Ward’s Words Column

A New Journalist’s Creed

At a recent conference on the future of ethical journalism, several journalists argued that the current media revolution does not entail a revolution in ethics.

Despite social media, Twitter and online journalism, their positions on maintaining ethics were surprisingly conservative: Reinforce existing principles and apply them to new forms of journalism. As one participant said, journalism should remain committed to truth-telling and to serving the public.

If only it were that easy.

All public communicators should tell the truth and care about our public life. But these commitments don’t address the clash between professional and non-professional forms of journalism. The clash is between a traditional ethics that emphasizes pre-publication gatekeeping, impartiality, and verification and an online ethics that emphasizes anonymity, transparency, and post-publication corrections.

Talk of reinforcing basic values does little to resolve this tension in journalism’s culture.

For example, how does one apply the principle of verification to forms of communication based on immediacy and instant messaging? How does the traditional idea of “get the story first, but first get it right” fit with the idea of “publish first and fix later”?

Journalism ethics, to remain relevant, must undergo a radical change — a philosophical revolution in how it sees itself and understands its values. Piecemeal adjustments won’t cut it.

Why is radical reform needed?  In a word, history.

In The Invention of Journalism Ethics, I argued that, since the 17th century, the engine for ethical change has been changes to what I called the “journalist-audience relationship.” This relationship can change in three ways: who is considered a journalist can change; how journalists communicate with their audiences can change; and audiences (and their media habits) can change. These changes are due to economic, technological and social developments within and without journalism.

My central point was this: When, for whatever reasons, substantial changes to this relationship occur, a revolution in journalism ethics follows and radical reform is needed. Old norms are modified, new norms and practices are advanced and justified. Ethics is slowly re-invented amid a quarrelsome, noisy debate that shakes journalism ethics to the core.

Historically, the fourth estate ethic of 18th century journalism resulted from a change in the journalist-audience relationship due to the new daily newspapers of the Enlightenment public sphere. The rise of a professional ethics of objectivity in the early 1900s followed the creation of the mass commercial paper where journalists took on the role of news reporter and information gatekeeper.

Today, another revolution is underway. New forms of communication transform all three aspects of the journalist-audience relationship: who is a journalist, how journalists communicate, and the media habits of audiences. Again, we have a noisy public debate, and pressure to reform journalism ethics. From the perspective of history, a revolution in ethics follows from these substantial changes.

But knowing why ethics is changing is not the same as knowing how it should change, or what ethics will look like a decade from now. I don’t pretend to have any such miraculous insight. But I do think we can summarize the challenges ahead in terms of constructing a new creed for multimedia journalism.

In 1914, Walter Williams, founding dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, wrote “The Journalist’s Creed“. This influential document expressed the values of the emerging profession of newspaper journalism. The first line in the creed states: “I believe in the profession of journalism.” The creed regards journalism as a public trust, and emphasizes accuracy, fairness and the independence of journalism. These values have been the tenets of professional journalism ethics ever since.

Now, ask yourself: How would I re-write this creed to fit today’s journalism?

No one would want to eliminate a commitment to truth and serving the public. But, in my view, the creed would have to be re-phrased to include non-professionals working in any media format.

A new creed must start with the freeing of the idea of journalism from specific forms of communication, such as the newspaper. This is a positive outcome of the current media revolution. We have been prodded into acknowledging that journalism does not belong to any type of media; and it does not belong to any group of media corporations. Journalism is a democratic craft – a set of attitudes, skills, and norms that can be practiced in almost any form of communication.

True, this abstract notion of journalism makes attempts to define journalism more hazardous. Yet there is a net gain in coming to see journalism as a practice available to all citizens. Moreover, it places the emphasis on ethics. The issue is how we do journalism, not what format is used.

History helps me to remain an optimist about journalism, and to envisage new creeds. Journalists have struggled through confusing times before.

I predict that, within five years, we will see the emergence of a new creed for multimedia journalism that will gain the respect of many types of journalists. At the same time, we will see the development of newsroom protocols for dealing with online issues and citizen journalists. The problems of journalism ethics in a multimedia world are not unsolvable. It just takes time for practitioners and ethicists to recognize the real issues and to address them.

If we work on this new creed, the futile debate over who is a journalist will be replaced by more constructive discussions about how to combine responsibly the great resources of old and new media.

Gradually, the tired shouting matches between citizen and mainstream journalists will be replaced by more urgent discussions about what sorts of journalism our democracy (and our world) needs.

I look forward to that day

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