Let the public help guide journalism ethics

Stephen J. A. Ward

Stephen WardFor too long, journalists have indulged in cant about how their standards meet the expectations of the public, and how they seek public input on ethical issues.

Even textbooks make the public an important player. The sub-title of the popular The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel is: What Newspeople Should Know and The Public Should Expect.

How do we know what the public expects, or should expect? The only way is to engage the public in a dialogue on standards, in a direct, meaningful and sustained manner.

But here’s the rub: Let anyone try to make this “public-guided” conception of journalism a reality and what happens? Opposition – and lots of it – from the professionals.

The naked truth behind much of the opposition is this: Some journalists have scant respect for the public. They prefer to make decisions from behind a high newsroom wall. Ethics is their business, thank you very much.

Take, for example, a recent attempt at public discussion by the Washington News Council (WNC) in Seattle.

The state news council received a complaint from Secretary of State Sam Reed against KIRO7 Eyewitness News, a CBS affiliate. Reed complained that two stories (aired Oct. 15 and Nov. 3, 2008) about voting irregularities were “incorrect” and “sensationalized.” Reed had previously asked KIRO to air corrections and remove the stories from its website.

KIRO did not reply to the WNC’s invitation to respond to the complaint. It did remove the stories from its website, although the station has indicated that it stands by the stories. Eventually, Reed decided not to seek a public WNC hearing.

With the complaint process stalled, the council took an unprecedented step. It held a “virtual public hearing” on the complaint. The WNC invited citizens to view the stories, read the complaint, then vote and comment as a Citizens Online News Council.

Of about 100 people who voted online, only a few defended KIRO while most supported Reed’s position.       

The facts surrounding the complaint are not what interest me in this column.

What interests me are two other things. First, I wonder whether the virtual hearing suggests a new way to involve the public in ethics. Second, I disagree with a negative and incomplete response by the national ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Rather than seeing some validity in the process, the committee issued a statement May 8 that attacked the virtual hearing as a gimmick and called for the experiment to be abandoned.

The committee said “public polling shouldn’t be used to render ethics judgments about journalism,” and the poll was unscientific. “The news council is wrong to emulate the ‘American Idol’ model of voting for a ‘winner,'” said Andy Schotz, chairman of the SPJ’s Ethics Committee. “Gimmickry is a major step backward if the council wants to appear professional and credible.”

This is a heavy-handed reaction to an interesting experiment.

Attacking the poll as unscientific is too easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel. Of course the poll isn’t scientific. It was never meant to be. It was a well-intentioned attempt to give an important case a public hearing. As John Hamer, WNC’s executive director, has stated: “This latest ‘public polling’ — admittedly an experiment — was simply an effort to expand that discussion by taking it online.”

Attacking the poll is also too easy because it avoids serious issues. Why didn’t the committee call on KIRO to reply to the news council, to explain the removal of the stories, or at least publicly discuss the stories? If the SPJ believes in public input, as I believe it does, then it should state what other alternatives for public discussion were possible in this case. It might even offer to sponsor (or otherwise support) one of those alternatives.

The real kicker in the statement are these concluding comments: “The experiment should be abandoned, the Ethics Committee believes. Discussions of journalism ethics are often complex and nuanced. Frequently, there’s no single ‘right’ decision.”

Such statements sound paternalistic and arrogant. Hamer, in response to the SPJ statement, states: “After all, if members of the public shouldn’t be asked ‘to render ethics judgments about journalism,’ who should? Only journalists?  If no other profession can credibly police itself, as journalists often contend, why should journalists be able to? Isn’t there a role for concerned citizens who care deeply about accurate and ethical news media?”

If the SPJ’s point is that a poll is not a good way — let alone the best way — to discuss ethics, I agree. But it is at least one way to prompt discussion. We should all be attempting such experiments.  

For the future of journalism ethics, the most important issue is not whether this poll was scientific. It is whether we are ready, as professionals, to really welcome direct public involvement; or whether we just say that to sound democratic. We must reject the “we know better” attitude — the old journalistic attitude that the public are best kept at arm’s length.

True, we need to structure public dialogue online and offline so that it is representative, reflective, and based on the core principles of good journalism. Otherwise, ethics can devolve into shifting opinion polls. But we won’t develop new mechanisms unless we start experimenting with imperfect tools such as polls, online chat and social media discussions.

As long as new forms of public discussion are met with this unhelpful opposition, ordinary people will suspect that the idea that journalism is an exclusive priesthood lives on in newsrooms, even while the walls between professionals and non-professionals crumble.

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.