In response to the rapidly changing media environment, many schools and academic programs are offering novel approaches to journalism education.

This seismic change creates tensions within programs, especially when it comes to how to teach ethics for this increasingly mixed media.

In an earlier column, I put forward some principles for teaching ethics amid this media revolution. But these principles do not address some specific problems.

Whither objectivity?

Today, students don’t just learn how to report straight news on deadline. They not only learn to write reports that are neutral or objective; they also learn how to write blogs, use social media, write investigative pieces, and explore point-of-view journalism.

Schools of journalism have always taught, to some extent, what is called “opinion journalism,” such as learning to write an editorial that supports a candidate for political office. But the amount of opinion and perspective journalism in programs today is much greater than in the past; and media formats for the expression of this journalism multiply.

One problem is whether the ideal of journalistic objectivity should be emphasized in these changing curricula.

The new journalism tends to be more personal. It prefers transparency to objectivity or self-effacing neutrality. Across journalism programs, there is a trend toward teaching a perspectival journalism that draws conclusions, and argues for interpretations. This challenges the previous dominance of objectivity as an ideal.

So the question is: Should educators maintain or abandon objectivity in their teaching?

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Photo by Roger H. Goun and used here under Creative Commons license.

Redefining Objectivity

For starters, I think we should address this problem by doing two things: First, we should redefine, not abandon, objectivity as one of the principles that define responsible journalism. Second, we should develop ethical guidelines for specific forms of new media — guidelines that are consistent with general principles such as truth-telling.

The traditional notion of journalistic objectivity, developed in the early 1900s, defined objectivity as a story that reported “just the facts” and eliminated all interpretation or opinion by the journalist. This notion of objectivity needs to be abandoned. It is an outdated idea that sees everything in black and white: A story is either factual — and only factual — or it is subjective opinion. We are given a choice between strict objectivity and un-rigorous subjectivity. This is a false dilemma.

Objectivity is not about perfect neutrality or the elimination of interpretation. Objectivity refers to a person’s willingness to use objective methods to test interpretations for bias or inaccuracies. Objectivity as a method is compatible with journalism that interprets and takes perspectives. Every day, scientists adopt the objective stance when they use methods to test their hypotheses about phenomena. The same stance is available for journalists.

Why is the redefinition of objectivity necessary?

Traditional objectivity as just the facts is a false model of how journalists do their work. Journalism is interpretive through and through. It provides little guidance for many forms of journalism, such as point-of-view journalism. In addition, adherence to traditional objectivity can retard curriculum reform. The fear that teaching perspectival journalism entails teaching a “journalism without standards” is unfounded. Perspectival journalism can be more or less supported by the facts, well-argued, and respectful of counter views.

The ideal of objectivity should not be abandoned because it supports important journalistic attitudes such as a “disinterestedness” that follows the facts where they lead.

Guidelines for specific formats

My second suggestion is that educators should develop ethical guidelines aimed at specific forms of journalism.

The evolution of interactive, online media tells us something that journalists have known for years: Ethics of journalism is not monolithic; it’s not “one size fits all.” To be sure, general principles such as truth-telling, editorial independence, objectivity and accuracy apply across all forms of responsible journalism. However, in addition to these principles, more specific norms apply to certain types of journalistic practice. For instance, the aims and norms of satirical journalism are not the same as those of straight reporting; the aims and norms of column writing are not the same as those of a TV news anchor. What norms are appropriate depends on the form of communication in question.

How do these thoughts apply to the problem of changing journalism curricula?

It means that, while teaching should honor the general principles, ethics courses need to develop “best practices” guidelines for specific forms of journalism. For example, we need to specify what truth-telling and accuracy entail for the live-blogging of events. We need to develop guidelines for the responsible use of Twitter and other social media.

The issue is not whether certain media formats are inherently unethical. The issue is what norms are appropriate for any specific format. We need both comprehensive principles and specific guidelines that allow students to engage new media in a creative but responsible manner.

The first step, then, is to clear away old ways of thinking that act as obstacles to the redesign and the teaching of journalism ethics.

Only a fundamental redesign will allow journalism ethics to make the transition from an ethics constructed for a media from another era to an ethics relevant to today’s mixed media.

More from photographer Roger H. Goun on Flickr.

Stephen J. A. Ward is director of the Center for Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism’s in Vancouver, B.C.

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