was working for the CIA "immediately after the shootings" and stated that it had "intended to report Davis' CIA employment after he was out of harm's way, but the story was broken Sunday by The Guardian", as Yahoo! reported.
Salon's Glenn Greenwald blamed on the NYT's journalistic obedience. "It's one thing for a newspaper to withhold information because they believe its disclosure would endanger lives. But here, the U.S. Government has spent weeks making public statements that were misleading in the extreme -- Obama's calling Davis "our diplomat in Pakistan" -- while the NYT deliberately concealed facts undermining those government claims because government officials told them to do so. That's called being an active enabler of government propaganda", Greenwald wrote.
Defending the NYT's operate Brisbane wrote: "It was a brutally hard call that, for some, damaged The Times's standing. But to have handled it otherwise would have been simply reckless. I'd call this a no-win situation, one that reflects the limits of responsible journalism in the theater of secret war."
Would it be different for the Guardian if it were the MI6 (the UK secret service dealing with international security) to be involved rather than the CIA?
The Yahoo! article noted that "if the government is making statements about Davis' role in Pakistan, wouldn't news organizations have an obligation to refute such claims--or provide important context--if they had the goods? Under normal circumstances, yes. But when the government argues that someone's life could be on the line, editors may pause before publishing".
To define the line between journalistic duty and the risk of compromising intelligence operations or endangering a life could, however, be hard to do.