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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Media Morals

Journalism Conference Marks New Era

For the Center for Journalism Ethics (CJE), the fifth annual ethics conference on April 5– is it the fifth already? — marks the end of its formative years.

It is the last conference for me.

I am leaving UW-Madison. On July 1, I begin a new era for myself, as director of the Turnbull Center in Portland, part of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. My leaving marks the end of the CJE’s early years. It also signals the beginning of an exciting era under a new leader.

I have had the honor, and pleasure, to found the CJE and to develop the center in its crucial first years of existence, from 2008 onward. Despite the nation’s economic meltdown, we never lost faith that the center would survive the tough times.

It has done more than ‘survive.’ It is now a nationally known and respected center with substantial contributions to the development of journalism ethics.

At our conferences, we have had incredible conversations, from reporting elections and the impact of a partisan press to the future of journalism in a digital media world. The fifth conference is no different. We tackle the independence of journalists in new media environments.

A new center director will be selected soon. Whomever it is, he or she will take the center to a new level of achievement and national (and international) reknown. In the years ahead, I know I will look back at this legacy called the Center for Journalism Ethics. I will smile at how the center has continued to grow through the efforts of so many different people — journalists, scholars, foundations, corporations, alumni, students.

I owe so much to so many people that I won’t even try to name them here. I will thank them personally. They know who they are.

Change is a strange bittersweet affair. One feels energized as a new path opens up; yet, one is also regretful that some paths close behind you. I leave the center where I hoped it would be, back in 2008: economically secure, noted, and known for its excellence in staging seminal events. Now, it is time for fresh ideas and new growth.

The center must continue with its mission.

Our democracy needs the combined efforts of responsible journalists, concerned citizens, and creative media institutions in the maintainence of public journalism amid a media revolution.

Without such journalism, citizens only fool themselves when they claim they are informed and self-governing.






How Leveson might promote journalism ethics

The Leveson recommendations for regulating the British press is a clever, informed attempt to nudge – push? – newspapers into the modern world where major institutions need to account for their power, and abuse of power.

But my hope is that the inquiry will go beyond setting up regulations to prevent unethical actions. I hope it will go further and prompt journalists (and others) to use this moment to develop and strengthen journalism ethics in our media culture.

Leveson’s major recommendations of an independent regulatory and a new law supporting freedom of the press take the right approach. It recognizes that in liberal democratic societies the defence of a free press should be seen as striking the right balance between a journalist’s right to publish and a citizen’s right to expect journalists to use their power in a responsible manner.  A new law speaks to the protection of a free press; a new regulator speaks to the protection of citizens and the public interest.

Beyond this approach, we can differ on important details, such as what the new law would say and the nature and mandate of the regulator. An independent regulator is the best approach to the press in a free society. It is perhaps the only form of press ‘self-regulation’ left that the public might accept. Newspapers who reject the idea – and some have already – are making a fundamental mistake in defending press freedom.

Lord Leveson, through a ‘carrot and stick’ method, has cleverly put the onus on the newspapers: he makes membership in the regulator voluntarily. Hence he can’t be accused of seeking to muzzle the press. This is the carrot. Yet he offers a “stick”: if newspapers don’t join, they could reviewed and regulated by Ofcom, the existing British broadcasting regulator – something newspapers would not wish to see happen.

I believe that Ofcom is not the correct “back-up” regulator. Neither should the back-up be the politicians. Better alternatives include a panel of judges, a public body of distinguished citizens (including senior journalists), and so on.

Developing journalism ethics

Unfortunately, the Leveson inquiry has significant limitations. It applies only to newspapers, whereas we need a more comprehensive discussion of the ethics of publishing offline and online by professionals and citizens.

Another limitation is that the report speaks only to the “negative” side of journalism ethics: the need for laws and regulations to prevent unethical journalistic conduct. However, given the reason it was set up – journalistic phone-hacking – it was inevitable that the inquiry would focus on this restraining, negative side of ethics and the law.

At this time, we have an opportunity to use the public attention on journalism ethics to promote its more positive aspects. There has been some mention of journalism ethics being part of journalism training. I think this idea must be strengthened to include ethics courses and teaching in all programs that teach journalism and other forms of publication. More than that, we need to enlarge the education to include “media ethics” – the norms for using any form of communication responsibly, whether we are journalists or citizens, young or old. We need to teach such norms across the university and college curriculum, not just in journalism schools.

Finally, the press, as they join their new regulator, need to embark on an ambitious project to develop its own ethical philosophy and principles. They need to show what these principles really mean and how they can be improperly applied. For example, they need to show how the broad notions of “serving the public” and “a public-interest reason to investigate” do not include unjustified harassing of individuals simply because they are celebrities.  It does not justify the use of hidden cameras and other methods except as an exception – an exception where editors must be able to provide a strong ethical justification for using such methods. In short, it needs to create a new statement of journalism ethics for today’s media landscape.

If the Leveson inquiry sparks a revival of interest – genuine interest – in articulating and applying ethical practice in journalism, then that by itself would be a useful legacy of the inquiry.

Bashing Leveson: How Not to Defend Press Freedom

Some members of the British media and political establishment are appalled by the recommendations of the Lord Leveson inquiry into journalism ethics. How dare anyone consider public regulation or review of the free press?

Once again, the old slogans of a “free marketplace of ideas” and “self-regulation” are defended in absolutist tones. Any suggestion of press regulation or a press council with real powers is shouted down as heretical, as antithetical to democracy – an unstoppable slippery slope to a muzzled press. Everything is black or white: it is either press freedom or press control.

These emotional declarations are exaggerations; they are often hypocritical; and they have nothing to say about the undeniable problem that led to the Leveson inquiry in the first place: the abuse of the power of the press not to save democracy and protect citizens.  Just the opposite: the abuse of press freedom to make money through shoddy, sensational methods; to corrupt institutions; and to cause unjustifiable harm to innocent people.

If this is what the doctrine of a free press means, I’ll have none of it.

To make matters worse, free press apologists of this strident variety appear to be tone-deaf to valid public concerns that something must change. You cannot simply say “stay the course” in journalism and offer no credible, thoughtful remedies to the ethical and social problems. Circling the media wagons to oppose, in the strongest of terms, any nuanced discussion of journalism ethics and the limits of a press in a democracy is exactly the wrong strategy. The public will not buy it. This is a case study in how not to defend press freedom.

Let me count the ways in which we shouldn’t defend press freedom.

 All you need is a free press: This is simplistic and trite. A sufficiently free press is a necessary condition for a robust democracy but it isn’t “all you need”. A free press can be unethical, inaccurate, undemocratic (e.g. supporting laws that deny minority rights), and a promoter of biased, ideologically extreme debate.

Mistakes and bad journalism must be accepted to allow for press freedom: This may be true overall but I cavil at the word “accepted.”  We should “accept” no such thing. It may be a fact that we cannot eliminate bad journalism but that doesn’t justify a laissez-faire attitude that nothing can be done about it. To the reverse, if bad journalism can’t be eliminated, then we have reason to consider mechanisms for critiquing and challenging news media.

A free press can only exist in a society where there are no press laws.  First of all, there is no modern society where there are no press laws. Laws extend from the laws of libel to the licensing laws that govern broadcasters. There are dozens of countries, such as India and Germany, where statutory press councils exist but the press is not, thereby, a muzzled press.  Moreover, countries like Canada, Denmark and Britain have hate speech laws that can potentially restrict some speech, including some stories in the press. But where is the argument that the press in these countries are shackled and unfree? If the reply is that the argument is for a minimum of press laws, I would agree. But that begs the question: what constitutes a happy ‘minimum’ and why conclude that this minimum rules out a regulatory press body or other accountability mechanisms?

To be sure, there are free press issues, and we should defend press freedom. But how? First, by stressing the need for a free and responsible press. We need to see press freedom as one essential component of our press philosophy, not the sole and absolute value. We need to defend obstacles to the free press performing its watchdog role on government and essential issues. But we should not use this reasoning to defend all and any forms of press conduct, such as reckless intrusion into private lives or paying police for information.  We need to secure a proper balance between freedom and responsibility. For this to happen, we need open discussion, not theatrics.

But someone may ask: Why make ethics so important for journalism? It is really quite simple. With freedom comes responsibilities — in life in general, in social institutions at large and, yes, in newsrooms. We require all institutions to use their power responsibly. Journalists are the first to investigate unethical conduct in public institutions. So how can they say that news media should get a ‘free ride’ when it comes to ethics? Given the great harms that bad journalism can do, what possible reason is there for saying that the public cannot demand mechanisms to question the powerful institution of news media? In addition to the rights of journalists to publish in freedom there is the right of citizens to be free from the callous and harmful conduct of unethical news outlets. Just as there is always a danger that press laws can go too far, there is always the opposite danger that a free press will be harmful, undemocratic and unaccountable.

The way to defend press freedom is not to turn a blind eye to the abuses of media power but to defend that freedom within a larger commitment to a responsible and truly democratic press. This means (at the very least) being open to possible mechanisms for review of media conduct. It means taking journalism ethics seriously, improving the ethics training of journalism and so on.

The idea that the British news media can effectively self-regulate themselves simply is unbelievable, given the facts of the phone-hacking scandal in Britain. If media owners and editors say to the public, “just trust us, we can take care of ourselves, ethically speaking,” this statement will be met with a well-justified cry of public derision and disbelief.

So we come to this point: Absolute defences of press freedom are suspect; pleading for a “hands off” idea of press self-regulation lacks credibility. Yet we also don’t want excessive press laws. What to do?  The answer is to discuss, debate, and consider what mechanisms of media accountability can restore public confidence in the news media.

That is what Leveson’s report is all about: it is one, well-informed, view about how the balance of press freedom and responsibility can be met in Britain today. We don’t have to agree with any or all of his recommendations.  But we do have to be open to discussing how to support ethical journalism — not reject all such discussions as dangerous.

One final point: For years, I have warned journalists who scoffed at “journalism ethics,” calling it an oxymoron, that this narrow attitude could have long-term unfortunate consequences. The Leveson inquiry provides support for my view. Bad journalism does not just embarrass news owners; it undermines public support for a free press. Bad journalism lends support to demagogues who will use public disaffection with journalism to propose draconian press restrictions. It is in the journalists’self-interest to promote ethical journalism.

When I reported from London, England, some years ago, I witnessed this skepticism about journalism ethics permeate the media culture. Well, several chickens have come home to roost.

The unethical and illegal behavior of many British journalists – getting a scoop at any cost – has undermined the public’s belief in self-regulation.

These journalists have brought this calamity upon themselves.


Media Ethics is now Media Activism

Upheavals in journalism have bequeathed to journalists a dizzying whirlpool of ethical issues that become the topics of talk shows, academic papers, and conference panels. The focus of these discussions tends to be on how to responsibly incorporate new media, including social media, into responsible daily journalism.

Less noticed is that fact that this revolution, in changing our relationship with media, points toward a radical reorientation of media ethics: media ethics as a form of media activism. As I will argue, it is not media activism understood as critiquing news organizations and specific stories. It is a technology-powered online activism where we create the ethical media we want.

We have known about the possibilities of the “democratization of media” for some time. Media experts like Dan Gillmor in the United States and Alfred Hermida in Canada have perceptively tracked the potential of new media for citizen and participatory journalism.

I want to draw out the implications for media ethics.

Traditionally, media ethics has included the study (and discussion) of norms by professional journalists in newsrooms and by ethicists in academia. Media ethics has also included the application of norms to ethically complex situations by journalists in newsrooms.

But now, our idea of media ethics is broadening to embrace something I call media-ethics activism. Media ethics activists “do” media ethics by taking action. These new ethics activists include citizens, journalists, NGOs – anyone or any group – who improve our media system by creating new forms of ethical journalism online.

They use the new publishing tools available to both professional and non-professional journalists. They become activists for ethical journalism by creating the journalism they believe is lacking in the public sphere.  This can be regarded as a developing branch of media ethics, powered by new technology.

Through digital technology, citizens, NGOs, journalism centers, news outlets, students, and institutes can link up with others to create their own web sites, metablogs, social media networks, and a dozen other varieties. Here are some examples:

Unhappy about how election issues are covered? Then consider a site where academics and civic groups in the State of Washington talk about the many referenda that get placed on election ballots.

Unhappy about coverage of local community issues? Then see  The site covers education, transportation and other key issues in Madison, WI., by combining the talents of university faculty, experts, citizens, and students.

