Tough times call for more ethics, not less

Stephen Ward

Stephen WardDoing ethics in journalism has never been easy.

Across the history of modern journalism, journalists have struggled against economic and political powers to be independent and responsible public communicators.

Journalism has undergone several revolutions from the daily newspapers in the 18th century to the mass commercial press at the end of the 19th century.

All revolutions, in their time, questioned existing forms of journalism. All resulted, ultimately, in a re-definition of journalism ethics.

Today, as another revolution unwinds, there is palatable fear for the future of journalism. Draconian cutbacks in newsrooms and the speed of a multi-media news clock prompt the question: How can one ‘do ethics’ in journalism while the world goes to hell in a handbasket? Isn’t ethics impossible or irrelevant?

I acknowledge the difficulty. But I think we need to keep our heads as we stand in the eye of this media storm. We must be both inventive and steadfast in preserving the honourable craft of journalism for future generations.

‘Keeping our head’ means refusing to let rapid change prompt panic. It means challenging blunt assertions that ethics is impossible or irrelevant. There is some truth in these views, and they articulate valid concerns. But, if not challenged, these sweeping claims undermine our energy to respond to problems.

For example, to those who think ethics is irrelevant in tough times, we need to note that the converse seems to be true: Tough times call for more ethics, not less. We need more discussion of the nature and purpose of good journalism.

To those who repeat the mantra that speed makes ethics impossible, we should point out that speed is not new to journalism.

For over a century, new agencies have swiftly produced accurate, responsible news. It seems that fast-paced but responsible journalism is possible if one sets up the proper editorial system.

True, there are citizens outside newsrooms who will immediately post any rumour online without ethical restraint. But why should their behaviour set the standard? The debate over speed is an opportunity for newsrooms to discuss how important getting the story ‘first’ is to their publication. Here is a perfect occasion for doing ethics. Ethics in a revolution is not just relevant; it is vital.

Another assumption to be challenged is that developments in media are uniformly negative or threatening. Never before have so many citizens participated in the public sphere. Never before have so many citizens had the capability to monitor their news media and to find alternate sources of information and views worldwide.

Journalism as we know it is undergoing fundamental change, but it is too early to conclude that journalism, or good journalism, is doomed. To keep our head we need a mind set mid-way between the attitude of Pollyanna and Chicken Little.

Beyond calibrating our mind-set, we need to expand our minds to match bigger challenges. An ethical response to this media revolution cannot be piecemeal. We need a radical and systematic re-thinking of journalism in our global, media-saturated world.

In particular, journalists need to develop a mixed journalism ethics — a set of principles and practices that apply to many types of journalism. The problem of journalism ethics today is not only how to maintain existing standards but also how to formulate standards and practices for new situations, such as whether to grant anonymity to online commentators or how to use Facebook on breaking stories.

A second task is to develop new formats for good journalism. Schools of journalism are making great strides in teaching how to use new media to tell engaging and well-researched stories. The fact that new forms of media have evolved in a chaotic, sometimes irresponsible, fashion, is no reason not to use these tools for good journalism. Let’s be creative and accept this challenge.

Also, if traditional economic forms of journalism are not sufficiently supporting quality journalism, let’s develop alternate models.

For example, the decline of investigative journalism in mainstream media is balanced by the rise of new agencies dedicated to investigative journalism. Schools of journalism and private foundations across North America are experimenting with ways to fund investigative journalism.

The problems of journalism require a new era of cooperation among the many players of our news media system and our media education system. Together, these agencies have the critical mass to influence the course of journalism.

In this media revolution, ethical journalists have two choices: They can harness the new technology and social trends to the cause of quality journalism; or they can give up and let themselves be swept along by the tide.

I urge journalists to get up, dust themselves off, and choose the former option.

Why? Because good journalism is the lifeblood of democracy. Nothing that important should ever be abandoned.

Negative attitudes are self-fulfilling. To conclude that doing ethics is impossible only makes matters worse and puts quality journalism in further jeopardy.

Without ethics, there is no difference between being a journalist and posing as a journalist.

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.