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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: News

Engagement and Serving the Republic

In a time of Trump, how should journalists serve the public? Should they join the protests? Become a partisan, opposition press? Or stick to neutrally reporting the facts? In this three-part series, media ethicist Stephen J. A. Ward, author of “Radical Media Ethics,” rejects these options. A proper response requires a radical rethink of journalism ethics. He urges journalists to practice democratically engaged journalism, which views journalists as social advocates of a special kind. They follow a method of objective engagement which Ward calls pragmatic objectivity. Journalists of this ilk are neither partisans nor neutral reporters of fact. In the first article in the series, Ward defines democratically engaged journalism. In the second article, he explains and applies pragmatic objectivity. In this article, Ward shows how democratically engaged journalism opposes Trump’s tribalism of Us versus Them.

Throughout this series, I stress the need to articulate norms for journalism viewed as a form of advocacy, a democratically engaged journalism.

Some would say this is old news.

They might note that journalism ethics already thinks the political aim of journalism is to serve the public, or a republic. Codes underline the democratic duties of a free press.

I disagree. “Serving the public” or “informing citizens for democracy” are high-minded phrases insufficient to define the political ends of journalism. There is something distinct about objective engagement not found in codes.

In journalism ethics, we should not rest content with vague promises to serve the public. As we saw in the first article, journalists need to be precise about what sort of democracy is on offer. I proposed that journalists promote a plural, egalitarian, liberal democracy.

In the second article, we saw how the meaning of serving the public depends on whether journalism is viewed as a neutral reporting of facts; or, an impartial (but not neutral) engaged journalism of critical analysis and courageous investigations of the powerful.

I now introduce a third reason to not rest content: the problem of patriotism. It is said that journalists serve the public as patriots. But what does patriotism require? What kind of patriotism advances plural democracy?

In a time of Trump, it is imperative for both citizens and journalists to define patriotism. Trump and his supporters endorse a narrow patriotism, a tribalism of Us versus Them.

His political slogans, “Make America Great Again” and “America First” appear to encourage a strong, or extreme, patriotism that could justify aggressive foreign policies that would make the solution of global issues, through international cooperation, even more difficult.

An ethic of objectively engaged journalism needs to say what form of patriotism is compatible with its political aim of protecting liberal democracy.

Therefore, in this final installment, I argue that: (1) Patriotism, not truth-telling or objectivity, is the de facto master norm of journalism ethics; (2) Journalists should practice a moderate patriotism that opposes an extreme Trump-style patriotism. (3) Radical ethics means that journalists in a digital world should become global patriots.

Patriotism As Master Norm

Patriotism is a group loyalty, a special affection for one’s country that prompts people to do things they would not do for other countries, such as dying on the battlefield. It can be a quiet love of country or it can be a fierce, anti-democratic emotion that silences criticism.

Patriotism is a contested value. Some praise patriotism as a primary civic virtue that binds a society together. Critics reply that patriotism can be aggressive and xenophobic.

Patriotism is a serious and long-standing problem for journalism ethics because, as an emotion-laden loyalty to country, it can prompt journalists to practice their craft unethically. Patriotic feelings may cause journalists to promote extreme nationalism or violate their duties of truth telling when reporting on issues affecting their nation.

Patriotism has long been the master norm of journalism ethics. Patriotism tends to trump other values, where they conflict. Much of the history of war reporting is a history of reporting patriotically in support of a nation’s war effort, and the circulating of propaganda.

Yet patriotism’s role in codes is usually implicit or unstated, lying just below the surface—below the high-minded appeals to objective reporting and impartial truth telling. But, in times of social division or threat, journalism’s commitment to patriotism reveals itself.

Today, the influence is worrisome. In 2016, coverage of the Brexit referendum, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the Trump campaign provided examples of a toxic mix of patriotism and nationalism to produce inaccurate portrayals of other cultures and minorities.

Moderate, Democratic Patriotism

We can place the kinds of patriotism on a continuum with extreme patriotism on one end and weak patriotism on the other end. Moderate patriotism lies between these extremes.

Extreme patriotism includes: (1) a special affection for one’s country as superior to others; (2) an exclusive concern for one’s country’s well-being and few constraints on the pursuit of one’s country’s interests; and (3) automatic or uncritical support for one’s country’s actions.

Moderate patriotism differs. It consists of a special but not exclusive concern for one’s country. It supports a morally constrained pursuit of national goals; and conditional and critical support of one’s country’s actions. The loyalty is genuine but limited.

I favour a moderate, democratic, patriotism, a love of democratic principles. Democratic patriotism is a love of one’s country, traditions and practices in so far as they promote the values and principles of liberal democracy, as discussed in the first two articles.

Democratic patriotism is not identical with love of a strong leader. It is love of a society dedicated to the flourishing of citizens under liberal principles and institutions.

This is a patriotism for plural liberal democracy and a democratically engaged media.

To be a democratic patriot, it is not necessary to deny personal affection for one’s country. But it is important to constantly subject that affection to public scrutiny, logic and fact, and exposure to larger non-parochial values such as global justice and human rights.

The Compatibility Problem

How compatible are journalism and patriotism? They are largely compatible if journalists subscribe to moderate democratic patriotism.

The democratic patriot and the democratic journalist will be on the same side of a number of public issues: both will support accurate, unbiased information; free speech; a critical news media; and a public sphere with diverse perspectives. Both will favor the protection of liberties, transparency in public affairs, and the evaluation of appeals to patriotism.

Strong or extreme patriotism is largely incompatible with democratic journalism because it tends to support editorial limits on the press, or it exerts pressure on journalists to be uncritical, partisan, or economical with the truth.

Journalism’s democratic values come under severe test when a country decides to go to war, to deny civil liberties for security reasons, or to ignore the constitution in order to quell domestic unrest. The duty of journalists to critique a country’s leadership may be very unpopular among some citizens in times of war.

The publication of a government’s human and civil rights abuses may lead to accusations that the press is aiding the “enemy.” Officials and citizens may condemn journalists who report illegal or unethical actions in foreign countries by one’s nation military or intelligence communities.

Nevertheless, the public journalist is still duty-bound to resist such pressures.

In times of uncertainty, journalists have a duty to continue to provide news, investigations, controversial analysis, and multiple perspectives. They should not mute their criticisms, and they should maintain skepticism toward all sources.

Journalists need to fact-check and verify patriotic claims like any other important political claim in the public sphere. And they need to robustly defend the freedom to question such claims.

If journalists abandon this critical democratic role, they will fail to help the public to rationally assess public policy.

Global Patriots?

I have done what I can to make love of country and love of journalism compatible. But, in a media-linked world, such a ‘fix’ for the problem of patriotism is incomplete.

A digital journalism cannot help the world address urgent global problems, from immigration to terrorism, unless its practitioners transcend, to a significant degree, their reliance on tribal ways of thinking.

The Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene, in his book Moral Tribes, explains why. Evolution has created a human brain that thinks about moral problems in tribal (or group loyal) terms. It tends to see issues as a matter of Us versus Them. Patriotism in society and in journalism, e.g., propagandist war reporting, is another form of tribalism.

But here is the kicker: this form of thinking is hopelessly outdated for a world where many of our most urgent problems are global issues requiring cooperation among nations, not Us versus Them tribalism.

Yet the latter is precisely the stance that Trumpism shouts from the rooftops: a suspicion of “Them”, and a willingness to put America “first” –even if unjust to Them? This “dog-eat-dog” tribalism made some sense in the past, but now it may wipe our species off the face of this blue planet.

Greene, like myself, think we need a global ethic that helps us resolve disputes between groups with different tribal ways. In ethics, we “go global.”

If this analysis is true, we have reason to question the master-norm status of patriotism. Journalists should regard themselves as global patriots, first; national patriots, second.

A global patriot bases her ethics on what I call moral globalism. Her primary values are cross-border principles of human flourishing and human rights, including the promotion of democratic institutions globally and working in good faith on global issues. Journalists see themselves as public communicators to the world, to a global public sphere.

Global patriotism, then, is loyalty to the largest group possible—humanity. The global claim of patriotism is the claim that humanity makes on all of us.

Globalism does not deny that people can have legitimate feelings of concern for their country or compatriots; it only insists that such feelings must not violate the non-parochial principles of human rights and other global values.

Conclusion: Opposing Trump Tribalism

What are some of the implications for journalism practice of adopting a moderate form of democratic patriotism?

The main implication is that a democratically engaged journalism should critique Trump tribalism in the public sphere. Wherever the president or his supporters claim that some action is demanded by patriotism, or is an expression of patriotism, journalists need to ask what form of patriotism is presumed and what evidence supports the claim.

The questions to be asked and investigated are many: Does patriotism demand the dismantling of Obamacare? A travel ban on Muslim countries?

Are media leaks about Russian interference in American politics an unpatriotic journalism? What constitutes an “enemy of the people?” The alleged unethical media or extreme nationalists?

Who will do more harm than good for the republic in the long run: advocates of a return to a fierce tribalism or advocates of a more global ethics and foreign policy?

Journalists should not assume that when Trump talks about patriotism and waves the flag that what is being discussed is a common or unobjectionable love of country, but rather an extreme patriotism, that can be prompted by anti-democratic impulses.

The problematic nature of appeals to patriotism means that journalism should reflect on the relationship of patriotism, democracy, and criticism of one’s country and leaders. Moderate democratic patriotism agrees with Spanish philosopher Ortega Y Gasset that, in a democracy, “criticism is patriotism.”

In the end, everyone in society has an interest in our attitudes to patriotism. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in Political Emotions, argued that liberal democracies have a responsibility to inculcate in citizens the appropriate patriotic attitudes.

So, I end the series. I have sketched the basic topics, challenges and ideas of a radical approach to reforming journalism ethics.

The most important task of journalism ethics is to develop these notions, and to find ways to teach and implement them in practice.

Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator. He is Distinguished Lecturer in Ethics at the University of British Columbia, Courtesy Professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, and founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

This post originally published at MediaShift. Reposted here with permission.

The Role of Today’s Journalists: Q&A with Al Tompkins

Al Tompkins is a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute and author of “Aim for the Heart: A Guide for TV Producers and Reporters.” We talked to Tompkins about the role of journalists in today’s non-stop, fast-paced media environment.


CJE: What is the role of a journalist today?


Tompkins: Part of what we’re trying to do is verify. We’re trying to understand. Our job isn’t to persuade. So sometimes that involves testing the truth; sometimes it involves just reporting the facts as we find them. There’s no one way to do our job, but our central question is, “What does the public need to know in order to make sense of this?”—in order to figure out not just what happened but why it happened and what’s going to happen next and who benefits and who suffers because of it. A good chunk of what we do every day is just sense-making.


Journalists are generally not in a popularity contest either. Certainly, they have a business that they have to endure but the fact of the matter is people generally don’t appreciate information that doesn’t jive with what they already believe. It’s not convenient to get served up a menu of stuff that is not what you want to hear. And for Trump supporters particularly, there’s darn little that they want to hear because it doesn’t fit with why they supported the guy and they still do in very significant numbers, popularity polls notwithstanding, there are significant numbers of people in the United States who completely report Donald Trump’s point of view. And if there is a criticism I would level, it is we seldom hear from those people except in a marginalized, nut-case kind of way. They have a voice in the same way that critics do. And that voice ought to be understood.


Should journalists do anything differently to improve public trust?


It depends on what they think their job is. If they believe their job is to be an antagonist, then they should change because just being an antagonist is not being a journalist. The job of the journalist is to report, verify and put into context what’s going on regardless of whether or not you agree with it; regardless of whether it fits your needs; regardless of whether it hurts or harms you personally. Will you fairly, accurately, thoroughly report things that do not benefit you or what you personally believe in? That to me is the deciding factor as to whether you are a journalist or just a provider of information or opinion. Fairly, accurately, thoroughly, even-handedly report information with which you personally disagree.


How does the non-stop news cycle affect journalists’ coverage of government?


Narrow and deep reporting is almost always more valuable than wide and thin reporting. The what of a story is what moves across social media. The why, the how, the what happens next and what does this actually mean takes a journalist to figure out.


I would say where you should spend your energy is less in chasing the bathrobe and more in chasing the immigration story or the confirmation story. So one of the questions that we can have is – what do people need to know versus what might they graze? If all you do is serve the people who are information-snackers, you’re not really fulfilling their needs. You’re only fulfilling the momentary appetite of what’s easy to pick. Part of what we have to become is an essential part of people’s civic life. And I use that word civic intentionally because one of the things that I think we are lacking at the moment is a sense of civics; a sense of what it means to be a good citizen. And part of what it means to be a good citizen is to be selfless to your community, to be sure that you’re thinking about the long-term and short-term effects of what you’re doing and not to be simply self-serving.


What is one thing that journalists can do differently when covering politicians?


One of the biggest criticisms I have of how we cover politicians and politics is that we penalize people for changing their minds based on facts. Let me give you an example. Let’s say for example for 20 years, I’ve been a global warming denier but now, faced with overwhelming scientific evidence, I say, “You know what, I think the evidence now is so large that I have to be convinced that there is such a thing as climate change and that people are doing something to contribute to it.” You would eviscerate me. You’d call me a flip-flopper. There was a time I think, although I could be wrong, that we thought of people who were willing to change their minds based on evidence as enlightened. But now, the only way that you can be elected is to be intractable, regardless of the evidence. We as journalists propagate that by calling them flip-floppers, by pointing out that they changed their minds and by showing that they have been inconsistent on something. As people evolve their thinking based on the evidence I don’t think they ought to be penalized for it.


Some argue that journalists calling out false statements or using the term lie hinder their objectivity. What are your thoughts on this?


There are lies; but to me, that’s a pretty strong word. Lie implies intent and in order for you to know intent, you really have to have evidence. Just because they say something that the facts don’t bear out, doesn’t mean they intended to do that. For example, I don’t think Kellyanne Conway intended to mislead people into believing there was a massacre in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I just don’t think she knew. So you can call it whatever you want—misinformation, bad information, lack of information—but I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that she attempted to lie on that; I just don’t think she was informed.


Roundtable: Truth, Trump and journalism

We asked several media experts to weigh in on some of the ethical dilemmas facing journalists as they report on the Trump administration. From dealing with dishonest sources to using the term “lie” to describe falsehoods, our experts say the challenges the press faces today should be met with a renewed commitment to the core tenets of journalism.

Some members of President Trump’s administration have been accused of dishonesty when dealing with the press. Should media outlets continue booking guests they believe have been dishonest? And what, if any, journalistic practices should change when interviewing such guests?

Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post: We may not have the luxury of excluding these officials, since they are in positions of authority and power. However, we can bring particular awareness and preparation to our knowledge that they haven’t been truthful in the past, and be ready to challenge them, especially in the moment.


