As an undergraduate journalism student, I spend much of my time generating stories and little time reflecting on the bigger questions of my writing. Finishing projects under a deadline, or contacting just the right person for a quote often seems more important than debating the pros and cons of drone technology. But working with the Center for Journalism Ethics this spring has made me realize how relevant ethics are to journalism, and that it is difficult (if not impossible) to separate ethical principles from my work in this field.
Participating in a national conference much like the annual ethics conference at UW-Madison is often the best way to learn about the newest trends and research in journalism. I enjoyed learning about commercial data sensors from John Keefe, and was shocked to discover how much data these tiny yet extremely cheap and accessible devices can capture. Although these devices could be useful for many journalists, they could also make the public even more distrusting of the media (or even be confused for some kind of explosive device). I also thought that the new database technology several of the panelists discussed was fascinating. It has become more common for news organizations to create searchable and user-friendly databases, which if done well, are heavily used by the public. I myself have used many of these databases when completing class projects or research, but never thought about the journalists who perhaps created them. And if I didn’t already know it yet – I should probably make my passwords more secure. Apparently the most common online password is still “123456.”
Although I learned about new technologies for journalists, the conference also left me with the impression that many “older” ethical issues still exist. For example, the surveillance panel discussed the ethical problems of journalists telling people that they are collecting data for one purpose, but using it for another. While technology has allowed this kind of dishonesty to be more pronounced, the choice of a journalist to mislead sources has been an issue for many years, and still continues to be. “New” media ethics regarding digital technologies will continue to be important, but perhaps it is still too early to dismiss these ethical concerns.
The conference also left me with the impression that thoughtful journalism requires a great variety of backgrounds and educations. Although a journalism degree is often the foundation for an aspiring writer or media professional, it’s also important to develop skills in statistics, math or science. In the breakout session I attended, Alexander Howard discussed the manipulation of graphs and charts by journalists, noting that many journalists falsely represent data (check out this link for some interesting examples). While its true that some journalists may intentionally manipulate data to fit their agenda, others may simply be lacking a basic understanding of how to use and treat numbers. Requiring journalists to develop these skills may not only enrich the value of their stories, but also ensure that fewer incidents of data misrepresentation occur. I won’t become a “math person” overnight, but attending this conference made me realize that I too may need to acquire skills other than writing in order to be successful in this industry.
My experience at the Center for Journalism Ethics conference made me excited to see what the future of journalism will bring. The attendees and speakers at the conference were all actively engaged in the issues they discussed, and genuinely interested in media ethics. I had the opportunity to ask questions and have dialogues with some of the most preeminent experts in their fields, which is a rare occurrence for an undergraduate student. I hope to implement some of what I learned in my own work, and that I am able to attend similar events in the future.
[Photos by Jentri Colello for UW Center for Journalism Ethics].