Why We Need Radical Change for Media Ethics, Not a Return to Basics
Talk of media revolution is so ubiquitous that we sometimes become inured to the force of what we say. We nod our head in agreement that change is everywhere, but we fail to think through the consequences of change.
During my public talks, I note that many people accept the fact of media revolution but they deny what follows from that fact — a revolution in media ethics. Funnily, when it comes to ethics, we become conservative, even if we are progressives in our teaching and practice.
I have been told repeatedly that the idea of a new media ethics is just a matter of “pouring new wine into old bottles.” That is, new practices should conform to existing “bottles” — existing codes of ethics. Current journalism principles are treated as eternal verities which, apparently, do not change in meaning, application or relevance.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, we have new wine and new bottles.
The “new wine” includes integrated forms of mainstream journalism, such as professionally guided sites for citizens’ video of human rights violations; or community-edited websites; or crowdsourcing on breaking news.
“New bottles” refers to two things: First: a questioning of existing principles such as impartiality — or, at least a demand for clarification of their meanings. Second: a stress on new values, such as transparency over objectivity; or, a preference for the unfiltered sharing of information over a filtered verification of “the facts.”
Responsible media practitioners remain committed to general principles, such as seeking the truth and reporting independently. But beyond this general level, the media revolution has undermined a previous professional consensus on the best forms of practice, and the norms that guide them. Our media revolution creates multiple and conflicting interpretations of journalism.
Media ethics, like media, is in turmoil.
To deal with today’s turmoil, we need a radical media ethics, not a conservative retreat to “basics.” We should be radical in philosophy and bold in our ideas. We need to reinvent media ethics from the ground up. Piecemeal improvements are not sufficient.
We need to be radical in three areas: 1) Meta-ethics: one’s view of the nature of ethics; 2) applied ethics: what principles should guide practice; 3) global media: what norms should define a media that is global in reach and impact.
Let me describe briefly how to be radical in each area.
In meta-ethics, reassuring talk of “old bottles” is a mindset not ready to meet the future. At the bottom of this view is the idea that ethics, if it is to guide anyone, needs to be static, unchanging and based on “foundations.” Disagreement, change and turmoil are threats to ethics. So when a revolution happens, we circle the wagons. We preserve the status quo.
In contrast, I believe media ethics (and ethics in general) is, and always has been, a matter of constantly inventing and altering norms to meet ever-new social and technological conditions. Media ethics in a revolution, then, must be open to the future. Contestation and change are natural to ethics, not regrettable aberrations. In the long run, they are good things. Today’s alternate interpretations of journalism are a rich resource for constructing a more adequate ethics for interactive, global media.
Ethics as invention is not just a theoretical notion. What meta-ethics we adopt influences how we react, practically, to new and difficult questions. As journalists, teachers and ethicists, we need a mindset that allows us to bridge the old and the new — to retain what is valuable from the past yet embrace new and valuable ways of communication. Thinking of ethics as always evolving and always contested helps us to reform applied ethics. Rather that stress fidelity to past principles, we construct editorial guidelines for journalists in new “media ecologies” — such as integrated newsrooms. We propose new conceptions of how mainstream journalists should use social media, and how newsrooms should validate citizen content.
This new ethics is already being constructed by newsrooms.
Finally, media ethics must radically redefine itself for a global age. Historically, media ethics has been non-global or parochial. It was a set of rules for serving local publics or, at most, a nation. But today, journalism reaches across borders. The role of the journalist needs a global interpretation. We need to rethink how global media should cover transnational issues from war to climate change. We should be radical in the ways of moral invention, envisaging a global media ethics for our interconnected world.
Shape of a future ethics
Ethics of new media ecologies: Future media ethics will guide journalists working in non-traditional environments from non-profit websites to investigative centers within academia.
Ethics of how to use new media: Future media ethics will say useful things on the responsible use of new media, and how to deal with integrated newsrooms.
Ethics of interpretation and opinion: The era of news objectivity as “just the facts” is dying. Interpretive and advocational journalism grows. Ethicists need to fill this gap by distinguishing between better and worse interpretations. They need to provide a specific meaning to such key concepts as “informed commentary,” “insightful analysis” and “good interpretation.”
Ethics of activism: Activist journalism will also proliferate. But when are activist journalists not propagandists? When are journalists partisan political voices and when are they journalists with a valid cause? Rather than simply dismiss activist journalism on the traditional ground of objectivity, how can we develop a more nuanced understanding of this area of journalism?
Ethics of global democratic journalism: New thinking in ethics will need to reconstruct the role of journalism in global terms.
If we do all of this, we will be truly radical.
If we teach students from a radical mind-set, we do them a service. If we teach from a retrenched conservative mind-set, we do them a disservice.
We need to help the next generation of multimedia journalists develop their own novel and progressive ethical frameworks for the media world that lies in their future.
Series image photo by Taqi®™ on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.
Stephen J. A. Ward is Professor and Director of the George S. Turnbull Center in Portland, Oregon. The center is the Portland base of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Previously, he was the first James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics and founder of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also has been director of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He is the founding chair of the Ethics Advisory Committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists.