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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Ward’s Words Column

2014: The Year of Personalized Journalism Ethics

2014 brought us the year of My Journalism Ethics. It was the year that “personalizing” journalism ethics went mainstream. Big time.

Major journalism associations, from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) to the Online News Association (ONA) grappled with the problem of writing ethical guidelines for an increasingly personalized, opinionated, and politically biased media sphere.

Some journalists embraced personalization – the idea that it is up to each journalist or each outlet to create and “customize” their own guidelines. Others rejected it. In either case, personalized ethics – “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Ethics” – was topical and contested.

More importantly, it has set the course for journalism ethics in 2015 and beyond.

For this review, I could have focused on other developments, from the beheadings of foreign reporters and free press struggles in China and Egypt to a proposed Bill of Rights to control news media in Britain. I could have focused on bad behavior by journalists.

Instead, I focus on the personalized ethics movement because it speaks to the very future of journalism ethics in a digital age: What, if any, journalism ethics is possible?

What is personalized journalism ethics?

Start with a few general principles – a minimum of “content” – and then give journalists the tools (e.g., forms of reasoning) to construct rules adapted to their practice and audiences.

This is micro ethics: the ethics of specific platforms. It is not the traditional macro approach of journalism ethics which provides general norms for all journalists.

Personalization asks us not to think of a code as a content-based document with many principles. Instead, think of a code as a process for those who wish to write their own codes. The code is a tool kit. It adopts only a few common principles, such as truth-telling and accuracy. Then the code provides advice, such as questions to consider for writing guidelines.

Rather than a rich body of common principles for all journalists, there is a common process for code writing for types of journalists.


Photo by Jessica Spengler on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Jessica Spengler on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

DIY ethics did not emerge fully grown in 2014. The trend is the third and latest response to the current crisis in journalism ethics: the collapse of a craft-wide consensus on its ethics – on its aims, principles, and best practices.

Everything is up for grabs.

The first response occurred roughly between the late 1900s and 2006, from the rise of online journalism and the birth of Twitter. An ethics “civil war” erupted between professional journalists and citizen journalists as to who were the real journalists and whether principles of gate-keeping journalism, e.g., objectivity and pre-publication verification – were still valid. Some new media journalists said fuddy-duddy ethics did not apply to the free online world.

The second response occurred between 2006 and 2011. The trend was mainstream accommodation. News outlets, from the BBC to the AP, wrote up guidelines on how their journalists should use social media and opine on their personal blogs. Perhaps the mainstream could civilize the online horde and re-establish order in the media universe.

The third phase, from 2011 to today, is the growing popularity of personalization as a way to re-establish journalism ethics across many forms of journalism, not just legacy media.

Personalization signaled that many journalists were skeptical of the possibility of a new consensus on ethics. In the end, journalism ethics may turn out to be a plurality of codes suited to particular practices, without overarching common principles. Pluralism, fragmentation and micro ethics was king; universal, macro ethics was not.



The Online News Association is helping journalists create their own ethics codes.

The best example of personalized ethics in 2014 is the ONA’s current attempt to develop guidelines for members. The ONA site encourages its members to “build your own ethics” using the tools provided by the code. The ONA is “curating a toolkit to help news outlets, as well as individual bloggers/journalists, create guidelines that respond to their own concepts of journalism.”

The toolkit starts with a small set of common principles such as tell the truth, don’t plagiarize and correct your errors. Journalists make a choice between traditional objective journalism, where your personal opinion is kept under wraps, and transparency journalism, meaning you can write from a political or social point of view as long as you’re upfront about it.

Then, the toolkit provides guidance on constructing guidelines for about 40 areas of practice where journalists might disagree, such as removing items from online archives, use of anonymous sources and verification of social media sources.

In a previous column, I contrasted this approach with the SPJ’s revision of its famous code of ethics, approved by members earlier this year. I said the SPJ used a de-personal approach because the revisions maintained the code’s commitment to speak for all professional journalists. It did not name specific forms of journalism. Also, unlike the personalized approach, the SPJ code remained rich in content, articulating many common principles and norms.

For some, the DIY approach is a positive, inclusive and democratic approach, suited to a plural media world. The end of the dream of macro journalism ethics. For others, it is an abandonment of journalism ethics, an ill-timed concession to ethical subjectivism.

It is customary for year-end reviews to fearlessly predict the future. I will not shrink from this tradition, even if it may be foolhardy.

I predict the continuing co-existence of, and tension between, the depersonalized and personalized approaches. Mainstream associations won’t abandon their depersonalize codes, and online associations won’t abandon their personalized guidelines. Nor should they. We need both forms of thinking. We need a healthy and experimental approach to code writing.

However, I believe this third stage should give way to a fourth response, an integration of both approaches. This journalism ethics combines macro and micro, common principles and personalized applications.

Getting the balance right will be difficult.

Nonetheless, journalism ethics will have little future, and certainly little public credibility, unless it has the following features:

New unifying principles: We construct a consensus around aims and principles for all responsible journalists. We focus on common values. The key is to develop principles that express the mission of a diverse news media serving an open democracy and a global world. The content will include new aims and principles, such as advocating for global humanity, and the re-interpretation of principles such as impartiality and independence.
Personalized value systems for new practices: We construct specific best practices for entrepreneurial journalism, non-profit journalism, social media journalism, and other new and innovative forms of journalism.
Public basis for all of journalism ethics: We place a crucial restraint on the types of personalized values and practices that can be proposed. Whatever these practices are, they must be consistent with the unifying principles of democratic journalism. We recognize that the basis of journalism ethics is public, not subjective. We should be able to justify any personalization of ethics by reference to the public good, not the personal interests of individual journalists. The ultimate moral authority of any journalism ethics is not the fact that the values are “mine,” but because they promote a flourishing society, however we define it.

Fourth-response journalism ethics will be a more complicated, sophisticated enterprise than in the past. There is no avoiding the complexities.

Suppose that journalists ignore this advice and create a simpler personalized ethics that is subjective or idiosyncratic. It announces what they, as individuals, believe, and what ethical restraints they accept. Full stop. There is no serious attempt to link these values to the practice of journalism at large, or to provide more objective reasons for affirming their values. Then they ask the public to accept their values, and to trust that they will follow their self-created, and self-announced, ethical values.

Given the level of public cynicism about journalists, they will be laughed derisively out of the court of public opinion. The public simply will not buy the idea of journalism ethics and self-regulation as anything less than a practice-wide accountability based on public principles.

The public will not buy an individualized My Journalism Ethics.

Is a new integrated ethics possible? It does not exist. Will it ever exist?

That is the trouble with predicting the future. One can always think of many obstacles. The world does not always satisfy our wishes, especially in ethics.

However, the rise of personalized ethics in 2014, especially in the form that it has taken in the ONA, advances our evolving response to ethical problems. Personalization forces out into the open the key questions of journalism ethics today.

Gradually, we get glimpses of how to redefine responsible journalism for a digital world.

This article was originally posted on EducationShift, part of the PBS MediaShift site, and is reposted here by permission of the author.

Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator. He is ethics adviser/lecturer at the University of British Columbia, Courtesy Professor at the University of Oregon, and founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

In your face: The ethics of opinion journalism

Journalists who add their own fierce opinions to political discourse have every right to do so, writes Stephen J.A. Ward, but it’s “deliberative” commentators who serve a democracy best.

In March, Sun TV News, Canada’s newest all-news TV station, is scheduled to begin broadcasting amid concern it will follow Fox News in featuring fiercely partisan and opinionated hosts.

Across the border, Americans debate the future of the Fox News model. Will it spread to CNN? Or, did MSNBC, by parting ways with partisan host Keith Olbermann, signal a return to moderate opinion journalism?

The debate is roiled by worries that extreme media destroy civility in public life, perhaps even cause violence. When a gunman shot a congresswoman and others outside a Tucson supermarket in January, some media reports blamed extreme media.

Supporters of partisan commentary reject any link with gunmen. To the contrary, they assert the great value of their journalism.

Typically, the reasoning is: objectivity is false and bias unavoidable, so journalists should be honest with themselves and take sides on issues.

All claim to have a duty to tell the public the truth. Conservative journalists claim they are compensating for a dominant liberal press; the liberals claim the reverse. Moderate journalism is not, they say, what America needs today.

Is this reasoning plausible? I think not.

Immoderate voices: false assumptions

The existence of immoderate voices has social value. Silencing loud voices means silencing dissent and whatever truth they have to offer. But it is an exaggeration to praise this type of journalism as crucial to democracy, or as the best form of opinion journalism.

On the contrary, if immoderate forms of opinion dominate public discussion, they can do more harm than good to democracy. That’s why assumptions behind the praise of immoderate journalism need to be challenged.

