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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Reflections of a Legacy Journalist

Lee Wilkins, University of Missouri, offers her candid thoughts — and worries — as she attended The Future of Ethical Journalism.

It is almost impossible to attend a gathering of journalists — either of the academic or practical varieties — without considering the future of the profession. This looming question is an under current in every room and most conversations, but it seldom truly bubbles to the surface. That was the position I found myself in at the Future of Journalism Ethics conference: wondering whether what I heard and what I had to say really would matter in the next five to 10 years.

I was captured by a series of ironies. The first is this essay, which today we would label a blog.

The dilemma of blogging

I find blogging both uncomfortable and frustrating. My level of emotional disquiet is made worse by the fact that I have to blog about once a week, for a local radio show for which I am a panelist.  When I do blog I find myself in some netherworld between writing an editorial (which I was taught had to be based in fact and articulated logically) and reporting, which I most often haven’t had the time to do. Even writing in the first person bothers me, as one of my personal standards for good writing involves getting out of the way so the reader can focus on the story.

Blogging to me seems self indulgent, at least when I do it, and frequently ill considered, by both myself and others.

But, what does that have to do with ethics? Especially for a woman who has been known to have a strong opinion or two and is fairly unafraid to state them. For me, it has everything to do with the need for some private space for thought…for not just the time to think, but the time to ruminate, to go down awkward and disjointed paths, to get emotionally involved, to reject or accept that emotion — before coming to not just a conclusion but the beginning of a question.

When I was a city hall reporter, I had hours to write a story about a meeting it had taken hours to sit through and weeks, months and years to amass a context for. In crafting that news story, even under deadline, I had had plenty of time to think. I knew the people and I knew something about the issues. And, it wasn’t ever about me — it was about the citizens and decision makers in the community.

Blogging contests most of these patterns of thinking and behaving. The requirement that I do it often feels invasive — as if I am being asked to relinquish the privacy of my thoughts and feelings before I am quite ready. But, my students do it naturally, and they don’t seem to have any of my hesitations. This was certainly evident at the conference. And, it causes me to question whether I understand this new genre of journalism at all.

The role of newspapers in a democracy

The second irony — well, it was Clark Hoyt’s gently phrased assertion that, for the family that owns the New York Times, preserving that newspaper, even in a form that is now requiring pay reductions for the entire staff, probably will supersede the survival of the Boston Globe.

And, so we have a newspaper potentially closing a newspaper, thanks to conglomerate market economics.  In Boston, the home of John Adams and John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, John Kennedy’s grandfather and mayor of Boston. The news organization that doggedly, in that very Roman Catholic city, told Americans that the priesthood too often had become a home for perverts and pedophiles as well as men and women of deep faith.

I have a new friend, Bill Densmore, the founder of the Mediagiraffe project, who told me only a couple of weeks ago that, as a New Englander, he cannot imagine Boston without the Globe. Because Mr. Hoyt is such a thoroughly engaged journalist and decent human being, it was impossible to ask him “who is it that speaks for democracy and community” in the boardroom at the New York Times. Surely this is a question that the reader’s representative, at least as much as citizens, should be preoccupied with and passionate about. But his columns, as important as they are, have yet to veer into this personal and professional quagmire.

Yet, it is this question that haunts me more than any other — because I have always seen journalism as a pathway to democratic self-government. I cannot imagine one without the other, and in that I am in the ethical tradition of Dewey and Gandhi. At this conference, we walked up to the question, stared it in the face, and retreated. Big question, big implications — it deserves more conversation than we gave it.

Journalism for hire

The third irony — the moving story of one news director’s unwillingness to continue with his work in the face of “journalism for hire”. As I was listening to that story of professional courage, I thought about my photojournalism students. I think it is accurate to say that most of them do not expect, in their working life times, to have the title “staff photographer”. Instead, they will be in the world of the perpetual freelancer — or work for hire as it is more often called.

On my very worst days — and this is not one of them — I think about these extraordinarily talented young people who are willing to enter a profession that finds them in some sense disposable. And, I ask myself whether what is now the “wave of the present” for photojournalists or most copy editors in the publishing industry might not be the wave of the very near future for the entire profession.

So what if the news director — or an entire staff — quits. They are replaceable; indeed, in many news organizations — stretched beyond thin by the current economic crisis — they have been at least partially replaced.

When Carol Gilligan was developing her concept of the ethics of care, one of the most crucial insights the women she studied had to discover was that they were beings of moral worth, of equal weight to every other person involved in the moral choice they were making.

How will journalists — as individuals or as members of the small communities that comprise individual news organizations — find that moral voice and make themselves heard in an economic structure that views them as a replaceable commodity rather than the single most important locus of human insight and strength?

I have no answer, but I know that every time I hear this choice phrased in strictly market, rather than ethical, language, I fear the battle is already lost.

