Toward a New Ethics of Journalism
The Code of Ethics of The Society of Professional Journalists is a flawed document because it holds journalists to inhuman and contradictory standards. No intelligent journalist with an ounce of empathy who learns about the facts of a situation can ever be non-biased and free of attachments to people in the community in the way that the code demands. Can a journalist who receives hard information about the identity of a murderer truly claim to hold no opinion about the murderer’s guilt? Can a journalist who watches corruption take place at a city council meeting fail to draw inferences and conclusions about the corrupt official’s other official actions? Any posture claiming non-bias and non-attachment requires either an extraordinary lack of curiosity, memory, and empathy or wholesale concealment of facts.
Strong claims, indeed. Read on if you wonder whether they can be defended. Before we start, please familiarize yourself with the Code.
The principles are clear, and with one exception are good.
- “Seek truth and report it” is the nut of it all, isn’t it? It means you do not begin to investigate with a hypothesis in your mind. That is crusading, not journalism. It means you go out and find the answers to the questions who, what, where, when, and how. Answering “why” requires mind-reading that is impossible for human beings, even human beings who believe in it, and has no place in journalism. It’s just as bad as “anonymous sources,” which is a phrase that conceals the reality of slanderer, libeler, traitor, and rumor-mongerer in a pretty package as if it wasn’t a corruption of truth-telling and journalism. After answering the questions of who-what-where-when-how to the best of his ability, the journalist writes the story from the beginning and stops at the end. Opinion, mind-reading, anonymous sources, and speculative rumor-mongering do not belong in journalism.
- “Minimize harm” is meant to protect innocent individual people from being victimized by the journalist, especially if they have already been thrust into a tragedy the journalist is covering. It is not meant to protect governments, belief systems, criminal gangs, journalists, newspapers, or politicians from inconvenient facts or to sustain a political narrative. It is meant to protect individual human beings from degradation, crime, and retaliation. And it is meant to protect law abiding private citizens. Governments and criminals can take care of themselves. Journalists are supposed to serve as a counter to government spin and as the white light of truth when it comes to criminal enterprises.
- “Act independently” is inherently wrong-headed.Now if you are just looking at the principle, “act independently,” you might wonder what the problem is. As is usual, the devil is in the details. Here are the SPJ’s bullet points under “act independently.”
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
- Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
- Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
- Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
- Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
- Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.
The first three bullet points show the problem. They are not about acting independently, or about revealing the truth. They are about protecting the appearance of integrity. And they also presume that all ties to the community are bad. Do you just perhaps think that attitude might sneak into reporting? The fourth point, if followed, would testify as to the reporter’s failure to uphold the first three points. I’ve never heard of a reporter doing such a thing. To the contrary, I’ve seen journalists defending their own political party from inconvenient evidence without hesitation.
This whole rule puts the journalist in the impossible position of affirming that he has no biases at all. Bias is human. Only an inhuman robot could meet this requirement. Further, the rule forbids the journalist from trusting those on whom he reports. It presumes that ties are bad. Trust goes both ways. If he doesn’t trust, he and his stories will not be trusted. And this enforced distancing from the community makes the journalist not part of it, and unable to understand or report accurately on it. It forces the journalist into solitary Egotism and Narcissism (or “me-ism”), the characteristic flaw of journalists today. Journalists need to join their communities, tone down the ego and distancing, become part of the community, and put their biases front and center. So do editorial boards.
I’m not saying that journalists should write propaganda as covert agents for a political group or an ideological position. That would violate “Seek the truth and report it,” which includes the truth of what is within the journalist’s soul, and also the fourth principle “be accountable.” But journalists should be part of their community. They should feel free to join voluntary associations, to fall in love with their beat, or even run for political office without losing their status as “journalists.” These are what good and capable people do. Those who prevent themselves from acting like good and capable people demean themselves for a false principle.
The third principle should be replaced with “Reveal the reporter’s and editor’s ties and biases.”
- “Be accountable” is absolutely true, but not followed by most journalist organizations. It is mostly ignored because it is directly opposed to the official third principle, “act independently.” How can you “act independently” of the people in a community and also “be accountable” to the same people? In the long run, it is impossible. So current journals assign the accountability function to an ombudsman whose actual function is to spin and deflect rightful criticism about biased and outright false stories.Not only do journalists need to be personally accountable, but they also need to refrain from associating with organizations that are dedicated to falsehoods, such as criminal gangs, enemies at war, or those groups that are destructive of society in general. These kinds of organizations treasure their associations with journalists because friendly journalists buy them sympathy and public acceptance. And journalists must not let themselves be used as weapons against the social contract or law and order. Not if they have any wish to be the fourth estate of government. You see, they should be instinctively opposed to government, which extracts income by force from the citizenry much like a protection racket, but not to society.
If you have ever been the direct or indirect subject of a news story you can check this yourself. Were the facts reported correctly or incorrectly? Did they even get the names of the people involved right? Did the reporter delve into the thought processes of people involved in the story in ways that are literally impossible for the reporter to have known? Was the conclusion or lesson of the story transplanted into the facts of the story as if it was an invader from Mars? If you complained about it was it corrected, on page 17B, in white ink on a white background, with new falsehoods introduced in the correction? That’s barely an exaggeration. If newspapers were honest about the quality of their reporting most would have more corrections than original reporting in every issue.
And that is why newspapers are failing. They are not worth their cover price, even in debased 2009 dollars. Their version of “truth” is nothing but rumor, lies and bias: a tale full of sound and fury, told by an idiot, signifying nothing. It is why newspapers will continue to fail. It is why the failure will accelerate. Even if the gubmint bails them out for now, once a Republican gets into office the reign of US gubmint newspapers (our Pravda and Izvestia) will be over.
Repairing the ethical code is a necessary step for recovery. The code requires journalists to take a step back from their community and look at it as outsiders. They may not trust things to be as they seem. This would allow them to be more objective, if they were capable of it. But they aren’t. Everybody has biases, and not only do journalists have their own biases, because they mistrust their sources they are also biased in favor of man bites dog stories.
More on detachment, the original principle three. When writing freely from the imagination, nothing comes out but bias. See Maureen Dowd, Jayson Blair, and Stephen Glass. When writing of something in the real world, as in the example of Plato’s cave, the writer actually records an image of the real world projected on his own thought-patterns; or bias. Without a connection to the community to provide a feedback and sanity-checking mechanism, the writer’s bias is never corrected. Instead, the reporter’s bias adds to the bias of the editor who never even sees the real world with his own eyes, but only through the keyboards of his minions. This idolatry of detachment from real life causes the “ethical” journalist to let his bias grow until it is the monster that controls him.
Rather than purifying a journalism based on detachment and obscured bias, the answer is a journalism based on involvement and an insider’s understanding: an insider’s journalism instead of an outsider’s journalism.
If insider’s journalism sounds like blogging, perhaps it should. In ye olde days, journalists were amateurs who had other jobs but wrote about what they knew for the broadsheets. It was only with the advent of cheap newsprint and the automobile that it became possible for a single newspaper to bundle together the news of the day, stock quotes, classified advertising, commercial advertising, comics, sports, and the other categories of news and distribute this news cheaply to a large metropolitan area. Newspapers collected a “monopoly rent” because their distribution system was expensive to recreate, a defacto monopoly. And now that the internet has developed into an instant distribution system, newspapers can no longer extract those monopoly rents and have to radically restructure to deal with changing realities.
THE WAY FORWARD
How could a newspaper take advantage of its strengths? One of the still thriving and growing newspapers is the Wall Street Journal, which daily features actionable information that can give a tactical advantage to those businessmen who read it before their competitors. In other words, the WSJ is an intelligence service for businessmen. That is valuable, and people will pay for it. But intelligence doesn’t have to consist of new information, it can also consist of the patient assembly of extant source information and connection to breaking stories for a first draft of history that will give those who read it a tactical advantage. The idea of connecting current events to history with minimal bias, vetting the connections, and maintaining a useful and actionable understanding of history as one of the roles of journalism is very new, when compared to the actual performance of journalists. It would make journalism into an intelligence service of use to everyone, not just to nations. It contributes to the transparency of world events, which should make the world safer for us all. And it combats the left’s post-modern attack on history with the truth, which is that reality is knowable and truth gives an advantage to those who know it.
I ask you, would you pay for a newspaper if it gave you a competitive advantage versus those who didn’t read it?
I would. But newspapers today do not give me any competitive advantage over a straight AP feed coupled with historically aware commentary from one of many bloggers I find compelling and trustworthy.
Links Concerning Ethics
- Society of Professional Journalists Ethics and FAQL
- Err on the side of ethics
- Ethics and new media
- Reader’s Reactions
- Consider Potential Harm and Public Interest
- Ways to Prevent Ethical Lapses
- Editors must be Ethical Purists
Papers’ Ethical Codes
- New York Times
- Tampa Tribune
- Kansas City Star
- San Jose Mercury
- San Antonio Express-News
- Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel