Toward a new ethics: Reflections on a timely conference

Stephen J.A. Ward
May 12, 2010

On April 30, leading journalists, media scholars and students participated in “New Journalism-New Ethics?” the second annual conference of the Center for Journalism Ethics. Sessions ranged from the issues of nonprofit journalism to how journalists should use social media.

Center Director Stephen J. Ward surveys the conference, and argues that the intense discussion signaled a shift in journalism ethics.

For some time I’ve argued that, despite deep disagreement about old and new media, journalists are gradually converging upon a new ethics.

The goal is an ethics for mixed media – an ethics that contains principles and best practices for old and new forms of journalism, old and new tools of communication.

The “New Journalism-New Ethics” conference signaled that, after years of deep ethical disagreement, old and new media journalists are moving gradually towards a mixed media ethics. They are constructing a vocabulary for the responsible use of social media, Twitter, and other technologies.

Today’s media revolution is following a familiar historical pattern.

Typically, revolutions in journalism ethics move through three stages: crisis (radical disagreement), rapprochement (a coming together to discuss problems), and integration (a new ethical consensus). Over time, an existing paradigm of journalism ethics is replaced by a new and more adequate paradigm.

During a crisis, there is little agreement about what ethical norms are still valid for both old and new media. Traditional journalists and new media journalists are at loggerheads. Eventually, crisis is replaced by rapprochement, as journalists come together to construct the new ethics that is gradually affirmed by many journalists.

For about the past six years or more, journalism ethics has been in the crises stage.

But as I listened to the conference discussion, I saw hopeful signs of rapprochement – or at least the recognition that rapprochement is the only positive way forward. Going back to defend the old values is not sufficient. But rejecting all of the old core values is tantamount to ethical suicide -- opening the door to unethical journalism en masse.

The mood in the room was positive -- a felt need for serious work on redefining journalism ethics for all media platforms. Let me point to examples of this attitude by noting the take-home messages of several speakers and panel sessions:

DR. STEPHEN WARD is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics, and endowed chair in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the school. Prof. Ward took up the positions of chair and director in August, 2008. Previously, he was director of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

He is the author of the The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond. The book, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, won the 2005–2006 Harold Adams Innis Prize from the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences for the best English-language scholarly book in the social sciences.  Also, he is co-editor of Media Ethics Beyond Borders: A Global Perspective, published by Heinemann Publications of South Africa in June 2008.

1. The opening speaker, Charles Lewis of the Investigative Reporting Workshop stressed that, given the decline in mainstream media, journalists have to look to nonprofit models of journalism, which can involve difficult relationships with donors and foundations.  In a perfect world, journalists would just do journalism and not raise funds. However, it is not a perfect world. The challenge is to extend journalism ethics to the new problems of nonprofit journalism.

 2. The second session presented the recommendations for best practices for nonprofit newsrooms as endorsed by a recent roundtable (journalismethics.info). The report, “Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom,” co-produced by this center, strove to define ethics in this new journalistic environment, bringing old and new values together.  The message was not only that such an ethics is possible but that it is in the process of being created.

3. The keynote speaker, Jon Sawyer, titled his address: “Bridging the Gaps: Holding True to Old-Media Values in a New Media World” (journalismethics.info). His talk stressed how difficult it can be to deal with the ethical problems that -arise when a non-profit organization is employing journalists from around the world to investigate issues neglected by mainstream media. The very title of Saywer’s talk spoke to the pressing need for rapprochement of old and new, and of careful ethical thinking in the new areas of journalism.

5. Similar themes were expressed during the last two sessions on whether verification in the fast-paced world of journalism is still possible and on the responsible use of social media.  During the verification session, Scott Cohn of CNBC said twitter was not journalism since it was not vetted for accuracy. Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune said verification standards are not changing. The difference is that journalists are under pressure to report more quickly. But some in the audience argued that you can’t disconnect the journalistic process from the standards. If journalists are being asked to work more quickly how can this not alter standards?

In the closing session, Alfred Hermida, the Canadian social media guru, (www.reportr.net/) opened the discussion by declaring Twitter to be legitimate journalism. Then Hermida and journalism professor Katy Culver, who teaches social media at UW-Madison, made a strong case for using new media in ways that engage people but without violating basic ethical standards. Rather than dismiss social media, the task is to find new ways to understand it and new ways to use it responsibly.

The new open ethics

The conference showed that we are beginning to think our way through the maze of problems and opportunities offered by new media and nonprofit journalism. We can still expect disagreements, but the discussion is becoming more constructive.

This is the way that journalism ethics has evolved since the origin of modern journalism in the 17th century. The institutional structure and ethos of our free press, and its many types of practice, is too informal and complex for ethical change to come about in an orderly fashion, e.g. by decree from one journalistic body.

In journalism ethics, practice is primary. Ideas change through a messy, democratic debate about new developments which are driven by economic, technological, and social factors. Journalistic attitudes and practices change through trial and error. Journalists often learn by watching others try out new ventures.

In every media revolution, concerned and responsible journalists need to lead the discussion; to stand up and be counted; to insist on standards even in a changing environment.

This is exactly what the conference participants did.

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