Exercising ethics

And then, there is the final irony: whether ethics is changing.

In a way, I think many of the panelists were correct when they noted that ethics doesn’t change. But, the word seems plural (though it takes a singular verb) for a reason. Professional ethics itself isn’t singular—it’s about the exercise of practical wisdom, and that involves a multitude of things, among them values and priorities.

And, here’s where I think a consequential shift is taking place. In the world of the web, the predominant value is publish — get it out there. Preferably as transparently as possible. Then comes verified fact, and maybe an effort at truth-telling.

I think this emphasis on the immediacy of publishing represents an intellectual — philosophers would use the words epistemological and normative — change. And, while the concept of publish NOW does include a component of the “speed-induced-scoop”, I think to reduce the ethical issues it raises to the scoop mentality is to think less deeply than the question calls for.

Take your average crime story. Crime gets committed. Story gets written/broadcast. Cops bust someone — another story. There’s a trial — another story. Jury renders verdict — another story. And, in very rare cases, an innocence project finds — many years later — the original conviction is invalid. Another story. All of this is considered legitimate journalism — at least in the recent past. It is reactive journalism — it relies on other important institutions in society to take an action and then reports on them.

As a former police reporter, I can tell you that this process of covering cops and courts was flawed. I had been a reporter for less than a month when I discovered that crime reporting in this traditional way provided only the most fragmented and inaccurate picture of the impact of heroine addiction in Detroit on the civic culture of Ann Arbor, Michigan, disguised in the form of residential burglaries. Whatever else they were, my reports were accurate but not truthful, at least truthful in a way I believe would have been most useful to the community.

So, I flinch a bit when traditional journalists get all outraged about valuing publication — getting stuff out there — as the predominant value of internet journalism. At the surface level, I don’t see it as very different as what I did in the early 70s and again in the mid 80s, although my efforts continued over months rather than hours. But, what IS different, I believe, is the epistemological underpinnings of the approach and its normative intent.

The epistemology of journalism

Getting it out there, for many on the internet, means getting it out there with the intent of getting it corrected, or perhaps the more accurate phrasing would be getting it more correct in subsequent postings. Each version is intended to get somewhat closer to the truth, with the transparent understanding that the “truth” may change according to additional evidence provided.  But, that “truth” is no longer limited to the tangible facts of the case — the internet has the capacity to add interpretation (what we call opinion or analysis) to those facts. While some interpretations are bogus, others actually may help people take facts and make meaning of them. This is the potential promise of crowd sourcing.

To drive the theoretical connection back to practical application, how important could it have been to take my reports of residential burglaries — all told from the point of view of the investigative officer — and add to it the faces and voices of those in the community who were the victims of those crimes and those who knew those who were committing them — and why. This is not intended to excuse theft — an ethically reprehensible act. But, it is to say that hearing something from the neighborhood level, from the point of view of the voiceless who were thoroughly implicated in my reporting but almost completely without access to its daily development (I seldom got to interview subjects once they had been thrown in the county jail and the cops often told the victims not to talk until the trial stage), is a real possibility here.

The letter from the jail inmate (and I received many) can now be replaced by a real time text or cell phone message that may or may not contribute to the reporting but which at least has a chance of being “heard”. Of course there will be ethical concerns with this approach. But, I do not view them as more problematic then our current concerns with crime and cops reporting — only ethically distinct and every bit as important.

But, the normative intent for me represents an even more consequential shift.

The normative intent of at least some stories done in this way is to provoke a response. It is not reactive journalism — it is journalism that is proactive and can be issue focused. (This is not to say that it always is so.) It is intended to function minimally as a real time feedback loop to other institutions, political and economic actors in the community. Normatively, it has the potential to be transformative — for both good and for ill. Too much dumb and mean spirited crowd sourcing could promote hate, ill considered actions, and, as Plato would have said, rule by the mob.

Smartly done — and our readers/viewers/listeners are nothing if not smart — it can make journalists an engine of democratic change. And, for many journalists — that’s why they got into the business in the first place — to change things for the better. But, to take journalism from being an essentially reactive institution and process to one that can and will provoke and promote a response will raise a host of ethical issues, many of them connected with power and influence. And, many of them focus not just on individual actions, but on those actions in a corporate setting.

Philosophically, this is tough territory — it includes questions of agency (individual and collective), of rationality, and of role.  Those questions are powerful and worth exploring in the profession and in the academy.

Lee Wilkins

LEE WILKINS focuses her research on media ethics, media coverage of the environment and hazards and risks. She is a co-author of one of the country’s best-selling college ethics texts, Media Ethics: Issues and Cases, now in its fifth edition with McGraw-Hill. Wilkins is the associate editor of the country’s leading academic journal on media ethics, The Journal of Mass Media Ethics. She is Curator’s Teaching Professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Missouri.

View conference program [PDF / 2.27 MB]

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