Lesson 2: Access To Information During A Crisis

Significant Choice Ethical Framework

An important ethical principle that can be applied to crisis communication involves the concept of significant choice, because a crisis has the potential to create great harm while disrupting daily routines. Based on the significant choice ethical framework, individuals must be given enough information to make a reasoned decision. 

According to Nilsen, significant choice is “choice based on the best information available when the decision must be made."

He believes that a good share of human dignity resides in the capacity to make rational decisions. Nilsen defined the concept of the ethic of significant choice as choice making that is voluntary, free from physical or mental coercion, and based on all the information available when the decision must be made. Significant choice is founded on the principle that when a group has vital information the public needs in order to make important decisions concerning their well-being, that information must be disseminated as completely and accurately as possible. It represents the ideal circumstances for free and informed decision-making. Nilsen explains the role of communication in significant choice: “When we communicate to influence the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of others, the ethical touchstone is the degree of free, informed, and critical choice on matters of significance in their lives that is fostered by our speaking.” 

Therefore, the holder of key information – whether individual or organizational – has power when it controls the communication process, as well as the obligation to use that power ethically.

For example, organizations dealing with toxic chemicals have an ethical obligation to inform residents of the surrounding community if there is a risk of contamination, so community members can understand their options, and make informed choices on how to respond. Similarly, when a hurricane is approaching, the government agencies have an obligation to inform residents of the potential destructive power and approximate arrival time of the threat, so the residents will make decisions on protection of their property and evacuation.

Next Page: Five Standards For Significant Choice