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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

Should moderators fact-check the presidential debates? Yes, in moderation

Photo by <a href="" target=blank>Hofstra University and used here with permission.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off in the first 2016 presidential debate. Photo by Hofstra University and used here with permission.

If there is one thing we’ve learned from years of judging at intercollegiate debate tournaments across the country, it is that the best decisions are made when both sides are held to the highest standards when constructing arguments.

Rather than intervening, we allow debaters to make mistakes, capitalize on strategic misfires, and argue their way to victory. We are acting as adjudicators, not moderators, and are often the sole voice in declaring a winner. In presidential debates, however, the voters are the adjudicators, and moderators must act as communicative conduits to ensure an informed electorate capable of making the best possible decision.

Caught between two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives on their role as either minimalist facilitator or relentless truth-seeker, moderators seem unable to escape scrutiny. Faced with inevitable conflict over nuanced topics distilled into value-laden sound bites, how should moderators ethically define their role within this vast political spectacle? Under what circumstances should a moderator interrupt the flow of the debate to fact-check a candidate? Answering these questions first requires some understanding of how presidential debates have evolved throughout history.

Rather than serving as mere facilitators, moderators have a primary responsibility to act on behalf of voters.

The first televised debates occurred in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon and, according to presidential debate historian Alan Schroeder, included attempts by producers to craft a more interactive dialogue between the candidates though that format was vetoed by campaign advisors. Since then, presidential debates have matured from events that were, at times, glorified press conferences, to structured discussions with ample room for direct interaction between the candidates. More recent debates have seen increased participation from both moderators and audiences; it was not until 1988 that moderators began asking opening questions, and the town hall format was not introduced until 1992.

The use of YouTube and Twitter during the 2008 presidential debates demonstrates voters’ desire for candidates to respond directly to their voices. This election season, the Trump and Clinton campaigns agreed to historically weak restrictions on direct exchanges between the candidates, renewing conversations about the degree of moderator involvement.

the moderator

While it may be most objective for moderators to stay out of the debate, simply asking questions and enforcing the agreed-upon rules, this has become difficult in practice. The increasing amount of direct contact between candidates has created an occasional volley wherein a candidate will directly ask the moderator to intervene and influence their opponent’s behavior. For example, in the 2012 election cycle, Candy Crowley was pulled into several procedural disputes between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in addition to engaging in a heated fact-check over the Benghazi attacks. During the 2016 vice presidential debate, Elaine Quijano repeatedly intervened to enforce time constraints and refocus the candidates’ attention. Increased interaction, then, often necessitates a more active moderator to keep the debate from becoming unruly.

Moderators should first provide candidates with a chance to fact-check their opponent for themselves.

Going beyond drawing the moderators in to resolve a disagreement, candidates occasionally criticize their questions, behavior and ethics altogether. Ted Cruz’s tirade against the presidential primary moderators serves as an excellent example of how moderators are often forced into a more participatory role.

Open criticism by a candidate during the debate brings even the most passive moderators into the spotlight and grants them considerable influence over the direction of the discussion. Cruz was raising an important point about what ethical standards moderators ought to uphold when crafting their questions and what the function of debates ultimately should be.

the candidates

Presidential debates should inform voters of each candidate’s values and the policies they plan on implementing, but ultimately, candidates are interested in winning voters through whatever means necessary. That emphasis on swaying voters, often at the expense of accurately conveying political agendas, is a deeply flawed model for educating those who decide the fate of American leadership for the next four years.

Ideally, voters would be motivated to investigate claims made by each candidate. For many, however, the presidential debates and subsequent polarizing articles will determine the direction of their ballots. The stakes are far too high for candidates to present incomplete or inaccurate visions of their presidencies.

 If candidates continue to peddle such thoroughly discredited information without acknowledging their context, they should expect immediate and impartial pushback.

If the goal of debates is to create an informed electorate, candidates should conduct the vast majority of fact-checking onstage. The reality, of course, is that candidates are incentivized to rebut only with the information that most benefits them, regardless of its proximity to the truth. Moderators, on the other hand, are agreed upon by both campaigns for their ability to act as neutral arbiters in a highly politicized environment. If candidates are to merely use the debate stage to reiterate their respective talking points, then there is no purpose in having a moderator at all.

