Going radical: We need a substantial change in the way we talk about ethics

New codes will need to recognize that activist journalism in its many forms will continue to be one of the many ways to use media. But, when are journalists ‘agenda-driven activists’ and when are they ‘investigative journalists with a valid cause’? 

By Stephen J. A.

New codes will need to recognize that activist journalism in its many forms will continue to be one of the many ways to use media. But, when are journalists ‘agenda-driven activists’ and when are they ‘investigative journalists with a valid cause’? 

By Stephen J. A. Ward for Media magazine


Media technologies have transformed journalism into a global, interactive enterprise practiced by an unusual cast of characters. Every day, networks of professionals, citizens, bloggers, politicians, activists and others commit a million acts of journalism. This new media ecology questions the scope of traditional principles, while calling for new norms.

Journalism ethics, once the somewhat sleepy domain of mainstream codes of ethics, too often presumed to be invariant, is now a dynamic, chaotic space of contested values.

The task for a future journalism ethics is clear: We need to create a new, more complex, and conceptually deeper ethics for responsible communication. But what would such an ethics look like? Given the pace of change, predicting the future is hazardous. Nevertheless, I venture to say what we need to do if journalism ethics — clinging to traditional ideas — is not to sink into oblivion.


Going ‘radical’

To begin with, we need to engage in what I call “radical media ethics.” The changes in media and society are so revolutionary that we must be radical by rethinking the purposes and principles of responsible journalism. We need to realize that a non-radical (or conservative) strategy of trying only to extend existing norms, or creating ad hoc policies for each quandary created by the evolving universe of media, is not enough.

We need to systematically re-think journalism ethics from the ground up.

Non-radical ethics was still in force when I chaired the first ethics committee for the Canadian Association of Journalists at the turn of this century. Our aim was to create the CAJ’s first code of ethics. It seemed that “journalism ethics” meant normative thinking which was: (1) professional: codes were for professional journalists and journalism associations. (2) mainstream and parochial: codes were (mainly) guides for newspapers and broadcasters, spelling out how they were to serve their parochial publics, whether their public be the citizens of their city or of their nation. Journalism ethics did not cross borders; (3) traditional and non-radical. There was still some confidence that long-existing principles of professional journalism were adequate and generally agreed upon. For the founding ethics committee, online media was on the horizon. But it loomed as a future challenge for code makers.

Note how things have changed over a decade or more. Journalism ethics is becoming part of a larger media ethics which deals with norms of media usage by almost everyone. Ethics is more open and inclusive, bursting out beyond the walls of newsrooms and mainstream practice. At the same time, journalism ethics is going “global,” redefining its norms for a global world. The task of a radical media ethics, then, is to invent principles and practices that integrate old and new media, and expand our vision of journalism ethics beyond one’s borders.


Future code of ethics

What does being radical in one’s ethical thinking mean in the concrete? Let’s use our moral imaginations. Let’s imagine what future ethics codes might look like.

Future codes will not jettison principles of good communication such as the obligation to seek and verify the truth independently, without bias or conflicts of interest. But the new codes will have to be

much more precise about how those principles can co-exist (and guide) the many new forms of journalism. Moreover, the new codes will have to add entirely new sections dealing with emerging ethical issues. Some of the new components of future codes will be:

Ethics of new media ecologies: Future codes will have sections on the ethics of doing journalism according to alternate economic models. These areas include (a) nonprofit journalism based on foundations and donors; (b) brand journalism: corporations that do their own journalism to “brand” their company and products; (c) journalism within academia: Increasingly, new and inventive forms of journalism are located within the walls of academia, and therefore may be subject to the inescapable politics of academia. What does independent journalism mean in these environments?

Ethics of how to use new media: Future codes will provide clear rules for guiding journalists in what they should (or should not) say on their own web sites, Twitter feeds, and social media pages? They will clarify the acceptable limits of commentary by reporters who also represent newsrooms committed to impartial reporting? Codes will also provide detailed guidelines on how and when newsrooms should use material from the Internet.

Ethics of interpretation and opinion: The era of news objectivity as “just the facts” is dead and gone. Interpretive and point-of-view journalism grows. Traditional ethics has had little to say about how editors should evaluate interpretation and opinion. New codes need to fill this gap by re-defining objectivity and giving journalistic meaning to “informed commentary,” “insightful analysis,” and “good interpretation.”

Ethics of activism: New codes will need to recognize that activist journalism in its many forms will continue to be one of the many ways to use media. But, when are journalists ‘agenda-driven activists’ and when are they ‘investigative journalists with a valid cause’? What are the types of activist journalism? Many NGOs, academic web sites and community organizations are engaging in what I call “media ethics activism.” These groups, unhappy with mainstream coverage of certain issues, create their own forms of ethical journalism, from hyper-local community web sites to blogs that monitor human rights abuses. Rather than dismiss all forms of activist journalism as biased, how can we think more subtly about the values of activist journalism?

Ethics of global journalism: The new codes (and new thinking in ethics, generally) will need to reconstruct the role of journalism in global terms, including new sections on how media should cover global issues so as to avoid bias due to patriotic feelings or nationalism.

Ethics of democratic media: The ‘democratization’ of media implies falsely that the spread of publication tools entails greater democracy and more democratic forms of journalism. ‘Democratized’ journalists may engage in ranting and intolerant broadsides, exacerbating tensions within plural societies.

Therefore, how the news media discusses issues, encourages multi-perspectival dialogue, and informs citizens is crucial to deciding whether one’s media system is not just free, but also democratic. Journalism ethics needs to think more deeply about the meaning of democracy and democratic media.

Radical media ethics, therefore, means a willingness to adopt a new attitude towards media ethics, including journalism ethics. It means a willingness to engage in philosophical questioning of principles, to consider new norms, and to look at media from a cosmopolitan perspective.

Already, a large number of journalists, scholars, associations and news organizations appear to be willing to think radically.

For example, the CAJ’s current ethics committee has been leading the way in formulating guidelines for journalists’ personal use of new media and other issues. News organizations, from the New York Times and the BBC to nonprofit investigative centres, are creating guidelines for doing journalism in a digital world.

Finally, radical ethics has implications for the teaching of media ethics. We need to teach a ‘media ethics for everyone’ across the university and not confine media ethics to a course in journalism schools.

Moreover, the teaching of media ethics should not be the static examination of accepted principles; nor should it be the dismissal of mainstream standards. Instead, radical teaching should be an exploration of how a new ethics can emerge from the ashes of a previous ethical consensus.

Students should explore the possible integration of ideas. They should consider how old and new ideas might come together to create a dynamic and relevant media ethics that is badly needed by journalists and citizens. If we do all of this, we will be truly radical.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the incoming director at the George S. Turnbull Center, the Portland base of the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication. 

This column was originally published in the latest issue of the Canadian Association of Journalists' Media magazine and has been republished here with permission.