Back in 2002 I was tapped somewhat unexpectedly to teach a graduate level course in journalism ethics. On the first day, I was interrupted by a twenty-something student who attacked the syllabus, complaining that traditional journalism ethics had little relevance now that the Internet was taking over the media.
I was too dumbfounded to offer a good answer, but if I had kept the student’s name, I’d gladly send him a copy of The New Ethics of Journalism by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with contributions from many of the sharpest minds in journalism today.
This is a very important book about a very important subject, and just as journalism is no longer the provenance of professionals, this book ought to be studied by everyone who uses any form of social media to share or receive information.
McBride, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, and Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, argue that the more traditional concepts of journalism ethics—those I was trying to teach more than a decade ago—have failed to keep pace with the vast changes in the way people get their news. The authors don’t reject the old concepts, they just feel that they’ve been subsumed and superseded by a somewhat different set, which they put under three broad categories:
1) Seek truth and report it as fully as possible.
2) Be transparent.
3) Engage community as an ends, rather than as a means.
The fourteen essays that make up this book and that are organized around these three principles were assigned, drafted, refined, discussed far and wide, refined again, and then edited over the course of four years. Each essay concludes with a case study and discussion questions, making the book an ideal classroom text, though it makes for valuable reading in any newsroom and any living room.
Although I spend a fair amount of time thinking about ethics in general and journalism in particular (a result of a forty-year career in the field), this book made me think in new ways and question many of my old assumptions.
The very first essay, Clay Shirky’s fresh look at truth, is a perfect example. He reminds us that journalists traditionally took evidence of consensus as evidence of truth. That was a workable strategy when people in the consensus controlled the microphones and those outside had no way to make their views known. But that’s not the case today and the strategy is no longer workable. A new one is needed.
But it is in the final section, built around the need to engage the community as an end, that the authors break the most new ground. Not surprisingly, the essays in this section are likely to prove the most controversial and thought-provoking. The overarching theme of the section is that communities are no longer just the recipients of the news. They are participants, and they play a key role in setting the agenda.
In one of my favorite essays, Monica Guzman suggests that journalists should aspire to the higher calling of growing communities that self-inform. To do this, they must view the citizenry—and even their professional competitors—as collaborators. She points to the 2009 shooting of four police officers in Parkland, Washington, as the perfect example.
As the two-day search for the suspect began, The Seattle Times began using Twitter to relay the latest news, organizing its tweets under the hashtag #washooting. The public quickly latched on to that hashtag, both for reading and tweeting. And more significantly, the other news media in Washington also embraced #washooting rather than try to set up a competing hashtag. That allowed readers to see all the news in a single stream, regardless of the source.
McBride and Rosenstiel conclude their book by stressing what should be obvious. The digital age has made journalistic principles more important not less, no matter how many different forms or methods of delivery are created. Or perhaps because so many different forms and methods of delivery have been created.
Back in those days when I tried to teach journalism ethics (or more accurately tried to get journalism students thinking about ethics), I used a text (Doing Ethics in Journalism) by McBride’s predecessor at Poynter, Bob Steele, who wrote the foreword for this volume.
That book used four more traditional principles—seek the truth, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable. As McBride notes, those principles are still valid, but their articulation hasn’t kept pace with the digital world. This new volume is critical to understanding and applying the ethics of journalism to what is clearly a new world of communication.
While I’ve listed above the three ethical principles that McBride and Rosenstiel adopt, I’d strongly recommend you examine their more lengthy articulation.
Disclosure: I was given a free copy of The New Ethics of Journalism by the publishers, CQ Press, an imprint of Sage publications, for review purposes. In an earlier life, I worked for CQ, which, like CQ Press, was then owned by Poynter but no longer is.
The New Ethics of Journalism, by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, CQ Press, 2014, 243 pages. You can find a copy here.