Unhappy about the mainstream’s inattention to human rights and international news? Then consider how NGOs and other groups have created valuable sites such as; or read how a world-wide association of bloggers follows the issues at

Or, consider how a group of U.S. mainstream journalists, with money from the Pulitzer Foundation, set up their own independent global news organization at

The hundreds of people participating in the creation of these new journalism sites are “doing” media ethics as activism, whether they would call it that or not. Powered by new media, they have not remained content to carp about the weakness (and unethical behavior) of existing news media. Instead, they have decided to create their own media.

The media ethics shift

What do these changes mean in the long run for media ethics?

First, they signal a journalism that blurs the distinction between factual information and discussion of the facts. New forms of journalism will continue to creatively mix facts, values, interpretation, and analysis. That is why I have, for years, argued for a new notion of objectivity that is capable of evaluating interpretations, not just facts.

Second, they signal a momentous shift from a media ethics defined as the study of ethical “content” (or principles) to a media ethics defined as journalistic activity.

The media ethics of the future won’t just be about teaching codes of ethics that evaluate someone else’s journalism – it will be about how to create media ourselves, and the values that our various forms of journalism should exhibit.

In this way, media ethics becomes a zone of media activity.

This shift also changes how we understand media criticism and media accountability. Historically, media criticism has tended to be “external” to the production of journalism. Critics stand on the sidelines and monitor the mainstream media. Now, media criticism applies to everyone who uses media, and the critic is often both a consumer and producer of media.

Similarly, media accountability becomes broader than citizens complaining to press councils and ombudsmen, or writing letters to the editor. As valuable as these mechanisms are, accountability becomes the responsibility of everyone who enters into the production of journalism. Media criticism and media accountability are no longer US (concerned citizens) versus THEM (big bad media). Instead, media ethics today and in the future will be a “media ethics for everyone.”

Please note what I am not saying.

I am not saying that media ethics should stop studying ethical principles or monitoring big media, from Google to News Corporation. I am not saying that older forms of media activism, e.g. lobbying against the concentration of new media, should end.

What I am saying is threefold. (1) We have to extend our notion of media ethics to take account of the new areas of expressive media. (2) Media ethics can be done by creating your own ethical media. And (3), media ethics needs to deal with issues raised by the citizen’s power to create media.

We should celebrate the fact that ‘new media’ makes possible a richer and more inclusive range of activities for improving our media system

However, a word of caution: All technologies have good and bad uses. With the power to create media comes the responsibility to use that power wisely. There is no guarantee that this will happen in the long run. It could happen that people will create media that is unethical.

Therefore, citizens, including journalists, have an ethical obligation to carefully consider what types of journalism they will create. Media ethics activism is not the creation and promotion of just any kind of media. It is the creation of media that we need, as a public. It is the creation and promotion of ethically valuable forms of journalism for democracy.

For example, as I argued during a recent talk in Vancouver, one task of media ethics activism, especially in the United States given the rise of partisan media, is the creation of media spaces that encourage reasonable dialogue through inventive uses of new media.

The creation of what I call “dialogic journalism” is one aim of activist media ethics.

But there are many other possible ethical aims. Journalists around the world should look to their own media cultures and consider what forms of media they need the most.

How social media changes the function of journalism

The  revolution in media has created a revolution in journalism ethics.

One area where the ethical revolution is evident is a new emphasis on certain functions of journalism that have long played a secondary role in the history of journalism and its ethics.

To put it simply: The “forum” function of journalism has become the primary function of journalism and, more generally, of the use of media.

To understand why this is so you have to grasp the depth of this revolution in communication, especially for news media. It involves a game-changing difference in the human capacities employed, and a simultaneous change in the primary function of media.

The use of news media until recently has stressed the cognitive activity of individuals receiving news provided by an external source such as a newspaper, and then forming their opinions. Not surprisingly, the ethics of news media stressed the need for journalists to accurately and fairly provide factual information to these citizens.

Other media functions were mentioned by ethicists, but these functions were not as primary as providing information. For example, by the mid-1940s, analysts started to talk about the media’s “forum” function – providing different perspectives on issues.

Consider how much has changed.

Today’s media requires users to deploy a different set of cognitive and social capabilities. Citizens scan information in a social media context where others are expressing views about the information being scanned. Information intake and interpretation occur almost at the same time. The need for information does not decline but the primary function of media becomes the exchange of views. What is of greatest interest is what the facts mean.

