Getting rid of the mumbo jumbo: ethics for mixed media

Stephen J.A. Ward

Stephen WardThe language of journalism ethics today is like bad Irish stew – a mishmash of different and conflicting ideas, rules, and practices.

Ethical mumbo-jumbo.

Consider two recent stories, one involving Canadian journalists, the other American.

In a recent column for J-Source, Bill Gillespie, CBC Radio’s security correspondent, explained how he and four Canadian journalists waited two hours before reporting dramatic testimony at a preliminary hearing for Omar Khadr at Guantanamo Bay.

In mid-January, FBI Agent Robert Fuller testified that, in his 2002 interrogation of Khadr, the latter identified Maher Arar from a picture. Fuller testified that Khadr said he had seen Arar at Al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan and perhaps at an Al Qaeda training camp.

Given that Arar has been cleared of such terrorist allegations by the O’Connor Commission, the reporters knew they had a big story.

Yet the five reporters could not be sure that the Arar mentioned by Fuller was the same Arar that was the focus of the O’Connor Commission. So they agreed not to publish the testimony until this fact was verified at a briefing later.

Gillespie thinks the decision to delay publication shows that journalists are responsible. I agree. It was a responsible decision — according to established rules of journalism ethics.

But what if a freelance blogger or citizen journalist had heard the testimony? Or, what if a web journalist for a mainstream publication was present? Would the testimony been posted immediately? Probably. Would it have been wrong to do so? If the values of online journalism are immediacy and transparency, why should the old rules apply?

These questions show that it is too easy to blame the state of journalism on unethical online journalists. The main difficulty is that existing rules are increasingly inadequate and we are not sure what the new rules should be. As a result, we talk in confusing ways. We talk mumbo jumbo.

The American example is no less vexing.

Clark Hoyt, public editor of The New York Times, recently criticized his paper’s coverage of Caroline Kennedy’s ill-fated campaign to become a New York senator. After she withdrew her candidacy, staff in the office of New York

Governor David Paterson led a media campaign to distance the governor from her. The vehicle? The old tactic of “anonymous sources” made even more dangerous by the pressure of online news.

On the afternoon of Jan. 22, Times reporters Danny Hakim and Nicolas Confessore posted on the paper’s web site their report: “Taxes and a Housekeeper are said to Derail Kennedy’s Bid.” The story quoted “a person close to Gov. David A. Paterson” as saying the governor had never meant to appoint Kennedy “because it was clear she wasn’t ready for prime time,” and she had withdrawn for tax and “nanny” problems.

This is a case of letting someone use you, as a reporter, to take a cheap shot. The code of ethics for the Canadian Association of Journalists condemns this practice.

Later, the same reporters constructed better contextualized reports, explained that the tax and nanny problems were exaggerated, and reported on the orchestrated leak. But Hoyt rightly noted that the later stories do not justify the first story where Kennedy “took an unfair hit.”

Hoyt wrote: “The episode highlights a great fear in newsrooms, including the Times’s: that the Internet, with its emphasis on minute-to-minute competition, is undermining the values of the print culture.” He said: “This is where the print newspaper and the digital newspaper are colliding.”

If the print and online cultures are colliding, what is to be done? Circling the wagons to protect the old rules is an unrealistic response. A better option is for newsrooms and journalism associations to develop, through intensive review, new ethical rules supported by new forms of newsroom organization.

The challenge is to develop norms that stretch across the newsroom yet are responsive to specific forms of media.

I think it is time for the Canadian Association of Journalists to ask its ethics advisory committee to update the CAJ’s codes of ethics so that it becomes a code for mixed media – an exemplar for other organizations. Also, perhaps the CAJ, or some other agency, could hold a round of workshops where journalists develop mixed media ethics.

Meanwhile, at the Times, a newsroom ‘reinvention’ committee is addressing the issue, led by Susan Edgerley, an assistant managing editor. She says a reorganization can provide more editing resources through the day to deal with the 24/7 nature of the web. Print editors are being trained to handle the web, and web producers are being developed into more assertive story editors.  

“You weigh speed against whether the story is ready for publication,” she said. ‘Is this story ready for publication?’ wins out. Everybody knows that.”

Everybody? Maybe at the Times. But then there is that Kennedy story.

The invention of mixed media ethics is not impossible. What is needed is leadership in ethics, new and creative editorial structures, and sustained discussion.

If journalists take up this discussion, mumbo jumbo will give way to a clearer and more useful ethical language for journalists, and for the public.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of  UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.