Keith Woods, NPR: I think our job is to report on facts and inaccuracies. So talking to the official spokespeople for the White House is critical. Our job, when there is reckless disregard for facts, is to ramp up our truth-telling, fact-checking efforts and continue to show the public the actions of those elected and appointed to represent them. Our sin isn’t in talking to people who continuously get things wrong; it’s when we fail to report their falsehoods.


Dave Zweifel, Wisconsin State Journal: I think it all depends on who the interviewee is, what position he or she holds. Frankly, I think that the interview shows should stop inviting a Kellyanne Conway, for example, who has become known as a notorious liar, famous for her admiration for “alternative facts.” Besides, it’s become apparent that she doesn’t really know what she’s talking about and is frequently contradicted by her own boss, the president. There are others, though, who are key people in the president’s administration that should be heard, lies and all. What practices need to change, though, is that interviewers need to point out obvious falsehoods or have other guests on the show that can do that … to let obvious false statements stand is a disservice to the reader/viewer. If a guest refuses to appear again, that fact should be pointed out with an explanation why the invitation was refused.


Scott Cohn, freelance journalist: Like it or not, any administration gets to choose its spokespeople. A blanket refusal to book an administration official or spokesperson because he or she might possibly give dishonest answers does not further the ultimate goal for journalists (and the public) of getting to the truth. Instead, the journalist must come to every interview fully prepared and armed to the teeth with facts, and not be afraid to question any statements that appear to be false. But it is important to draw a distinction here between official administration spokespeople and “surrogates,” i.e., people who purport to speak for the administration but have no official role. If they have demonstrated dishonesty in the past, there is no reason to continue speaking with them, any more than there is a reason to deal with any other source that has proven not to be credible.


I would add that this question speaks to a broader issue that predates the Trump administration. Particularly when it comes to cable news, but by no means limited to that medium, too much of what passes for journalism is in fact simply “talking heads” allowed to speak unchallenged. If the current dynamic in Washington leads to more actual reporting on this administration and future ones, the profession and the country will be better off.


Jill Geisler, Loyola Chicago: “Dishonesty” is a word that we need to treat with care. Journalists understand that sources of all types may not tell them complete truths, may provide information out of context, may reframe issues to appear better or worse than objective facts support, and some may intentionally provide false information. Journalists have dealt with these issues long before the Trump administration. They do so by persistent questioning, fact-finding and reporting what they learn. They respectfully challenge and responsibly report.


Having said that, we know that respected fact-checkers have found that this president and some of his representatives and supporters have been prolific in providing “alternative facts” – i.e. untruthful or deceptive replies.


So, what about your question about booking such people as guests on media outlets? I think there’s a difference between interviewing individuals who are appointed or elected members of the Trump administration, in their official roles, and booking “guests.” For example, CNN used some Trump supporters as surrogates in panels during the election. If those people have consistently dissembled and don’t now hold official positions in the administration, then CNN can reconsider booking them. If they hold official positions, the very nature of their positions keeps journalists from avoiding them.

In his time in office so far, Trump has been openly hostile toward the press. What, if any, journalistic practices should change in response to this?

Sullivan: We should not rise to the bait of being the enemy or opposition party. We should realize that this is a political strategy that has worked very well for Donald Trump. Our response should be to do our jobs of examining the facts, challenging assertions, digging into documentation, developing sources and holding the administration accountable. We should be neither friend nor enemy, but watchdog and citizens’ representative.


Woods: Journalism has been reviled by powerful people since the first presses rolled. Our job doesn’t change because the president dislikes us. But we do have the responsibility–and opportunity–to explain ourselves and prove the power and relevance of strong journalism as the president calls more and more of the public’s attention to the role of the press in America.


Zweifel: I don’t think there’s a need to change any journalistic practices. Throughout history, there have always been politicians who’ve been hostile to the press. The best bet is to keep doing the job we’re trained to do, digging for the truth and informing our readers. And, we should also make sure our readers know of the president’s (or any other politician’s) hostility. They can judge who’s right.


Cohn: Very little should change. Trump is not the first president to be hostile to the press, even if he has raised that hostility to a new level. He won’t be the last. Journalists must continue to do our jobs, unswayed by the inevitable personal attacks on us and our colleagues. We know how to report, and the fundamentals do not change just because the person or entity we are reporting on does not like our findings. The truth is the truth, and I firmly believe that readers and viewers are ultimately smart enough to recognize it even amid shouts of “fake news.” Having said that, it is particularly important in this environment for journalists to be accurate and fair, and to take extra pains to do so. The reporting on the Martin Luther King bust in the Oval Office is a prime example of the kind of unforced error we cannot afford. There will always be honest mistakes, and this one was corrected quickly. But why was everyone so quick to accept the premise that the bust had been removed? What would it have taken to double check or seek a comment before reporting it? The most effective response to a hostile source is to do our jobs impeccably. Our most powerful weapon is the truth.


Geisler: The journalistic response should be a heightened commitment to the First Amendment, to investigative reporting, to keeping bias out of our journalism, even when we are angered by the injustice of the presidential vilification, and we should make certain we support each other in public forums such as news conferences. If the president or a representative refuses to answer one journalist’s question as a way to punish that person, and the question is of importance to citizens, other journalists present should pick up the baton and keep asking the question. This isn’t just to create a theater of solidarity among journalists, it is to put competition aside in pursuit of information the public deserves to know.

Some argue that journalists calling out false statements or using the term “lie” hinder their objectivity. What are your thoughts on this?

Zweifel: I think it’s a journalist’s duty to call out false statements and when warranted brand a statement of claim a “lie.” I applaud The New York Times for doing this on occasion. Being “objective” doesn’t mean we should ignore basic facts. That’s more a disservice to so-called objectivity than pretending that we don’t know if a statement is a lie when, in fact, we do.


Cohn: Our business is about facts. If a statement is demonstrably false, we have a duty to say so. That does not hinder objectivity; that IS objectivity. But characterizing a statement as a “lie” is a different matter. The term “lie” implies intent, and in most cases it is impossible to know the intent of the person making the statement. That is not to say we can never characterize a false statement as a lie. If we can provide evidence that the person knew a statement was false when he or she made it—for example, the person wrote or said something different in the past—then the statement is objectively a lie, and we have a duty to characterize it as such. (Then again, the original statement or writing might be the lie, and the more recent statement might be the truth. See how tricky it is?) The bottom line is that we should report what we know, not what we think. If we know a statement to be false, we must say so. If we know a statement to be willfully false—and that is a high bar—we should call it what is: a lie. But if we don’t know that, we have no business reporting it.


Sullivan: I would use “lie” sparingly—only when we have full reason to believe that a falsehood is intentional. And we should be ready to use it, using the same threshold, for people other than Trump. If a news organization isn’t prepared to use the word for a business leader or a foreign head of state, then it shouldn’t be using it for the U.S. president. But when something is clearly an intentional falsehood, use it. We took too long to use the clearly understood word “torture” when the facts called for it. Same thing here.


Geisler: The word “lie,” used as a verb, should be handled with care. It says the speaker knew it was false and intended to deceive. If we know the speaker’s knowledge and intent, the word applies as a verb. But how do we know that? At the same time, the word “lie” as a noun, can mean “falsehood”—so, it might be used, as The New York Times did.


I’m splitting hairs pretty finely here, but I do see a difference. Still, the word “lie” always carries with it a certain name-calling, and journalists should avoid putting themselves in the position of appearing to be attacking. There are plenty of other words: falsehood, untruth, fabrication, fiction, distortion, whopper, tall tale, for starters. As for calling out false statements, yes, journalists should not hesitate to clearly state that what has been said is untrue—and to do it in chyrons, headlines, tweets, interviews and within the body of stories. We can’t let “alternative facts” overtake provable truth. It’s on us to provide the proof.


Woods: I’m not a fan of using the word “lie” without a fairly high level of proof that a person intended to mislead. I think we can do all that public service journalism is designed to do—identifying errors, exaggerations and false or misleading information—without suggesting that a person intended to tell a lie. It may be so; it may strongly appear to be intentional. But if we can’t prove intent, we should save that powerful tool for when we have the factual goods to justify it.

Three duties in a time of Trump

In the turmoil of a Trump election victory, and the dawn of a robust right-wing American government, it is time to do journalism ethics with utmost seriousness.

Journalism ethics is not a set of formal rules that students are forced to memorize and then find these ideals inoperable in the workplace.

Journalism ethics is the heart and soul of why you are a journalist, and why it matters.

Today, this soul-searching begins with a large question: What sort of journalism does America need to meet the great political challenges ahead?

What is the point of journalism practice in a time of Trump?

My answer is: to protect liberal democracy by embracing three related duties:

  • the duty to advance dialogue across racial, ethnic, and economic divisions
  • the duty to explain and defend pluralistic democracy against its foes
  • the duty to practice the method of “pragmatic objectivity”

The duties work together to promote an egalitarian, plural, tolerant, democratic polity, which should be the political goal of public journalism. The duties work against a populist democracy dominated by a “strong man,” where freedom is freedom for the most powerful and abrasive.

The duties oppose the untrammeled, vengeful will of intolerant citizens who see the election as a “winner take all” victory for their side.

trump time

One cannot discuss the point of a practice in the abstract. Journalism ethics begins with some perception of the media’s social context. What is this context?

We live in a time of danger for moderate, liberal democracy with its divisions of power, freedom of expression, protections for the rights of all citizens, and the empowerment of minorities despite the displeasure of traditionalists.

Trump time has been a long time coming.

It has been long prepared for by: bad education, American insularity, and the myth of exceptionalism; incorporation of fundamentalist religion into politics; the deepening of economic inequality; seeing strength in guns and the person of violence; mistaking ‘in-your-face’ ranting for honest, democratic communication; and the worship of fierce partisanship over compromise.

Other contributors: An extreme patriotism which views those who disagree as enemies of the state; regarding America as white, male-dominated, and Christian; an insouciance toward fact and a suspicion of intellect; the preference for character assignation over rational argument; a fear of ‘others’ and the replacement of thought by slogan.

The result? A society populated by too many politically ignorant and apathetic consumer citizens, easy targets of demagogues. Now, these unsteady forces have the power of social media to create a totalitarian mindset in the heart of what was once the world’s greatest liberal democracy.

What to do?

Given this uncertain future, what should journalists do?

There are two options that should not be followed. One option is for journalists to counter the bombast and distorted statements of the Trumpites by producing a bombastic, counter-balancing opposition press. There is already too much rant-induced media.

“Here is where the first media duty arises: the duty to promote dialogue across divisions.”

The second option is for journalists to see themselves, delusionally, as only neutral chroniclers, as stenographers of ‘fact’ as the political drama unfolds. This is an outdated notion of objectivity formulated in the early 1900s for a different social context.

The best response lies between journalistic ranting and the mincing neutrality of stenographic journalism: it is a democratically engaged journalism committed to three duties.

A democratically engaged journalism is not neutral about its ultimate goals. It regards its ethical norms and methods as means to the flourishing of a self-governing citizenry. Here is where the first media duty arises: the duty to promote dialogue across divisions.

In a column on this site over a year ago, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I talked about the media’s duty to mend. Journalists have a duty to convene public fora and provide channels of information that allow for frank but respectful dialogue across divisions. They seek to mend the tears in the fabric of the body politic.

In a time of Trump, the duty to practice dialogic journalism is urgent. This means challenging stereotypes and the penchant to demonize. It means linking the victims of hate speech to citizens appalled by such discrimination, building coalitions of cross-cultural support.

Go ‘deep’ politically

However, fostering the right sort of democracy-building conversations is not enough.

Conversations need to be well-informed. Here is where the second duty arises.

Journalism needs to devote major resources to an explanatory journalism that delves deeply into the country’s fundamental political values and institutions, while challenging the myths and fears surrounding issues such as immigration.

The movement of fact-checking web sites is a good idea but insufficient. It is not enough to know that a politician made an inaccurate statement. Many citizens need a re-education in liberal democracy—those broad structures in which specific facts and values takes their place. They will be called on soon to judge many issues that depend on that civic knowledge.

“Journalism needs to devote major resources to an explanatory journalism that delves deeply into the country’s fundamental political values and institutions…”

John Stuart Mill once said that if we do not constantly question why we hold basic beliefs, they become “dead dogma.” How many citizens would be hard-pressed to say what democracy is (beyond voting) or exhibit an understanding of the history and nature of their own constitution beyond phrases such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? How many have a virulent and imbalanced commitment to the Second Amendment alone?

Such a democracy is flying blind and vulnerable to demagogues.

Here is a small list of some topics for explanatory political journalism:

  • The idea of a constitutional liberal democracy: Not liberal in the derogatory sense of favoring big government but liberal in making the basis of society the protection of a core of basic liberties. Plus, the idea of constitutional protection of the rights of all citizens, including minorities, against the wavering, often tyrannical, will of the majority.
  • The division of powers: The extent of the powers of a president and his duty to uphold constitutional rights including not threatening action against critical speakers. Also, the idea of judicial independence from any president who would try to tell the courts what rights to recognize or reject.
  • Deep background on immigration: Especially the difference between immigrants and refugees, the international refugee agreements, and the human face of the immigrants and refugees who come to this land.
  • The meaning of political correctness: Its origins, the abuse of the term, and its ‘cover’ for hate speech. Plus investigations into groups that support hate speech and thinly ‘disguised’ racism online.
  • The difference between a free press and a democratic press: A free press values the freedom to say what it likes, no matter what the harm done. A democratic press uses its freedom to strengthen and unify plural democracy, while minimizing harm.

Pragmatic objectivity

In carrying out these two duties, journalists are not neutral chroniclers. They are avid investigators of the facts, but they are not stenographers repeating other people’s alleged facts. They accept the third duty, of pragmatic objectivity—to systematically test the social and political views of themselves, and others.

Those who adopt pragmatic objectivity are engaged journalists who see their norms and methods as means to a larger political goal—providing accurate, verified and well-evidenced interpretations of events and policies as the necessary informational base for democracy. Their stories are not without perspective or conclusions, yet such judgments are evaluated by criteria that go beyond citing specific facts, from logical rigor to coherence with pre-existing knowledge.

“…the third duty, of pragmatic objectivity—to systematically test the social and political views of themselves, and others.”

Pragmatic objectivity recognizes that any code of journalism ethics is based on a more fundamental political and social conception of a good society—in this case an egalitarian and plural democracy. Within this overarching set of values, journalists can go about being as factual, verificational, and impartial in daily practice as they please. But they do not pretend that they are completely neutral, without values and goals. Objectivity is not a value-free zone.

In my book, The Invention of Journalism Ethics, some years ago, I introduced this idea of pragmatic objectivity as a method for testing any form of journalism. My aim was to provide a substitute for the traditional idea of news objectivity as eliminating interpretation and perspective. I believe this conception is now a timely norm for today’s journalism.

Ethics as political morality

In sum, the new social context calls on journalists to clarify their political goals and roles.

In the days ahead, the key issues of journalism ethics will be questions of political morality—the way we think a democracy ought to be organized, and the media’s role in it.

Many journalism conferences focus on practical “tool box” tips, such as using new technology; or, they focus on how to attract audiences through social media.

Yet, when a country enters an uncertain political period, journalists need to return to journalism ethics and political themes, just as such themes arose during the civil rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For many journalists and news organizations, the next several years will be a severe test of their beliefs and ideals—and their will to defend them.

Journalists will not escape the searching question: Why are you a journalist? 

Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator. He is a distinguished lecturer in ethics at the University of British Columbia, Courtesy Professor at the University of Oregon, and the founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. His book, Radical Media Ethics: A Global Approach, won the 2016 Tankard Book Award.

Featured photo (top right of page) by Disney/ABC Television Group CC BY-ND

Q & A with Chris Wells: Trump as a Media Mastermind

Chris Wells is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His latest work, published in Political Communication, examines the many strategies Donald Trump used to generate news coverage. CJE sat down with Wells to discuss what the success of Trump’s attention-grabbing tactics mean for journalism.

CJE: Could you explain a bit about what your study on Trump uncovered? 

Wells: First and foremost, Trump is a media person. He’s been obsessed with getting attention. At one point, he posed as his own spokesperson and contacted news outlets. We kept asking ourselves, “Is he just an incredible strategist?” But, it’s probably more intuitive to him. It’s been his job for 35 years. A strategy feels like it should be thought out, but it’s more second nature to him. I think he’s surveying the environment very closely, when he notices attention to himself is slacking off he does stuff to get talked about. Data scientist David Robinson did an analysis of his tweets. Half are run-of-the-mill campaign tweets, like “Great to see you in Iowa.” Then there are the crazy ones, which are coming from an Android phone. The non-crazy ones are coming from another device, which suggests it’s his staff.

Credit: David Robinson

An analysis of which words appeared in Trump’s tweets sent from Android or iPhone. Analysis and graph by David Robinson.

CJE: These ‘crazy’ tweets seem to garner a lot of media attention. Is there such a thing as bad publicity?

Wells: He’s been at the heart of conflict for a constant 30 years. What we see at the beginning of the primaries, in that environment it might be all publicity is good publicity. We often are coming from the standpoint that we feel uncomfortable with things he saying, but amongst Republican primary voters his policies were very popular. He’s sensitive to how the crowd is responding and he gives the crowd what they want.

Credit: Ronald B. Rapoport

Trump’s supporters were largely supportive of his policy proposals. Analysis and graph by Ronald Rapoport, Alan Abramowitz, and Walter Stone.

CJE: Do you think Trump takes advantage of journalistic norms?

Wells: The issue is the amount of press coverage he earned. The numbers are unbelievable. He got basically as much press attention as much of the other Republican candidates combined. He’s an unusual candidate, but the one single thing about him is his ability to attract media. He noticed he liked attention and that it could benefit him. Earning 2 billion dollars in paid media is astonishing. The press noticed early on that writing about Trump got them a lot of clicks. Outlets want to get attention because they’re selling ads. But what leads them to lavish that much attention on one person? The metric which allows everyone to see number of clicks is kind of amoral. It’s totally agnostic. We’re just doing it because it gets us money. You haven’t applied any ethical standards to it, which is the issue.


Trump generated nearly $2 million in free media. Analysis and graph by The New York Times.

CJE: What is your biggest concern with Trump’s media influence, and how should journalists ideally respond to present and future Trump tactics?

Wells: The press needs to have an agenda and decide what it wants to cover and not chase around the candidates exclusively. Asking candidates something like, “We’ve done this detailed reporting on the nature of the economy and here are the major issues, please respond.” We’ve almost entirely neglected to create in the public’s mind what the real problems are and that seems like a massive failure. The bigger issue is being a little reflective of where you are allocating your news media. You have to get clicks, to get advertising revenues. The question is how and to what extent can media deal with that pressure? That’s the latest shift in this trend.

CJE: Do you have any advice for journalists going forward? 

Wells: I urge journalists to think about how can you create content that is deeper, more substantive and more issues-based and also still attracts the audience. How do we find formats that will attract audiences enough to sustain news outlet and can do this real issues-driven work? How can you bring that format out? More importantly, how can you deliver real content that will inform people? We need to gives the public hope and mobilization.

Feature image by Michael Vadon/CC BY-SA

Founding director wins Tankard Book Award

Stephen J. A. Ward has been awarded the 2016 Tankard Book Award for his book Radical Media Ethics: A Global Approach. The award recognizes the best academic book in journalism and mass communication each year.

Ward founded the Center for Journalism Ethics in 2008 and served as the first James E. Burgess Chair of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison.


Malaysian airlines story leads to speculative reports

Recent news coverage of the missing Malaysian airlines flight has led some to question the media’s role in the crisis. Although ample coverage of the missing plan exists, it’s still unclear exactly what happened to the plane and its hundreds of passengers, including a couple Americans. Not even the highest ranked experts have come up with a conclusive and proven story yet.

Nonetheless, journalists and the media want answers. Countless stories, reports and special releases have been floating around for weeks. But some are now questioning the ethics behind the Malaysian airlines reports because of the nature of the story’s coverage, and the decision of journalists to  use unknown information.

Seemingly meaningless details of the flight now carry great importance for journalists. For example, some journalists have tried to dissect the pilot’s final words, “all right, good night,” citing the phrase as the last known contact with the plane. What could this cryptic ending mean? journalists asked.

But pilots say things like that all the time, and the phrase may not mean much – if anything – in the search for the plane. Yet CNN wrote a story on the subject when the Malaysian government released new information saying the last words of the plane were in fact “Goodnight Malaysian three seven zero.” Journalists crafted stories as to why the Malaysian government “lied” before, implying the new report was a significant, hidden clue.

Similarly, other members of the media have also become fixated on the fact some of the passengers’ cell phones were still ringing. Although a minor detail, the status of the passengers’ phones also became a critical part of the story and served as rationale as to why the plane was or wasn’t still out there.

There are numerous speculations and theories about the status of the plane. According to Poynter, who wrote a column criticizing the reports of journalists, some of the theories out there are that the plane made an emergency landing, is in North Korea, was hijacked by Iranian terrorists. Is there a strong factual basis for any of these theories? The answer is most likely no. Yet news outlets in their constant search for new developments try to obtain the most information they can.

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and blogger discussed some factual errors made by media covering the story in a recent blog post. Although USA Today claimed in one report that the pilot had full responsibility for flying off course, Smith says any journalist who had done their homework would know there are always two pilots on board.

These examples and others suggest that journalists covering the Malaysian plane incident may have been too focused on manufacturing a story instead of waiting for more information. Finding verified information may make for a less interesting story, but without facts, reporting is reduced to speculation and rumors.

[photo credit: AP/Daniel Chan]

Do data robots need their own set of ethics?

Google recently acquired DeepMind for $400 million and will incorporate the London-based artificial intelligence startup’s team and software into Google’s search team, now known as the “Knowledge” group.

This is an especially vital development for journalists, who often use Google Search to first research a story. 

DeepMind specializes in artificial intelligence, a rapidly developing area of Google, which includes Google Glass, a wearable speech-recognition device, and the driver-less car, which is legal to drive in three states. However, the most striking element of the acquisition was DeepMind’s stipulation that Google create an artificial intelligence ethics review board to oversee the safety of developing these technologies, and Google agreed.

Bianca Bosker, writing for the The Huffington Post, pointed to one co-founder of DeepMind and his slightly disconcerting outlook of human beings’ future relationship with artificial intelligence and smart technologies in 2011 as possible motivation for the ethics board.

“Eventually, I think human extinction will probably occur, and technology will likely play a part in this,” DeepMind’s Shane Legg said in an interview with Alexander Kruel. Among all forms of technology that could wipe out the human species, he singled out artificial intelligence, or AI, as the “number 1 risk for this century.”

Bosker also outlined possible guidelines for the new ethics board.

Together with input from other AI researchers, Barrat has developed a wishlist of five policies he hopes Google’s safety board will adopt to ensure the applications of AI are ethical. These include creating guidelines that determine when it’s “ethical for systems to cause physical harm to humans,” how to limit “the psychological manipulation of humans” and how to prevent “the concentration of excessive power.”

Read the entire article here.

Liz Ganes and James Temple, explain how DeepMind’s “deep learning” artificial intelligence designs could work within Google Search and smart devices in this Re/code article.

Deep learning is a form of machine learning in which researchers attempt to train computer algorithms to spot meaningful patterns by showing them lots of data, rather than trying to program in every rule about the world. Taking inspiration from the way neurons work in the human brain, deep learning uses layers of algorithms that successively recognize increasingly complex features — going from, say, edges to circles to an eye in an image.

Read the entire article here.

Gary Marcus, writing for The New Yorker, discussed the host of ethical issues that came with Google’s other smart technologies and outlined the ideal capabilities of the developing artificial intelligence market.

What we really want are machines that can go a step further, endowed not only with the soundest codes of ethics that our best contemporary philosophers can devise, but also with the possibility of machines making their own moral progress, bringing them past our own limited early-twenty-first century idea of morality.

Read the entire article here.

As companies like Google integrate artificial intelligence technologies with their products, especially Google Search, every journalist’s first dig into a story, ethics will continue to be a highly contested topic. However, Google has set an important precedent across the technology industry regarding the possible ethical implications of how these devices can affect humans.

(image credit: Alejandro Zorrilal Cruz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

First Do No Harm: Physician-Journalists and ethical reporting

It is increasingly common for news organizations to employ physicians as journalist who report on health and medical issues.  Gary Schwitzer wonders who is responsible for training these physician-journalists in media ethics.  Schwitzer is the publisher of and  senor reviewer for, an organization that analyzes healthcare reporting, media relations and advertising.  One of his biggest concerns is the prevalence of undisclosed conflicts of interest.