Therefore, we develop different expectations of media. For instance, young people who have grown up with social media expect to get their information in the context of expressing views and interacting with others, on Facebook or elsewhere.

Interactive media emphasize the “forum” function as primary, while transforming it.

A piece of forum journalism today is not just an op-ed article in The Globe and Mail. A media forum is more likely to be an evolving, interactive discussion online. The forum consists of intersecting networks of online expression, a chaotic global sphere where rich layers of information, perspective, and advocacy intertwine like the strands of a rope.


The emotions of democratic journalism

Often, when I speak to audiences about impartial, objective journalism, my listeners are skeptical about the very idea.

Some say that everyone has biases so objectivity is a myth. Others voice another complaint: An impartial journalist is a bloodless eunuch. She pretends to have no feelings on the issue at hand; she is “detached” and “disinterested” — which means she is uncaring. Who wants to be that sort of person, let along that sort of journalist? Journalistic eunuchs are strange creatures in an age of personal, multimedia journalism.

This misunderstanding ignores two central facts: First, the ideal of impartial journalism never asked journalists to be that sort of person; second, a belief in objective reporting is grounded in emotions – in an emotional commitment to the best possible journalism.

Journalism as “eros”

No one can effectively practice impartial journalism without a deep and unwavering love of truth-seeking through evidence-based inquiry. Plato described philosophy as a form of love, an “eros” for wisdom. Similarly, impartial journalism is an “eros” for insightful, well-supported public journalism. Without this emotion, talk of impartiality has no motivating power.

Does this mean that impartiality and objectivity are biases? Yes, they are biases. But not all biases are equal. The bias towards impartiality justifies itself by its positive impact on journalism. It is not an unquestioning bias. Also, the bias towards impartiality is a positive bias that works against negative, distorting biases, e.g. such as wishful thinking, ignoring contrary facts, and promoting stereotypes about others.

Impartiality in journalism means: caring enough about reaching the truth to not prejudge the story before inquiry; to be willing to step back critically from one’s beliefs to learn from others; to follow all of the facts wherever they lead.

This is my notion of pragmatic objectivity in journalism. On my view, objectivity and impartiality do not require a journalist (or any professional) to have no values, no purposes, no cares; to have no opinions and to be neutral about everything.

Impartiality and objectivity as bloodless norms is an absurd caricature. How could such ideas have arisen?  It has a lot to do with how our culture often fails to think carefully about the emotions and their place in democracy.

‘Educating’ the emotions

One simplistic view is that the emotions undermine our rationality and need to be excluded from logical thinking. Another view is just the opposite: We need to trust our emotions and not be controlled by that old despot, reason.

A better view, espoused by philosopher John Dewey, avoids both extremes. Dewey thought that, as individuals and as a society, we need to ‘educate our emotions’ so as not be controlled by them; we need to learn to integrate our emotions and reasoning faculties to reach more satisfying levels of experience and more democratic forms of community.

On this view, our emotions and values are essential components of good reasoning and inquiry. They are part of good communal deliberation about issues. However, the right emotions, directed in the right manner, must be operating in specific situations.

For example, when it comes to democratic deliberation among different viewpoints, the best method of inquiry is not subjective ranting and unfair verbal warfare; nor do we want sloppy and wishful thinking to be dominate. What we need is a strong emotional commitment to verification, openness to other perspectives, respectful disagreement and evidence-based claims.

In short, we need impartial and objective forms of inquiry and journalism.

Therefore, our education system and other agencies should teach citizens to wisely use their emotions to enhance democracy. One way is to give students and citizens places where they can participate in deliberative fora.

We need to educate our emotions so that we value and enjoy deliberating in fair and impartial ways. We need to educate our emotive habits – that is, the emotions we favor, e.g. anger over calmness, and how we typically respond to situations. Whether we favor compassion or callousness, or whether we prefer to deliberate with people or shout at them, much depends on the culture and the media in which we are immersed.

This is not to deny value to the occasional burst of righteous anger or strong emotion in democratic discourse; nor is it to deny the value of expressing oneself freely. Deliberative discussion is not tepid ‘politically correct’ discussion. Between ranting and politically correct discussion, there is lots of room for fair, inclusive and deliberative discussion among citizens.

Journalism and democratic emotions

Dewey’s view of emotions has a direct implication for the debate over what forms of journalism our democracy needs. It implies that we need journalists and journalism programs that create what I call “deliberative spaces” in opposition to the partisan commentators on radio and the intolerant bloggers online.

We need journalists who have educated their emotions so as to prefer deliberative communication; we need media spaces that allow a deliberative citizenry to exist; and we need citizens who have emotional habits that favor deliberative forms of journalism.

Impartial public journalism seeks to develop the moral character of journalists so that their love of evidence, verification, accuracy, fairness and impartiality are strong enough to motivate their inquiries.

We need to educate the emotions of journalists.

Dewey also said that we evaluate our biases by seeing how they help us inquiry correctly into, and deal with fairly, the substantive issues of the day. In terms of journalism, the question becomes: Which form of journalism, overall, promotes the sort of journalism we need today – partial or impartial journalism?

I think that, for deliberative democracy, there is greater value in impartial journalism than partisan journalism, especially a partisan journalism that uses extreme emotions and polarizing discourse to inform citizens.

The claim that democracy only needs a robust free press exaggerates the value of free speech for democracy.

So the next time you listen to the non-deliberative commentary by Rush Limbaugh or watch “talking heads” angrily attack each other on TV, ask yourself this: Are we, as a society, training ourselves to emotionally accept (and support) such displays of emotion?

In my estimate, angry, non-deliberative voices are non-democratic voices. The fact that they enjoy free speech as individuals does not make them democrats as citizens.

So where, I ask you, do we find today the deliberative media spaces that we need? Is our culture increasingly non-deliberative in its media and in its broader values?

Our hope for deliberative democracy depends, in the long run, on what social habits of discussion we foster in schools, in public meetings, in institutions, and in our newsrooms.

Is “democratic media” a quaint memory? Let’s talk

When I asked my colleagues what the topic should be for the ethics center’s conference in April, I received an unambiguous reply: media and electoral politics.

The feeling was unambiguous not only because we are in the middle of a presidential campaign. There was another reason. Many citizens are concerned that the idea of fair and free elections, built upon tough but informative campaigns, and analyzed by fair-minded journalists, was not just an idea under pressure. It was an idea in jeopardy. Continue reading

Public media seek integrity in digital age

Trust “is perhaps the most important asset public broadcasting carries forward into evolving public media future,” writes Byron Knight.

Knight should know. He’s had a long career in public broadcasting. Now, he is co-director of the Editorial Integrity for Public Media Project, a ground-breaking attempt to define public media’s principles for a digital age.

Leading public broadcasters, NPR, PBS, and many stations have been drawing up a new ethics charter. At their website,, the project posts its draft guidelines.

Recently, my ethics center and Wisconsin Public Radio and Television co-hosted an evaluation of the draft guidelines. The project is an ambitious example of what I call “integrated ethics,” the attempt to construct a new mixed media ethics.

Many other major news organizations are creating integrated ethics, from the BBC to the Canadian Association of Journalists. Within public media, there are many who believe that the future of citizen and government support rests on the successful articulation of what is distinctive and important about public media.

Juan Williams and Lisa Simeone

Why this urgency about trust and integrity?

One reason is recent high-profile controversies such as the firing of NPR analyst Juan Williams. More recently, we witnessed the confusing firing-but-then-retaining of NPR opera host Lisa Simeone. Simeone’s impartiality was questioned when she became a spokeswoman for Washington, D.C.-based Occupy Wall Street events.

lsimeone_WDAV.jpgLisa Simeone, photo courtesy of WDAV.


The controversy has hurt public broadcasting in the public eye and in the purse. Politicians have threatened to end state funding; citizens have stopped their donations.

Another reason for the controversy is decreasing levels of state funding. This means that NPR, PBS, and others have to seek funding from, and to form partnerships with, a diverse range of groups in civic society. Many of these groups have political agendas and social causes to advance.

In a partisan public sphere, what happens to public broadcasting’s claim to impartiality when increasing amounts of its journalism is funded by such groups?

New editorial guidelines to maintain the public’s trust appear to be essential.

The integrity project aims to do at least three big things: define public media; create guidelines for accepting money; advise journalists on how frank they can be online.

We, the public media

Note that I use the term “public media.”

The integrity project uses this term to signal that, in a digital age, we need an understanding of public journalism that goes beyond traditional forms, such as radio and television. The idea of public journalism should include websites and bloggers, among others. But any conception will be contested.

Public media may claim to serve the public, rather than a “commercial imperative.” It may claim to be based in local communities, advancing education and the arts. But commercial news media will reply that they too serve the public and educate citizens. Is the difference between public and commercial media only the degree to which commercial factors play a role in their journalism? Or, is there a principled distinction?

The same complexity confronts the creation of adequate “firewalls” between journalists and funders. The project’s new guidelines discuss who not to take money from (e.g., extreme groups like the Klu Klux Klan), and under what conditions to use caution (e.g., when funders are likely be the subjects of news coverage). Also, the draft guidelines rely heavily on transparency about public journalism and the identity of its funders.

Yet transparency cannot, by itself, solve the problem of editorial integrity or fix the public’s poor opinion of their media. Transparent journalists can be biased, inaccurate or irresponsible. Good journalism also requires superior methods of investigation and verification that result in important stories. Trust is a combination of method and accountability. Moreover, how far does transparency go? Should newsrooms take money from groups that are not transparent about their own funding?

In my view, guidelines need a balance between “internal” newsroom values that encourage great journalism and “external” values that encourage journalists to show the public how their work was produced. It’s the difference between “doing” and “showing what you do.”

Chances of success?

Given the complexities of designing a new integrated ethics, what are some obstacles that face anyone who develops integrated ethics?

  1. Size matters: Creating a new ethic is a daunting task when dealing with something as multi-layered as public broadcasting or a global news organization. Quandaries multiply as we move vertically from the local to the national level, and as we move horizontally across platforms from news to arts to educational programming.
  2. The ethics of difference: In addition to comprehensive principles, we need concrete rules for specific forms of journalism, from reporting and blogging to posting tweets. Do we want to hold the online journalist to the same rules as the print reporter? Are the values of NPR journalism relevant to NPR arts programs?  Can we allow these different practices while remaining consistent with principles?
  3. Buy-in or ignore? Any new system of guidelines needs buy-in from the organization’s producers, editors and journalists. Guidelines handed down from on high will get little traction. It remains to be seen whether the public media guidelines will secure buy-in.
  4. Monitoring and articulation: Initiatives need to monitor how the guidelines work over several years, and to use that feedback to revise principles. Projects need people who can explain clearly to the public how the guidelines work when future controversies arise.

Future of integrated ethics

Am I saying the quest for integrity is a hopeless task? No. I am saying we must be realistic about the difficulties of integrated ethics.

Even if the integrity project does not have dramatic success in the short run, the effort will not be lost. It will provide a platform from which others can work.

It is praiseworthy that these journalists care so much about their craft. They are pioneers in reinventing media ethics.

I predict that within five years these ethical projects will produce a fairly clear picture of integrated ethics in a digital age. I suspect that we will have good examples of guidelines for the most troublesome areas, such as transparency and funding.

Let me finish with one last worrying thought.

Enthusiasts of new media may regard public media’s quest for integrity as an old-fashioned concern that is out of sync with our chaotic, interactive media world. As one participant at the evaluation meeting said: “I sometimes feel I am defending a form of journalism that is considered a dinosaur.”

I don’t think we are trying to save a dinosaur. Public media and mainstream media will continue to be a significant part of our media ecology for years to come. We still need newsrooms that care about standards of impartiality and verification, and the public trust.

Deliberative democracy depends on deliberative media.

Fighting for the soul of journalism

 The question, “Who is a journalist?”, has special importance in an era where citizens can commit random acts of journalism with the flick of a computer key.

However, after several years of debate, people tire of the question. Is this just semantics – how you define the word ‘journalism’?

I think not.

Recent developments in the United States show that if journalists are unable to define who they are and how they differ from other media users, the public sphere will be filled by political partisans, bogus news organizations, and imposters claiming to be journalists.

Across the United States, right-wing nonprofit foundations such as the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity are setting up internet “wire services” and web sites that claim to do journalism – to cover politics while pushing for free market and libertarian policies.

The foundations train activists to use media and they hire journalists to cover state legislatures. They apply for membership in state press galleries. In January, the Franklin Center established; earlier it established the the Illinois Statehouse News.

These partisan groups take advantage of the reduction in mainstream reporters that cover state legislatures. They know that newsrooms with fewer staff will be tempted to use their stories. Therefore, partisan sites are increasingly successful in getting their stories into newspapers or in having their editorials discussed on radio talk shows.

The mainstream outlets that pick up their reports often don’t explain that partisan groups constructed the stories. Also, the partisans deny that they are partisan, although they are reluctant to name their donors. They claim to be doing ethical and objective journalism. Some claim to follow the code of the Society of Professional Journalists.

My state of Wisconsin is a testing ground for this partisan assault on journalism. If this activist model works here, these groups are prepared to establish similar services across the country as they prepare for a presidential election next year.

This is not a question of semantics. It is a battle for the soul of journalism.

Who are these guys anyway?

Take, for example, The site’s “about” page lists the names of three reporters with journalism experience. But dig deeper.
The web site is sponsored by the Franklin Center founded in 2009 as a national organization “to train and support investigative journalism and journalism endeavors.”  Franklin is supported by the libertarian Sam Adams Alliance and Foundation.

Consider another example, the right-wing activist web site, Media Trackers,  It describes itself as a “conservative non-profit, non-partisan investigative watchdog dedicated to promoting accountability in the media and government across Wisconsin.” A ‘donate’ button on the site indicates that it is supported by the Virginia-based, right-wing American Majority. Donations will help develop conservative activities and support potential conservative political candidates.

In Wisconsin, supporting free markets and keeping government accountable can be “code” for supporting Tea Party protests, attacking the Democrats, and supporting conservative Gov. Scott Walker’s policies. The trouble with challenging these partisan ventures is that they justify what they do in standard journalistic terms. They claim they are acting as watchdog on elected officials. They are digging up facts that keep elected officials accountable.

Replying to the partisans

How should journalists reply to partisans who claim to be do journalism? The only way journalists can distinguish themselves from impostures is to appeal to their ethical aims, standards, and practices.

First we need to change the question. The question is not: “Is this journalism?” since almost any public commentary can count as an act of journalism. A better question is: Is this good or bad journalism in the public interest? We adopt a normative approach.  We ask whether journalism-like associations are following the standards of non-partisan public journalism.

What standards are those? They include:

  1. Public journalists are true public servants, not activists: Public journalism organizations are committed to serving the public at large with impartial information and perspectives. Their allegiance is not to a specific group, ideology, or cause, which they advance at every turn. Public journalists are not actors (or activists) in the public sphere insisting that officials follow their ideological principles. Public journalists stand among contending groups; they do not stand with (or work for) a political group. Public journalists inform the public on what the groups say about issues.
  2. Public journalists are truly impartial and objective: Being impartial or “non-partisan” means much more than reporting facts. Being non-partisan has to do with how journalists select the facts, and what stories they do or ignore. Non-partisan journalists follow all the facts to wherever they lead, without the straightjacket of ideology.
  3. Public journalists are truly independent: Truly independent reporters do not self-censure. They feel free to do stories that go against the political leanings of employers or funders.
  4. Public journalists are truly transparent: Nonprofit, non-partisan journalism organizations are willing to let the public know who pays for their news and who donates to their organizations. They allow the public to assess the integrity of the journalism.

To be a true public journalist, you need to satisfy, as much as possible, all of these values. You are not a public journalist because you satisfy one standard, e.g. you report facts. You can’t say that you are a watchdog when you watchdog only one entity — the party that opposes your ideology.

Blurring the line

Blurring the line between journalism and political activism means that the public may be unable to distinguish between partisan groups that use journalistic techniques for their own ends, and journalists who use journalistic techniques to impartially inform the public.

My objection to these new wire services is not political. I’d be as troubled if left-wing groups participated in the same charade. Nor do I think it is wrong for these political groups to promote their causes. But I object when these groups claim to be non-partisan journalists.

The truth is that the agenda of these foundations is not to do objective journalism but to train writers as foot soldiers for their political causes.

Note: This blog is an abbreviated version of an article to appear in Media magazine.