Rather than serving as mere facilitators, moderators have a primary responsibility to act on behalf of voters. This is a difficult line to walk, as moderators must intervene in a way that benefits voters in every ideological corner. This requires particular attention in deciding where to fact-check so as to not become a focus of the discussion themselves. Each campaign has a core set of mistruths that it has relied on, from Trump’s support of the initial invasion of Iraq to Clinton’s claim that she never received classified emails on her private server while secretary of state. If candidates continue to peddle such thoroughly discredited information without acknowledging their context, they should expect immediate and impartial pushback.

Moderators should first provide candidates with a chance to fact-check their opponent for themselves, but then be ready to supplement the rebuttal with factual statements about previous political positions and figures from relevant primary sources. Additionally, introducing a topic or question with contextualizing information for those unfamiliar with the issues can raise the level of discourse and make it clear when a candidate is having an “Aleppo moment.”

the audience

How candidates respond to argumentative pushback in a debate is valuable information for voters, even if candidates dodge the follow-up question. A moderator doesn’t have to act as the “truth squad,” to use Chris Wallace’s words, to point out that a candidate is ignoring the original question or violating the agreed upon rules for speaking time limits. The audience can and will decide for themselves – but the moderator can still provide a useful context for potential voters to navigate issues. If our democratic problem is that we have an electorate that is overwhelmingly cynical, polarized and politically apathetic, we need debate moderators who will bridge candidates where they agree, highlight their differences and help voters translate abstract policies into their tangible impact on everyday life.

The audience can and will decide for themselves – but the moderator can still provide a useful context for potential voters to navigate issues.

Massive media spectacles like the debate draw an atypical audience that otherwise steers clear of politics, and that’s a wonderful thing. In this unique moment, moderators should not offload their journalistic responsibility to inform citizens onto dedicated fact-checking venues that publish hundreds of pages of post-debate fact-checks that many voters will never read. That being said, whoever ends up the 45th President of the United States will not do so solely because of the fact-checking decisions made by moderators. Broader dynamics are at play, but moderators can help set standards for how well-prepared we expect candidates to be when it comes to informing the public.

Ultimately, the onus is on voters to seek out resources and cast informed ballots, just as we have spent countless hours educating ourselves to fairly adjudicate debates. Moderators should have some obligation to be active facilitators in that process. They should not become the center of the story, but to write them off as passive, neutral facilitators of candidate conversation is to abdicate their responsibility to vocalize the needs of voters.

CV Vitolo

CV Vitolo is the Director of Debate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a doctoral student in the Communication Arts department. Their research concerns public deliberation and discourse surrounding science and medicine.



JJordan Foleyordan Foley is the Assistant Director of Debate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a doctoral student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His research focuses on political communication, media psychology and public opinion.





How to teach the ethics of using eyewitness video

When journalism students visit our offices at WITNESS to learn about video and human rights advocacy, the most common questions we hear are on the ethics of using eyewitness footage: How do you verify a video you find online? How do you know if a video is “verified” and if you can use it in your story? When and how would you use videos made by terrorist groups in a report?

As a human rights organization dedicated to using video as a tool for advocacy, these are questions we and our partners wrestle with every day. Increasingly, video documenting human rights abuse is filmed not by professionals but by average bystanders who have never been trained on issues like informed consent or by organizations aiming to spark fear or groups attempting to spread misinformation.

When such videos surface as part of a news story or a human rights investigation, what is a journalist or advocate to do with them? How do we apply the traditional codes of ethics when using footage we ourselves did not produce (often described as “user-generated content,” “UGC” or “citizen video”)?

It’s not surprising these questions are what young professionals want to talk about. Eyewitness videos are not only a central part of news reporting today, but a common element in social media channels. Addressing the ethics of using eyewitness footage provides students with a lesson that is immediately relevant to their own practices as consumers, creators and curators of information.

Yet, guidance on the ethics of using eyewitness footage hasn’t caught up with its importance as a reporting tool. WITNESS’s Ethical Guidelines for using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Reporting and Advocacy was created to begin to fill that gap.

Considering the stakeholders of eyewitness footage

WITNESS’ guidelines were written to help reporters, producers and advocates think through who could be affected by sharing eyewitness footage, and how to minimize potential harm to those people. After all, ethical mishaps are often the result of a lack of information. In the case of eyewitness footage, many reporters or producers simply don’t know what questions to ask about the footage and haven’t had a chance to consider the potential consequences of sharing it with a wider audience.

The guide is organized in three sections depending on the stakeholders of the footage. When teaching the ethics of using eyewitness footage, this is a good place to start. For any video, the central questions you’ll want to think through are:

  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • How could they be potentially harmed by the footage?
  • How could you as a journalist minimize potential harm?

You might be asking, why “stakeholders”? Why not just “filmers”? Or “subjects”?

When using eyewitness footage, there are a number of different people who could be affected by its distribution. First of all, there are those on camera. You don’t necessarily know if they consented to being filmed or even knew that they were on camera. Finding themselves on the evening news could change their lives forever. Depending on the nature of the footage, it could put them at risk of humiliation, harassment or worse.

Other stakeholders include those who filmed the footage and those who shared it. (Often this is the same person, but it could be different people with distinct objectives). Did they realize they were sharing it publicly? Could the footage put them at risk due to the nature of the footage? Are they aware of the consequences of attaching their identity to the footage, and did they take steps to protect their identity (such as sharing it on a new YouTube account without their name on it)?

If someone uploaded a video to their Facebook page, they may only expect their circle of friends to see it. We’ve seen several headline news cases involving eyewitness footage in which the filmer later expressed regret for associating their name with the footage (such as the bystander who filmed the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island). The safety of those who provide newsworthy footage is critical for journalists to consider.

Finally, stakeholders include the audience. What are the potential consequences of sharing footage that may turn out to have been disseminated as part of a misinformation campaign or a hate group? What sort of footage would warrant a warning to viewers about its graphic nature? How can a journalist share footage responsibly when it has not been independently verified?

How to teach the ethics of eyewitness footage

Our ethical guidelines don’t provide answers to these scenarios, but rather sets of questions to help reporters identify and address ethical challenges that can easily fall through the cracks.

In your classroom, you can find an example from the week’s news, from your community or from a class project, and use these checklists as a starting point for a discussion on the ethics of reporting with eyewitness footage.




If you are searching for examples for discussion, you can find several from around the world in WITNESS’ Ethical Guidelines. The Eyewitness Media Hub’s Medium channel is another great source of case studies illustrating how eyewitness footage used in the media inadvertently affected the people behind the footage.

More Resources

For much more on the ethics of using eyewitness footage in reporting, check out our blog series tackling a different aspect of the topic each week. The Eyewitness Media Hub, First Draft News and the ONA’s Build Your Own Ethics Code are other fantastic resources for guidance, tools and case studies on using eyewitness videos in reporting.

How do you discuss the ethics of using eyewitness video to journalism students, and what has been particularly challenging or successful? What resources would you recommend? We look forward to hearing from your experience in the comments below.

Madeleine Bair leads the WITNESS Media Lab at WITNESS where she examines how eyewitness video can be used safely, ethically, and effectively for human rights reporting and advocacy. Follow her on Twitter @madbair and follow WITNESS at @WITNESSorg. WITNESS Program Coordinator Sarah Kerr also contributed to this post.

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

Disrupting journalism ethics: Going ‘radical’

To speak of journalism ethics today is to speak in the future and normative tense.

What should journalism ethics look like, in the not too distant future, if it is to be an adequate guide for journalism amid a media revolution? What norms should guide professional and citizen media practitioners of a digital and global media?

The core of our teaching, researching, and public conversation needs to be centered on these complex and seminal questions: questions that beget other questions.

If we are attuned properly to this media revolution, to its deep implications for humanity and communication, our ethics discourse and our ethics work will, perforce, have a sharp edge. We will come to the point where we recognize the need to disrupt journalism ethics as traditionally conceived. Disrupt habitual, entrenched, and limited ways of thinking about journalism ethics that we inherited from a specific culture of journalism, ages ago. These ways of thinking about the role of journalists and their principles were constructed for another media in another media era. The fashioners of this traditional ethic, beginning in the early 1900s, provided normative guidance for a restricted, emerging class of professional journalists working mainly for newspapers in a non-global world. They could not envisage the issues that would face today’s responsible practice. They did not write norms for a hybrid journalism of professionals and citizens, and their ever-evolving forms of journalism.

Not surprisingly, as the media revolution spread, a once-firm consensus around traditional, profession-based journalism ethics weakened and has all but collapsed. Hardly a principle, from objectivity to independence, has not been challenged, critiqued or ignored. Yet a widely accepted ethic for the new digital and global journalism does not exist, to fill the normative vacuum left by a receding traditional ethic.

Caught in this media storm, we need to welcome reform, be creative and re-orientate journalism ethics toward the future. Tinkering with ideas, or trying to protect them from the winds of change, will not do. Journalistic ethicists cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Rather, we need to be radical. To do radical media ethics. Not radical in the political sense, but radical in the philosophical sense — a reformulation of fundamentals principles and aims. Being radical has two conjoined parts, like the opposite sides of a coin. One part is the critical task of determining what existing principles, practices and ways of thinking about journalism ethics remain valid. What principles should be kept but reformulated? The second part is the positive reconstruction of a new ethic that many practitioners can endorse and apply across platforms and borders.

So simple to say. So devilishly hard to do.

Yet take heart. New ideas and norms are emerging. A new framework for responsible journalism is being constructed. New organizations, journalism societies, centers for ethics and individuals at the front lines of today’s digital journalism are finding ways to practice new media in a responsible manner and to formulate their ideas into guidelines. This is how journalism ethics has changed over five media revolutions since the 17th century: a slow, messy, grassroots evolution of new norms for journalism driven by the practical need to adapt to new practices. Scholars and ethicists formulate these norms into theories and codes.

Mandate for Centers

This state of journalism ethics defines the central task of centers of journalism ethics such as at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It also defines the normative task for journalists, journalism teachers, ethicists and citizens.

It calls for the exercise of certain faculties and virtues. The journalism ethicist should be part visionary and part pragmatic inventor. With one eye on the horizon, she should trace the contours of a new and future ethics. With one eye on actual practice and changing conditions, she should propose new aims, reinterpreted principles and practical guidelines for emerging forms of journalism. This activity requires moral imagination to imagine new ways of doing journalism responsibly and to harness the powers of new media to promote a more just and flourishing world.

As the Center for Journalism Ethics launches a new public interface, I challenge the center to “be the change” in its work, to be a leader in the construction of this new ethics. Through its seminars, teaching, writing and projects — incorporating students, instructors and citizens — the Center should show the moral imagination to propose new ideas, even if those ideas impinge on cherished traditional ways of thinking.

Centers of ethics can contribute to the future of democratic media by dedicating themselves to the creation of a new framework that unites diverse practitioners under common values. There should be integration in two domains: digital integration – norms applying across media platforms – and global integration – norms applying across borders. As such:

Digital integration: We need a digital media ethics. By digital media, I mean the use of digital platforms and technology to do journalism. An integrative digital ethics has principles and aims affirmed by many types of digital practitioners.

Global integration: We need a global media ethics. By global media, I mean a media that is global in reach, impact and culture. An integrative global media ethics provides global aims for journalism and develops norms for reporting stories with global impact. It seeks principles that journalists from different cultures can affirm.

Within these two areas, there are many projects that can show the worth of the Center:

  • Guidelines for media use of new technology, such as virtual reality, drones, and, soon to come, the use of artificial intelligence to guide our electronic devices.
  • The redefinition of journalism ethics as having global aims. Practical guides on how to cover global issues from refugees to climate change to terrorism.
  • The development of clear ethical discussions and principles for perspectival journalism, including new trends in “engaged” journalism.
  • An ethical focus on efforts to introduce innovation and entrepreneurial skills to journalism and the teaching of journalism.
  • The development of a “media ethics for everyone”: materials for teaching high school students, non-journalism undergraduates and citizens on how to use their own media.
  • Working with news outlets and journalism societies to develop norms and protocols for their current and most urgent ethical problems and issues.
  • Within journalism schools, teaching students in a “radical” manner. That is, challenging students to develop their own responses to the new issues of media, rather than have them simply adopt and apply traditional codes of ethics.

No center can do all of these things. Choices will be necessary. Priorities set. However, I list these items to encourage all of us to “think forward” and never be satisfied with the status quo. We should stretch our comfort zone — just as we professors ask our students to do the same.

The aim, some years ahead, is a rich, multi-leveled, inclusive ethics that weaves old and new into a framework for journalists, whether they practice journalism as a professional or citizen; whether they practice journalism locally or globally, online or offline.

‘Media Reality’: Here and Now

When we started the UW center in 2008, I saw the need for this fundamental reform in ethics on the horizon. We took steps forward, to meet that horizon. Today, the new world of digital, global media is not on the horizon. It is here and all around us. We are literally immersed in it. As my fellow Canadian Marshal McLuhan predicted some time ago: media would become not a set of external devices, but a radical “extension” of our senses. It would transform both ourselves and our world.

I know the Center, led by its dynamic director and its supporters in the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Communication and beyond, will meet the challenge of reconstruction in a society where media, for good or bad, define reality.

William James once said that, to a child, the world is a “booming and buzzing confusion” upon which some order must be imposed. I know the Center’s leaders, while not children, will also make sense of things in this noisy, chaotic media world.