Here are two such assumptions:

1. Freedom is all you need: The central value of opinion journalism is the freedom to opine. Or the freedom to spread the truth as you see fit. Talk of ethics as norms that restrain (or guide) the expression of opinion is tantamount to self-censorship or political correctness.

2. All praise this clash of loud voices: A clash of free, boisterous voices is very good for society; a sign of democracy and a healthy public sphere.

These ideas derive from an old and discredited libertarian theory of the press and its over-confident belief in a free marketplace of ideas – ideas recycled for today’s partisan press.

In case you think I’m exaggerating, consider an article by Jack Shafer, the usually insightful commentator for

Shortly after the Tucson shooting, Shafer rightly questioned media reports that assumed a link between the shooting and extreme opinion. But he went further in defence of extreme opinion. He called his article: “In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric: The awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting.” Shafer suggests that anyone who argues for civility in public life wants to censor free expression.

But Shafer’s otherwise sharp analysis avoids a crucial question: Doesn’t civil discourse also have value, and isn’t it needed today? The article exaggerates the value of inflamed rhetoric, and deploys the old bugbear that moderates are enemies of free speech.

Ethics for deliberative media

In this climate, moderate democrats should articulate an ethics for opinion journalism which takes as its primary question: what does democracy need from its news media?

My answer is: democracy needs deliberative opinion journalism –  a way to discuss issues that is much more important to our democracy than the strident journalism of Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann and the rest of the partisan troupe.

The most important form of opinion journalism is a journalism that creates deliberative spaces in news media. These spaces, online and offline, allow citizens of different views to speak respectfully but frankly to each other.

The basic norms of deliberative journalism can be expressed as a set of commitments:

1. Commitment to evidence-based inquiry: Opinion should be rigorously based on a wide range of evidence, solid studies, and perspectives on the data. I am ready to follow the facts where they lead.

2. Commitment to the overall public good: Opinion should be guided by what is best for the public as a whole, not what is expedient for my cause or my political group. I should not be so attached to my “truth” that I am ready to use almost any means to persuade others and to promote my aims.

3. Commitment to telling the whole truth: Opinion should not hide inconvenient facts. I am not willing to distort the truth to suit my aims. I do not misrepresent the views others or demonize them.

4. Commitment to listening and learning: Opinion journalism does more than just opine. It seeks discussion. It aims to develop better perspectives and positions on issues. It should evolve. Therefore, I should listen to others, and be willing to alter my position. Shouting down opponents shows that I am a rigid ideologue, not a democrat.

Deliberative commentators approach public discussion in a distinct manner. The aim is not simply to express a viewpoint; it is not about portraying those who disagree as unpatriotic enemies who must be crushed; it is not a winner-take-all affair. Deliberation is not a monologue. It is social and cooperative. It expects robust disagreement, but it also seeks areas of compromise and new solutions.

These commitments form the mindset of any rational, fair inquirer, from scientist or judge to journalist.  But these virtues struggle to be accepted fully in journalism. Partisan commentators across the political spectrum regularly violate these norms. Much of their “inflammatory rhetoric” is not rational persuasion but outright propaganda and ideology.

Deliberative journalism is still found in thoughtful op-ed pieces in newspapers, on the programs of public broadcasters, and elsewhere. But their impact on discussion declines because reasonable dialogue gets lost in a sea of immoderate media spaces.

Will Sun TV be deliberative?

Using these norms, we can distinguish the partisans — Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann — from deliberative commentators such as the conservative David Brookes and the liberal Paul Krugman.

Deliberative liberals, not libertarians, are the true inheritors of the liberal tradition. The purpose of a free marketplace of ideas is not simply to allow people to express themselves. It exists not only to allow a clash of voices. A free marketplace exists so that individuals cannot live in an ideological silo, avoiding other ideas and contrary facts. Engagement with other views is the only way to construct rational public opinion on issues.

But this engagement can’t even get started without a willingness to deliberate.

In a pluralistic society, a deliberative opinion journalism that skirts the extremes and brings people together is surely the journalism that our democracy needs.

When the Sun TV news channel launches, the Canadian public sphere will be best served where its programs practise deliberative opinion journalism, and resist the lure of partisan commentary.

“Let’s kill Julian Assange!” WikiLeaks and the power of patriotism

A narrow patriotism — the psychological equivalent of a knee jerk — is an under-recognized force in modern journalism ethics.

It distorts our thinking about the role of journalism as soon as journalists offend national pride and whistleblowers dare to reveal secrets. Narrow patriotism turns practitioners of a free press into scolding censors. Suddenly, independent journalists become dastardly law breakers.

Narrow patriotism is the view that “love of country” means not embarrassing one’s government, hiding all secrets and muting one’s criticism of foreign and military policy in times of tension. Narrow patriotism is an absolute value, trumping the freedom of the press.

The Wikileaks saga proves, once again, that this form of patriotism is a powerful commitment of many journalists; often, more powerful than objectivity or independence.

For instance, as WikiLeaks rolled out the American diplomatic cables, Jeffrey T. Kuhner of the conservative Washington Times called for the assassination of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a December 2 opinion piece. “We should treat Mr. Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets: Kill him”

One day later, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said the WikiLeaks document dump was “sabotage” during a time of war. US Attorney General Eric Holder should “Throw the WikiBook” at the website, using every legal tool at his disposal.

These vociferous comments are not nasty comments made by anonymous online “patriots.” They come from practitioners of a free press in the land of the free.

Critical journalism as patriotism

The Wikileaks controversy reveals tensions in our view of the role of journalism in democracy.

We believe in the idea of a free press; but we oppose it in practice when the press offends our patriotism, or works against some vaguely defined “national interest.”

The same narrow patriotism was at work among major American media when President Bush decided to go to war with Iraq on flimsy claims. TV anchors put flags on their lapels and reporters accepted too easily the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

In times of conflict, the strong emotions of patriotism override journalists’ in-principle commitment to critical informing the public and to impartiality. The word “patriotism” rarely occurs in journalism codes of ethics but its influence on practice is substantial.

So what’s the right view of the role of journalism?

The role of a free press is not to serve the government or its diplomats. It is to serve the public who hold government accountable through information provided by the media.

Throughout history, journalists have caused their governments trouble and embarrassment. Journalists are properly patriotic when they write critically of government, when they reveal their hidden strategies, when they embarrass their government in front of the world.

Criticism and the publishing of important confidential data is the way journalists often serve the public, despite howls of outrage from some citizens.

Of course, Kuhner and Krauthammer don’t represent all American journalists. Many journalists support WikiLeaks. For example, Anthony Shadid, foreign reporter for The New York Times in Bagdad, expressed enthusiastic support during a recent lecture at my university’s Centre for Journalism Ethics.

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner said: “I should probably be a little more ambiguous and grey about this, but I think it’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful disclosure, this transparency and this openness of public office. I find it incredibly refreshing and incredibly insightful, as well.”

Two things at once

Like Shadid, I think the importance of the cables justifies their publication. But I am more concerned than Shadid about the new power of ‘stateless’ websites like Wikileaks.

In my view, if we care about the freedom to publish we need to do two things at the same time: First, protest attempts to shut down WikiLeaks, which include denying it access to the internet and calls to arrest Assange.

Second, we need to urge Assange to explain the principles that guide his decision to publish. Is he committed to simply publishing any and all secrets regardless of the consequences? Or is he willing to adopt the responsible approach of The New York Times and The Guardian which seeks to minimize the harm of their stories by carefully vetting the data. Is Assange willing to balance the freedom to publish with the principle of minimizing harm?

Minimizing harm does not mean not damaging the public profile of government. It means not naming informants, human activists, or innocent third parties if that would prompt reprisals. It means not providing detailed information that would help terrorists attack a public institution.

Organizations like The New York Times are serious about vetting their stories. I am not so sure Assange or WikiLeaks has the same concern.

Public support for this form of whistleblower journalism will turn swiftly against it should future releases lead to the death of a third party, or lead to a terrorist attack. The best way to retain support for a free press is to act responsibly, and to be seen to be acting so.

Is ‘responsibility’ a declining idea?

From an ethical perspective, what is significant about the emergence of WikiLeaks is not only that new technology allows citizens to gather and publish secret material globally, and these online publishers are difficult to control.

What is significant is that enthusiasm for revealing secrets undermines the idea of responsibility — the responsible use of the freedom to publish.

In a WikiLeaks world, the principle of minimizing harm, first articulated by professional journalism in the previous century for another media era, may be dwindling in importance.

Up to this point, the release of WikiLeaks documents has followed a pattern: WikiLeaks supplies the secret data to major papers and professional journalists vet and write the stories. In the future, however, the role of responsible news outlets may decline.

As new websites spring up, each pursuing their ends with the passion of activists, the idea of a free and responsible press may come to seem irrelevant. The idea of ethically restraining the freedom to publish may recede into the rear view mirror of history.

I hope not.