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Why Journalism Ethics Need a Radical Reboot

Some journalists today, troubled by disorientating change, avoid philosophical questions and fixate on particular problems. How should journalists use social media on breaking stories? What corrections are required for live blogging? How should news outlets use drones?

The attention to the practical is natural. Newsrooms are news-production centers, with limited time — and tolerance — for theoretical discussions.

Yet the hard-nosed attitude of “just decide what to do in this situation and stop the philosophizing” is utterly inadequate in an era of digital and global media where journalists disagree on the fundamental aims and principles of the practice.

The most serious problem for journalism ethics today is conceptual: the sorry state of the very framework of ideas we call journalism ethics.

This framework, inherited from a non-global, pre-digital journalism, portrays the journalist as a professional gatekeeper who serves the public by informing citizens truthfully, impartially, objectively and independently. She uses time-consuming verification procedures. Given this interpretation, we have a common means of evaluating practices.

The media revolution undermined the framework.

Principles, such as impartiality, are questioned. New practitioners prefer an interpretive journalism far from the “straight” reporting admired by traditional journalism ethics. Even if time-honored principles such as accuracy are maintained, there are disputes as to their meaning. What does accuracy mean in an era of instant updating?

Where reinterpretations of principles such as objectivity are not available, we are left with a conceptual “hole” in the middle of our ethics.

The result: We lack an agreed-upon framework for evaluating practice. Journalism ethics is like Humpty Dumpty after his big fall. It’s a mess.

In Radical Media Ethics: A Global Approach, I argue that the only way to rescue journalism ethics from sinking into oblivion is to think radically in terms of new ideas. I offer new principles in an experimental spirit.

For example, the traditional notion of objectivity as “just the facts” needs to be replaced by what I call pragmatic objectivity. The latter is a method for evaluating stories viewed as interpretations, not facts-only reports. Pragmatic objectivity uses a wider range of criteria of evaluation, from consistency of beliefs to surviving the scrutiny of the public.
The tweaking of ideas, as seen in recent revisions of codes of ethics, is a temporary, localized fix. In my book, I reformulate the aims of journalism in global terms, making the advancement of a global humanity the primary goal of journalism, not the advancement of national interests.

Without a framework, we have a clash of values with little common ground. We need to be radical in thought and in practice.

Stephen J. A. Ward, Ph.D., is an internationally-recognized media ethicist, award-winning author and educator in Madison, Wisconsin. He is an honorary fellow at the School of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin and Distinguished Lecturer in Ethics at the University of British Columbia. He was a foreign reporter, war correspondent and newsroom bureau chief for 14 years. Web: Twitter: @StephenJAWard.