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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.





Anna Therese Day and the jailed journalists whose stories we never hear

The UW-Madison community is still recovering from the shock of UW alum Anna Therese Day’s recent arrest in Bahrain. Day and her crew were in Bahrain over the weekend, covering the anniversary of the Gulf nation’s Shia-led uprising in 2011. The four American journalists were detained Sunday on allegations that they had participated in attacks against police officers and falsely claimed to be tourists. As more information filtered out, international media also reported that Bahrain authorities accused the journalists of participating in the new rash of protests that they had been covering.

On Tuesday morning, NBC quoted the journalists’ lawyer as saying that Day and her crew had been formally charged, but then released without travel restrictions. CNN also said the journalists were on their way to the airport. International news organizations continued to cover the incident as it unfolded.


A graduate of the political science department at UW-Madison, Day has made a name for herself as a respected freelance journalist. She has worked with major news outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera English, and The New York Times. She is also a co-founder of the Frontline Freelance Register, an organization that fights for the safety of freelance journalists around the world.

The arrest of Day and her crewmembers, who have not been publicly named, provides an important opportunity to examine the dangers that journalists face when they cover stories in politically tense regions. As the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, officials in Bahrain have often conflated the journalistic act of covering local uprisings with the political act of participating in these protests. Reporters without Borders also says that media freedom is constantly under attack in the Gulf nation, with photographers, correspondents and online journalists constantly being arrested and even tortured for their work.

Day’s experience has the potential to shine some light on these issues. Yet, her incident also has the potential to illuminate something a bit messier, something that journalists and scholars need to address more often. The sad fact is that most of the journalists who have been persecuted in Bahrain over the past few years are not westerners like Day. Instead, they tend to be local to Bahrain or the Middle Eastern region, and thus more vulnerable to oppression.

Take, for example, the case of Ahmed al-Fardan, a photojournalist who is currently serving a three-month prison sentence in Bahrain for taking pictures of a protest. Like Day and her crew, al-Fardan was accused of participating in the protests he was trying to cover. Unlike Day and her crew, al-Fardan is still in prison.

Or what about Ahmed Radhi, a freelance journalist arrested for criticizing Bahrain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia? He’s been in prison for several months now, on terrorism charges. What’s more, he’s told the Bahrain Human Rights Center that security forces tortured him in order to get him to confess to the heavy “anti-state” charges brought against him.

Why aren’t the CNN’s and the BBC’s and the Al Jazeera’s of the world telling us more about these local journalists, who suffer just as much (if not more) than foreign correspondents? Put another way, what responsibility do Western news outlets have when it comes to informing the world about the plight of journalists who aren’t necessarily from the “West?”

The tendency in mainstream, Western news organizations is to give exposure to communities with whom Western news audiences can more easily “relate.” In the context of international reporting, this “relatability” is often subtly racialized and regionalized. We saw this in the overwhelming coverage of the Paris attacks in late 2015, for example, as well as in the notable silence when similar attacks occurred in Beirut and Nairobi right around the same time. We’re seeing it again in the coverage of Day’s arrest and subsequent release.

Though there is an understandable comfort in familiarity, one media ethicist asserts that in a globalized world, the media can do much more than feed us familiar images of ourselves. In his 2013 contribution to Stephen J.A. Ward’s book on global media ethics, scholar Nick Couldry argues that global media do not resolve or reduce the disagreements and diversity that define the current age. Instead, global media can bring these differences into view, inspiring a more important set of questions. As Couldry puts it, how do we “live sustainably together through media,” despite our differences?

Protesters in Bahrain show solidarity with Egypt. File photo dated Feb. 4, 2011 from Mahmood al-Yousif.

Protesters in Bahrain show solidarity with Egypt. File photo dated Feb. 4, 2011 from Mahmood al-Yousif.

If Western news outlets were to approach their coverage of Day’s arrest from this perspective, they would necessarily show more interest in the ongoing persecution of local journalists in Bahrain. On one level, these journalists’ detention serves to expose Bahrain officials’ refusal to live sustainably with differences in their own nation. Since the 2011 uprisings, Bahrain officials have cracked down on dissenters with oppositional perspectives, refusing to create a space in which multiple viewpoints can coexist.

On another level, the continued detention of local reporters in Bahrain shows that there are huge disparities among the world’s journalists, disparities that need to be better understood. Visiting correspondents may have different agendas than local journalists, for example. On top of that, local journalists must deal with working conditions that are inherently riskier than those of Western reporters. In an increasingly interconnected world, these distinctions should be of interest to Western news organizations and their audiences. And it’s the news outlets’ job to bring these issues into the light.

There is more to the story of this recent arrest than the figure of the young American freelancer who made it home. Courageous and brilliant, Day’s own work has repeatedly pointed to the nuances of foreign reporting as well, encouraging more dialogue on the dangers that journalists face. News organizations and journalism scholars need to treat Day’s experience as a larger opportunity to talk about the people who haven’t yet been released — the people who may never be released at all.