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.

How Gannett used engaged ethics to help kids in crisis

I still remember the feeling I had when I read the first lines of the story.

“The mics are off and the lenses capped,” reporter Rory Linnane wrote. “We’re wrapping up the interview, getting ready to shake hands and head out, when Angela Wesener grabs a photo album off the shelf and perches beside me on an ottoman in her family’s living room.

“We’ve both been crying.”

I immediately felt I was getting something different from the investigative and daily reporting I was used to from Linnane, a stellar young reporter I first met as a student in my class in 2010.

And indeed I was. I had landed on a story in “Rory’s Diary,” a gripping and novel element of a months-long series by USA Today Network-Wisconsin, delving into the state’s youth mental health crisis. In the diary, Linnane opens a window for readers into the reporting and the people behind the stories. She talks about her emotions, how her sources are affecting her and what the state’s elevated teen suicide rate costs us.

And she says that every time she does this, she feels uncomfortable — she was talking about herself, not something reporters often do.

Despite that discomfort, the Kids in Crisis series marks an interesting turn for USA Today Network-Wisconsin and maybe for journalism ethics overall. In many of their choices, the reporters and editors on the series embraced engaged ethics — drawing communities in closer rather than keeping them at arm’s length. Shunning a traditional — and often lifeless — view of journalistic objectivity, the team chose openness, transparency and a certain form of advocacy. Their sources and audiences seem glad they did.

A Project Idea from an Engaged Approach

USA Today Network-Wisconsin, formerly known as Gannett Wisconsin Media, includes daily publications in 10 cities, ranging in size from Wisconsin Rapids at 18,000 people to Green Bay at 105,000, plus smaller weeklies. The network employees 135 journalists in the daily newsrooms, plus another 15 at weekly publications. In the model USA Today Network is using, the individual news organizations cover community issues and activities locally. But they also cooperate across the organization to do bigger projects with statewide implications.

When Pam Henson, president of USA Today Network-Wisconsin, arrived in spring 2015, she spent 6 months traveling and meeting with people to learn what issues matter in the communities they cover. Jim Fitzhenry, the network’s state business development director, said Henson kept hearing over and over again about teen suicide. After some initial reporting showed the state’s teen suicide rate was about a third higher than the national average, Fitzhenry invited staffers across the network to pitch story ideas from their communities. As soon as he saw them, he was convinced consistent themes across all these areas meant they needed to do a major project, expanding their scope from suicide to youth mental health broadly.

The series launched in January with three main phases. The first chapter explored the state’s challenges and why its kids are dying at higher rates than in other states. The second covered possible solutions to the crisis, asking what ideas and initiatives could help turn the situation around. The final chapter called the state to action and involved town hall meetings in all 10 areas USA Today Network-Wisconsin covers, plus a Day of Action in the state capital.

The Kids in Crisis efforts included town hall meetings and a Day of Action in Madison, the state's capital. (Photo by Katy Culver)

The Kids in Crisis efforts included town hall meetings and a Day of Action in Madison, the state’s capital. (Photo by Katy Culver)

An open window on reporting

Throughout it all, Rory’s Diary was the common thread woven through all the elements. The at-times heartbreaking stories have a more human side to them because the audience sees behind the reporting. Take the diary entry on Angela Wesener.

“The loss of a child is unimaginable to those who haven’t experienced it,” Linnane writes. “But it’s human nature to try. Etched in my memory is an image of my friend’s mom draped over his casket, unmoving, desperate to hold onto her moment of goodbye to her lost son.”

The entry accompanies a more traditional piece about the the interplay of bullying and teen suicide and a video showing how losing a compassionate boy named Jonathan forever changed a family.

Linnane says transparency was critically important in getting her past her discomfort. She felt that while she was letting the audience know what she was thinking and feeling in her reporting, she wasn’t telling them what to think or how to feel.

“People understood exactly where I was coming from, and when they read the stories I reported on, they knew my perspective but could come to their own conclusions.”

Flawed ideas of objectivity

This engaged approach to ethics marks a departure from some traditional practices, a welcome change for the Wisconsin network’s vice president for news, Joel Christopher. He supports the role of journalists as neutral observes but argues that idea can get twisted and portray news organizations as separate and apart from the communities they serve.

“You’ve got to give people more than just this drumbeat of critical looks at the places that they live in or the organizations that they’re a part of,” Christopher says, emphasizing news media can facilitate needed change in society. “We want to make sure stakeholders are connected as effectively as possible to effect change.”

He says USA Today Network-Wisconsin purposely chose to challenge traditional notions of objectivity and distance in reporting and producing the series.

“I think sometimes there’s a mindset that objectivity completely removes a journalist from the world that he or she covers, and I think that’s mistaken thinking,” Christopher says. “The idea that journalists aren’t able to make objective decisions yet still retain some humanity? It’s a false choice, and I think that a lot of times we use that to actually avoid interaction with people because we didn’t want them to have a front-row seat to how we created the journalism.”

By embracing new forms of engagement, including the town hall meetings, the journalists on the series better represented the publics they serve, he argues.

“Audiences demand, rightfully so, that there’s some access to the people who are providing their news, and they want to see that there is an investment and a buy-in from the journalists.”

Andrew DeVigal, chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, said embracing engagement recognizes that news organizations are no longer the powerful community gatekeepers they once were. He sees this shift in mindset as critical but often overlooked.

“In our radically connected world, I think community members being able to tell their own stories is already happening,” he says. “The more we distance from that fact — the more that we deny that that’s already happening — the less relevant we become as news organizations to the communities we’re supposed to serve. Our roles are changing within the public we are serving.”

Strong Response

The public noticed. In addition to the more than 1,000 people attending the town halls and Day of Action in person, livestream and archived video also saw strong performance. The series drew half-a-million page views in its initial months. But most importantly for Linnane, families affected by youth mental health issues consistently told her how much the series and her approach meant to them.

Archived video from USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's engagement efforts is available online. (Screenshot of Post-Crescent)

Archived video from USA Today Network-Wisconsin’s engagement efforts is available online. (Screenshot of Post-Crescent)

Michael Newton, a University of Wisconsin-Madison police officer and mental health advocate, says work like this goes a long way toward transforming the stigmas attached to mental health and helping the public see this for what it is: a public health issue.

“Somehow along the way, people have forgotten that this is an illness,” Newton says. “The fact that these journalists were engaging the community and trying to find solutions was inspiring and energizing.”

Fitzhenry sees potential for their approach to work with other issues of public importance, such as substance abuse or drunk driving. “We were able to bring together people who would never get into the same room. There were connections there that were very powerful,” he says. “People were hungry for those connections. It goes back to a basic sense of democracy. Having an exchange of ideas and knowledge is very powerful and people are interested.”

Kathleen Bartzen Culver (@kbculver) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and researching at the intersection of ethics and digital media practices. Culver also serves as director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and education curator for MediaShift.

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

Education and race panel addresses timely ethical issues

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for New York Times Magazine, said it is ethically imperative that re-segregation of America schools should be on the radar of every education reporter in America.

“The ethical implication is an ethical failure,” Hannah-Jones said. “I don’t understand how one can write about education and not write about these racial issues.”

Hannah-Jones and other panelists at “Race, Ethnicity and Journalism Ethics” conference agreed April 29 that journalists have a responsibility to cover racial disparities and make the public aware about its problems.

The panel Hannah-Jones sat on was one of four panels that discussed the ethical obligations of news organizations to cover and engage with race. The theme chosen for the eighth annual conference of the Center for Journalism Ethics was particularly timely because of the racial issues and demonstrations on the UW-Madison campus during the past year.

Panelists and moderators argued that the traditional views of objectivity and fairness in covering racial issues is often problematic. Several panelists acknowledged that while it is impossible to be completely objective, reporters should go into stories aware of their own biases and try not to make up their mind about a story first.

Hannah-Jones said although racial issues can be an emotional topic, good reporting should be rooted in evidence. If a story is based on verifiable facts, no one can claim it is unfair, she said.

A student-led social media campaign in the past month that uses the moniker #TheRealUW shed light on the racism and discrimination minority students face and has received wider news media coverage.

Kiara Childs, a student of color at UW-Madison, said that these racial events on campus are traumatizing because they make minority students feel unwelcome in the place where they live and attend classes.

Childs said that reporters add to the problem by avoiding the truth when covering racial issues.

“I think some reporters have a romantic view of this university and don’t fully understand the depth of the terrible racial climate on campus,” Childs said. “Reporters have ethical codes to follow, but they also hold biases.”

Childs agreed with panelists who said that a good way for journalists to improve their coverage of racial dynamics is to do their research on race and inequality.

Lisa Gartner, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting at the Tampa Bay Times, said journalists should get out and talk to people who are affected by these issues.

Childs said Madison reporters can learn from #TheRealUW to understand the group’s mission the problems it’s trying to address.

The racial issues in education are real, and should not be dismissed by the news media, she said.

“Equality on this campus is important for all,” Childs said. “Reporters have a voice to work toward that.”

Maggie Baruffi, originally from Kenosha, is a junior at UW-Madison studying reporting and strategic communication. She is in Prof. Stephen Vaughn’s Intermediate Reporting class this Spring. 

Photo of Nikole Hannah-Jones by

Newsroom diversification not silver-bullet solution

While diversifying the newsroom, or hiring more journalists of color, is a frequently suggested remedy and a positive first step to better coverage of race and ethnicity issues by mainstream journalists, Sue Robinson said it is not enough.

Robinson, a former journalist and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, studies media discourse around race and ethnicity, especially focusing on conversations about inequalities.

“We have to get more representation of all our communities in newsrooms so that all of our communities have a bigger voice in our mainstream dialogues,” she said. “That said, the danger with merely relying on hiring more people of color is that it absolves everybody else in the newsroom from doing the hard work of understanding their own implicit biases and privilege.”

Additionally, relying on newsroom diversification can create token race reporters, she said.

“They get pigeon-holed into writing about issues of race for a lot of different reasons, some of which are very logistical,” she said. “At the same time, those journalists might want to be an education reporter or they might want to do politics. It ends up almost being racist because you discount the full experience that those people might have.”

On April 29, the final panel at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics’ Conference on Race, Ethnicity and Journalism Ethics will begin to address next steps. What are some solutions? And how can they be implemented?

But even if diversifying the newsroom were a silver bullet solution, implementing such changes is not without challenges.

For Phil Brinkman, city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal, it starts in the hiring pool.

“We feel the real lack of diversity in our newsroom,” he said. “We live in a very white community, a very white state and we’re just not getting the candidate pools that we need.”

The State Journal has received only a handful of applications from journalists of color over the last couple of years, he said, noting that it will take a combined effort from both newsrooms and journalism schools.

“I would like to do whatever we can to increase our hiring of candidates of color, but j-schools need to make that a priority, too,” he said. “We need a better pipeline.”

Jordan Gaines, UW-Madison senior and editor of the Black Voice predicts that relatively non-diverse cities do not appeal to young journalists of color who are applying for jobs.

“I think the obvious considerations when applying are probably quality of city and then the presence of other people of color,” she said. “And it’s not that realistic for Madison.”

Fortunately, Gaines sees other areas where local outlets could enhance coverage.

“The big one that I think of is diversifying the people journalists contact,” she said. “A lot of times, we have these go-to folks, especially when we’re talking about marginalized communities. Because of that we don’t have intersectional people that we talk to who represent different types of identities.”

Journalists will need to do a better job of getting into communities to expand this contact list, she said.

In addition to diversifying the workforce and sourcing, Robinson said the responsibility rests on individual awareness.

“Most newsrooms do a diversity training – and that’s good. That’s all really good,” she said. “But I also think that we need privilege training beyond that. We need the personal understanding of one’s own role in the complicitness of reinforcing white supremacy within structures that are in place today.”

But it can’t stop after the workshop name tags are tossed. The training and discussion must be built into newsroom practice and culture more permanently, she said.

“It has to be ongoing, so that it’s not just a yearly workshop, but an ongoing conversation that happens in the newsroom,” she said. “Just like how many sources you need, how many inches you have and what the deadline is. It has to be part of that structure.”

Less mainstream media privilege benefits race justice in crime reporting

The way people sound when they speak, chatter, and laugh may lead to discrimination, police investigation.

Jennifer Stoever, a media and literature scholar at Binghamton University, called this phenomenon “sonic color-line” in a recent book. That is, people in color are often stereotyped and mistreated in turn by their vocal or audio traits.

Stoever said sound-based discrimination is particularly problematic for crime reporting, as such attitude has its deep root in the source most relied on in crime reporting — the police.

African-Americans  are often accused of being loud in public spaces for example, she said. A loud car stereo was once used as an excuse for the police to stop the drivers and investigate other crimes, Stoever found in her study.

On the other hand, after interviewing many people of color, Stoever found that the “authoritative voice” the police are trained to use when they are talking to people in high-crime rate communities actually sounds aggressive. The police tone and posture sometimes can escalate the situation, she said.

If adopted by journalists in their reporting, such authoritative voice, together with the stereotype image of less disciplined people in color, can circulate fears, said newly elected Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell.

Mitchell, also a pastor, is concerned about creating a healthy relation between the offenders and victims after a crime. People who committed a crime should be given a second chance and be able to be accepted back in their communities after the rehabilitation, he said.

The disparity in criminal justice system has been existing for generations in Dane County, with more prosecutions in certain communities, Mitchell said. Those communities are particularly hurt if the restoration of crimes is not going well.

Also, even crime rates sometimes do not give the full picture, said Leland Pan, Dane County District 5 Supervisor. Some communities may have a “suppressed crime rate” because of their reputation for safety.

According to Pan, District 5 has a large student population, which is overwhelmingly white and consists of people from wealthier families.

“Crimes by white males are under-discussed,” Pan said. White students feel more liberty in grey areas as their misconducts are less likely to get reactions from both the victims and the supervisory forces on campus.

Even though on-campus crimes tend to get a lot of media attention, rarely is that coverage about white aggression toward people of color, Pan said. Students of racial minorities sometimes are unwilling to report hostility to them because they are prone to be associated with offenders instead of victims.

As the newsroom demography gets less racially diverse and more socially privileged, journalists’ source network clings more tightly around the established power center, Hemant Shah, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a talk.

The mainstream news media also hold the prejudice toward alternative media promoting ethnic or racial voices, excluding them from professional journalism, Shah said.

For example, The Capital Times published an opinion article by Paul Fanlund, executive editor, in February about how the mainstream news media in Madison had been greatly contributing to the conversation about racial issues in the past few years.

A few days later, Madison365, a progressive non-profit media, aired a radio program criticizing the Cap Times article for its condescending tone and mainstream limitation.

“There have been only certain groups of people that are able to talk about these issues when it comes to the mainstream,” one of the hosts said, pointing out that the increasing coverage mentioned by Fanlund in his column was predominantly about the advocacy groups the mainstream media found worth reporting.

The mainstream media always have a patronizing gesture as if they “discover” those long-existing racial inequality problems, even though we have been covering the same issues for ages, said the hosts, who are also from communities of color.

This border between professional journalism and progressive journalism needs to be eliminated to include more minority voices in mainstream media, Shah said. He also encourages NGOs and other public agencies to coordinate between minority media and advertisers to form a more sustainable financial model for minority media.

Shah will moderate a panel for race and crime reporting during a journalism ethics conference held by the University of Wisconsin-Madison on April 29. Register for the conference here.

Nikole Hannah-Jones to address conference

Award-winning New York Times Magazine journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones will deliver the keynote address to open the 2016 Center for Journalism Ethics conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on April 29.

This year’s conference focuses on “Race, Ethnicity and Journalism Ethics.” The event runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Union South on the UW-Madison campus. The keynote will begin at 9 a.m. Registration is now open at the center’s website. The cost for early bird registrants is $20, including a buffet lunch, but increases to $25 April 9. Registration is free for all students and UW-Madison faculty and staff.

Hannah-Jones has reported on the history of racism and inequality and its legacy in modern policies that have maintained racial injustice. She has written personal reports on the black experience in America to offer a case for greater equality.

Earlier this spring, she earned a George Polk Award for radio reporting for “The Problem We All Live With,” broadcast on “This American Life.” For that story, she investigated the Normandy School District in Missouri, from which Michael Brown had graduated just before he was killed in nearby Ferguson. The two-part series examines school integration and the impact of resistance by largely white communities.

Building on the keynote, four panels will address the ethical challenges journalists face when dealing directly and indirectly with issues of race and ethnicity. Session topics will include:

  • Journalistic representations of race: language, imagery, sources and their effects
  • Journalism ethics and race in education coverage
  • Journalism ethics and race in criminal justice coverage
  • Solutions to the issues raised throughout the conference

“We’re looking forward to a challenging, stimulating and productive day of candid discussion,” Professor Robert Drechsel, director of the center, says. “Whether the context is politics, criminal justice, education, sports, the economy or national security, journalism inherently plays a critical role in framing issues and images of race and ethnicity for the public. The question is not whether journalism does this, but how and with what impact.”

Also during the conference, the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics will be presented to the Associated Press for its handling of ethical issues encountered in the reporting of a series of stories revealing the use of slave labor by the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. The stories resulted in the freeing of 2,000 slave laborers. Two of the reporters who did the stories will participate in a panel discussion of the ethical issues they faced and how they resolved them.

This is the eighth annual conference of the Center of Journalism Ethics, housed in UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Founded in 2008, the center’s mission is to foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism.