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Tag: Stephen Ward

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.

Rewriting history: Anniversary stories, shared memory and minority voices

by Meagan Doll & Steven Wang, CJE fellows

“What is often a winner is a story that the audience largely finds familiar with perhaps a palatable twist in it,” Mascall-Dare said. “What I found is that if I go into a story with a framing strategy that my audience finds very comforting and that basically fits the grand narrative, and then I smuggle in the new, interesting, controversial, challenging stuff, they can better go along with it.”

Events like this week’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day bring a predictable onslaught of anniversary and remembrance stories.

The events of the past are memorialized, recreated and retold in the age-old practice of the anniversary story.

“Though the stories are about the past, we are building memories for the future generations,” said Carolyn Kitch, a journalism professor at Temple University.

But, there’s an ethical problem with accepting the truth that’s been told before as the only version of the truth.

Re-purposing the same narrative year after year can reinforce the marginalization of previously unheard voices, said Gregory Favre, a former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee and vice president for McClatchy Newspapers.

Journalists have ethical responsibilities to both their audiences and people who lived the events to dig deeper, Kitch said.

Today, journalists and scholars need to do more to analyze how anniversary news stories can perpetuate stereotypes, said independent journalist and media ethics scholar Sharon Mascall-Dare.

“When we’re thinking about journalism in the context of racialized anniversary stories where journalists have to interrogate narratives and think carefully about how stories are told and the shaping of collective memory and the ethical responsibility that goes with telling that story well and accurately.”


For those who believe journalism to be a first draft of history, anniversary stories provide a second (or 100th) opportunity to explore, amend and reinforce collective memory associated with high-profile events.

Stephen Ward, a media ethicist now based in Madison, Wisconsin, said it is difficult for journalists to construct an accurate memory.

But, particularly when these anniversary stories have an element of race, the collective memory may not be accurate. Ward said reporters and audiences default to subtle biases that are particularly problematic when the coverage is about minority groups.

“We accept certain narratives,” Ward said. History as told in news coverage tends to reinforce the established mainstream view, or a white man view regarding stories including racial minorities.

Anniversary reporting amplifies a certain social memory because journalists  spread one version of the events to those who aren’t eyewitnesses, she said.

“Social memory is about the public constructing shared meanings,” Kitch said.

Journalists should also be sensitive to ideologies embedded in stories commemorating historical events, Ward added. Anniversary reporting of events like Sept. 11 attacks and D-Day can easily take on a patriotic perspective.

For example, anniversary coverage of Sept. 11 generally emphasizes patriots and heroic events, while downplaying the ethic discrimination toward “the enemies,” Ward said.


Favre, who in addition to working for the Bee and McClatchy wrote about remembering  Hurricane Katrina for Poynter, said said anniversary stories play a part in preventing similar tragedies to those which are often commemorated.

“The function of anniversary stories is to rekindle memories, of course” he said. “But it is also to make sure people don’t forget – if things can be prevented in the future, perhaps this is another step to prevention.”

But even the decision about which stories to retell is made without marginalized voices in mind.

Mascall-Dare, who is based Adelaide, South Australia, said there has been a historic focus on reader figures, influencing whose stories are magnified.

Editors and journalists choose to commemorate with news coverage the stories and events they think will attract the largest audience.

“Often, reader figures, click figures, listener figures come first,” she said.

Mascall-Dare said the consequence of this reality is that the stories of racial minorities often go unheard.

She points to a national day of remembrance for military veterans in Australia and New Zealand as an example. The day was originally created to specifically honor the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

“The Anzac story has essentially become a national defining narrative,” Mascall-Dare said. “And race comes into that narrative because [ANZAC Day] tends to be dominated very much by a narrative that privileges an image of the iconic anglo-saxon Australian soldier, to the exclusion of indigenous soldiers and other migrant nationalities.”

While Mascall-Dare’s research challenges racial inequities present in some anniversary stories, she also warned that journalists must proceed with caution when writing about pre-conceived racialized stories.

Journalism, which counts conflict among its central news values, will often highlight the controversy of racial diversity as a storytelling technique, Mascall-Dare said. Reporters can tell more accurate stories by listening to sources rather than inserting their own narrative, she said.

“It’s important when engaging with people in a cross-cultural context that we allow the people we’re engaging with to set their own terms about what they do or don’t think is appropriate and to decide whether the subject matter is even race related,” she said. “Sometimes a story that may have a race connection may turn out that race is not even the crux of it.”


Embed from Getty Images

When journalists set out to report an anniversary story, they often begin by returning to the breaking news published at the time of the event, said Kitch. Kitch, who is also chairwoman of Journalism and Mass Communication at Temple’s School of Media and Communication, has long focused her research on journalism history and public memory.

“Try to put a fresh face on stories,” Favre said. “The problem is some people just recycle the same old, same old and that doesn’t advance those stories or look at them in a different way.”

Bringing in minority voices is a delicate balance, Mascall-Dare said, admitting that the odds may feel against those trying to challenge the dominant narrative.

“You’ve got to be very strategic about how you go about it as a communicator,” she added.

Favre said he tries to make anniversary stories into contemporary reflections.

“I always like to look forward. Where are we now? What has taken place to make sure the levees won’t break again in New Orleans?” he said. “Looking back doesn’t always serve your reader well.”

Ward said a self-indulgent sentiment is the first thing to avoid. The interpretation of past events should have a critical emphasis on their social impacts, he said.

The focus should be about  how audiences can understand the present problems better by looking back at them. Mascall-Dare had similar advice for journalists: Adopt a challenging perspective within a largely familiar story.

What is often a winner is a story that the audience largely finds familiar with perhaps a palatable twist in it,” she said. “What I found is that if I go into a story with a framing strategy that my audience finds very comforting and that basically fits the grand narrative, and then I smuggle in the new, interesting, controversial, challenging stuff, they can better go along with it.”



Mascall-Dare said anniversary stories can add depth to simplistic grand views of history.

“The  beauty is that by exploring other perspectives which might be seen as alternative or irrelevant or confusing, surely that’s where you can add to the richness of understanding around that event,” she said. “You can aspire to a far more inclusive and socially and ethically responsible representation when you’re not privileging some voices over others or marginalizing particular perspectives.”


Moving toward these goals, Mascall-Dare encouraged journalists to do their part to teach and not simply entertain.

“I would argue that this is where journalists need to think about their role as not just feeding a hungry animal,” she said. “In order to challenge audience perspectives and bring them onside with new and alternatives ways of thinking about that narrative, you do need to be prepared to step into that role of an educator.”

Favre encouraged journalists to do more than rehash the past.

This can involve telling people “what they don’t necessarily want to hear,” Favre said, suggesting that journalist can become too dependent on entertainment value and audience statistics.

Kitch said journalists should lead public attention to work still needed to be done and provide the political and economic context for racial inequality.

Ward suggested a more-diverse newsroom as solution to combat racial inequities especially.

“You need people who really understand the culture,” he said. “You’ve got to take time and effort to know those people, without taking out your threatening notepads at first.”

Mascall-Dare added that change can begin with one’s own moral conscience, encouraging journalists to call out unethical reporting in the newsroom.

“For any young journalist in the profession today, that’s what they need to be aspiring to – brave, courageous, outspoken, challenging, confronting journalism,” she said. “If we’ve gone into the job for the right reason, you should have no qualms about standing up and calling out cliche or unethical reporting when you see it. At the end as journalists, isn’t that what we’re all meant to do?”

This story is one in an occasional series about Race, Ethnicity and Journalism Ethics. These stories will culminate in the center’s annual conference April 29.