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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Ethics Essential to Democratic Journalism

The future of journalism must include ethics, or journalism won’t serve democracy. That was a recurring theme among journalists, media scholars, and ethicists at “The Future of Ethical Journalism,” the first annual ethics conference of the Center for Journalism Ethics on May 1.

Asked if ethics was possible given the current troubles in journalism, several panelists replied along the same lines: ‘It better be possible because, without ethics, it is no longer journalism.’

An international group of 23 panelists and moderators engaged in intense discussions on the future of journalism – and the future of ethics in journalism. Is ethics possible amid an economic crisis in mainstream journalism? Is the speed of online journalism incompatible with the ethical norms of accuracy and truth-telling?  Are there new models for doing good journalism?

Over 100 people registered for the event, hosted by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and sponsored by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Foundation.  Many people across the United States and Canada (and beyond) watched the proceedings that were streamed live to the center’s web site, Others sent questions and comments through the conference’s social media page.

Jon Sawyer, head of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, said ethics can adjust to new forms of journalism. He said his center has developed ethical norms appropriate to its new approach to covering global affairs, using reporters around the world.  Kathy Bissen of Wisconsin Public Television said she didn’t think that the basic ideas of journalism ethics have changed. For her news organization, trust was crucial to its “brand,” and the task was to “convey that brand into the new media.”

Ellen Foley, a former editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, asked: “What is a product and what is journalism?” Foley said she didn’t like to talk about “brands.”  Journalism was about truth-telling and community building, and these values are general enough to be honored by new media.  Phil Rosenthal, media columnist for the Chicago Tribune, said journalists need to distinguish between “conventions and convictions.”  They should not confuse conventional ways of doing journalism with basic convictions about what makes for good journalism.

As the conference progressed, the challenges of doing ethics in the current media climate surfaced.

During a session where editors described tough decisions, Scott Anderson, a former political editor with CNN, asked whether a major news organization should ‘go’ with unconfirmed rumors, e.g. a web site is running a rumor that a leading politician has had an affair. The pressure on CNN to match such stories is intense, Anderson noted, adding that these situations call for “gut decisions.” On the same panel, Martin Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, discussed how his newsroom debated using a dramatic picture of a mother arriving home to a devastating fire that took the life of her child.

During an afternoon session, journalists worried about the future of investigative journalism at a time of newsroom cutbacks. Yet most remained positive on its future.

Brant Houston of the University of Illinois, a former head of Investigative Reporters and Editors ( said new media and new technology are allowing journalists to investigate complex issues more deeply and more quickly. Houston said non-profit forms of investigative journalism, often based at universities and funded by foundations, are helping to make up for the loss of investigative journalism in newsrooms. Andy Hall, director of the new Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, said he was among the “optimists” who see new models as leading to a revival of this crucial form of reporting.

Rob Cribb, an investigative reporter for The Toronto Star, expressed concern for the health of investigative journalism. He said that, in Canada, the non-profit model of investigative journalism does not yet exist, and few organizations have investigative units. However, Cribb also stressed the power of new collaborations. He noted how a recent investigation conducted by the Toronto Star and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation caught the attention of the country, going off like a “nuclear bomb.”

The conference concluded with a robust and wide-ranging debate on new media ethics. Peter Kafka of AllThingsDigital, didn’t think new media posed new ethical problems.  Dhavan Shah, who studies political communication at the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said new media can be a positive tool for mobilization and engagement. Young people are engaged by blogging, by specific issues, and by peer-to-peer communication. Journalists should view these “newly empowered citizens as an asset, not as a threat,” said Shaw.

Shah added that attention should be paid to teaching “communication literacy” – a set of skills that includes the ability to assess information as well as being able to express oneself.  Katy Culver, also of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, added that we needed to teach “skepticism” to young people in their approach to online information.

Video of all sessions, pictures of panelists, and other information from the conference will be available on this site.

Meanwhile, photos taken by Matthew Wisniewski may be viewed at UW’s photostream, View conference program [PDF / 2.27 MB]

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