Today in reporting lecture, I got to hear from guest speaker Aidan White, a former journalist and now the director of an organization called the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), that promotes, “ethics, good governance, and regulation of media content.”
The mission is just one stroke of the whole painting. In a world where information is disseminated quickly, where the “race to be first” dominates newsrooms and the lack of filtered, accurate content plagues social media sites and confuses media consumers, we as journalists need to take a step back and reevaluate our job.
During the lecture today in a frantic mess of scrawl at the top of my notebook, I wrote in all capital letters:
FREE EXPRESSION IS NOT JOURNALISM
Well, it isn’t. But what does free expression mean? What makes a ‘free express-er’ different from the journalist that publishes the information? White says that in order to answer those questions, we need to think about the EJN’s five key principles of ethical journalism.
- Accuracy— Fact-based communication. Quite simply, not telling lies or intentionally releasing false information.
- Independence— Being an entity for information, for information’s sake; not being a voice box for an organization and not being the “creature of special interests,” as White put it.
- Impartiality— Recognizing the need to be inclusive and explore multiple perspectives of every issue.
- Humanity— Having a conscience. People need to be cognizant of the fact that they can produce damage and understand when it’s time to say, “Hey, let’s think about that one.”
- Accountability— Being accountable to correct mistakes when we make them. In addition, to understand that journalistic organizations must especially hold themselves to a higher standard.
So where does that whole “free expression” thing come in? We live in the United States, we live in the western world! We have freedom of expression and we have the right to express ourselves.
Yes, that’s true, but in the face of that argument, we run into several problems: declining quality and inherent mistrust of journalists and journalistic organizations. In turn, news organizations lose funding because people don’t consume the news like they used to. As a consequence, we have to look for other sources of funding that might deter impartiality.
Aside: In order to make this point, White cited the example of a long-form article about carbonated water that ran in National Geographic. White said that it was a fascinating, informative piece of journalism. However, it was stated in the article that Coca-Cola paid the journalist for the work. There’s the issue. White argued that journalism funded by private donors isn’t necessarily bad as long as the organization is transparent.
So how do we fix it? We as journalists have to realize the difference between “free expression” and journalism. It boils down to this:
Free expression should typically have elements of humanity, accuracy, and accountability (granted, that doesn’t always happen, but we can hope).
Journalism is unique because it requires us to be impartial and it requires us to be independent.
White said it best, “People will expect you to recognize your particular status as an organization. It is very distinctive, possible, and necessary for journalism to be independent.”
One of my favorite points that he made was about ethical decision-making in the newsroom. White explained that there needs to be “internal systems of self-regulation” in place.
What does that look like?
- Peer-review: asking peers in the newsroom what they think to get a second opinion that can inform your story
- Editors and “readers editors” need to be in place, but they should be subject to the same ethical scrutiny as the lower levels.
- For this, White made a pyramid with his hands as he said, “Maintaining ethics at this level is not as much of an issue,” he pointed to the bottom of the pyramid. “It’s when we get up here [at the top of the pyramid] where we need to make sure that we are maintaining ethical principals.” He cited an example of a scandal in London where the top level editors had been in cahoots with government officials and had gotten money from several donors.
- Disclosure of funds: letting the public know about where we get our money is essential because it exposes some of our biases
Finally, he got to my favorite part of the discussion.
His quote was,
“Just because someone says something outrageous, that doesn’t mean it’s news.”
I just loved this. It reminded me of the crazy tabloids that feature covers of ridiculous occurrences like a two-headed baby riding an eight-eyed goat (no, I have nothing to back up that any publication ever had that photo).
In all seriousness, sometimes in our “rush to publish,” as White called it, we forget to think critically about what we are putting out into the Twitter/Facebook/News spheres.
Every news organization is guilty of it: we get the scoop, we do enough research to say that it’s “valid,” and then we send it out into the world without thinking of the possible ramifications of our actions.
The final point I want to highlight is this:
“Fast journalism does not mean good journalism. In order to be ethical, you need to have time to think.”
So here we are at a journalistic crossroads, unsure of how to proceed. The pressure to publish quickly may dominate our minds, hearts, and sometimes our pockets, but in order for journalism to survive as the sole provider of impartiality and independence, we need to think ethically.
Journalists are important (and I don’t just say that because I am one).
We are the watchdogs, the information disseminate-rs, the questioners, and the nagging people that call the mayor 4 times in one hour to get an answer… but we do it for you. We serve the people, and in my opinion, most of the time we do it well. It’s always an exciting time to enter this profession, but right now, it feels especially significant.
In the words of Voltaire (later ripped off by Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.”
We do have great power, but with that comes the responsibility to think ethically, think wholly, think slowly, and think well.