Time for New Ethical Standards?

A colleague, Barry Hollander, pointed me to this piece on PBS’ MediaShift where Stephen Ward argues that we cannot modify our traditional journalism ethics codes, we must tear them down and build new ones. Go read it, then have your blood pressure taken and come back here …

Among other items, I take issue with this:

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.”

Why? “Interpretive” or “avocational” “journalism” is not journalism. It can, and should, be classified as reporting, it should be protected as part of the press, but it is not journalism. It is advocacy. And anything that involves the word “interpretive” should be followed with the word dance.

Journalism IS just the facts and how they fit into our current society or community. Facts, context. Period. Full stop. Nothing more.

There is nothing inherently wrong with advocating, commenting, analysis or interpretation. But that all involves some level of opinion – and that is not journalism.

Mark E. Johnson

4 Responses

  1. Hmm, I kinda disagree, if nothing else to say there is opinion journalism. Yeah, it modifies journalism, so you can argue opinion alone doesn’t qualify. I just skimmed a book entitled Brand Journalism, basically marketing. My science geek daughter picked it up one night, looked it over and tossed it on the floor, saying “that’s not journalism.” Bless her.

    The question is, if we keep to our traditional ethics, how do we help guide students who find themselves working in all the new fields that blur the lines? Aren’t they unprepared without some kind of guidance? I dunno. I don’t do ethics.

  2. Mark Is absolutely right on this.
    Opinion is just that–opinion, not “opinion journalism.”

    If we want to do our students and society a favor, we need to teach our students how to identify and interpret where their content comes from. We don’t want to have a society where they accept “spin” as fact. They need to be smart consumers of news content and be able to identify AND question the validity of that content or opinion that they consume.

    Teaching student to be discerning consumers of content doesn’t involve ethics, it involves intelligence. Teach students how to separate fact from fiction and opinion, and good journalism will follow. No one like to be lied to or sold a bill of goods.

    We need to teach them that it is about: “Facts, context. Period. Full stop. Nothing more,” as Mark johnson said.

  3. Ah, here we diverge a bit, Mark.

    In my opinion, journalism – REAL journalism – is, by its very nature, interpretive. As is any form of human expression.

    Reporting is part of journalism. But journalism isn’t just presenting the facts. It’s more than simply sharing sources of information. The minutes from a school board meeting are just the facts, but we do not simply publish the minutes from a school board meeting (although making those minutes easily available to the public can (should?) be considered part of journalism, too). We make records of what we witness. Then we try and make sense of those records and present them to our audience in a relevant way.

    Our job as journalists is to consider all the available information, then parse it, vet it, then present it in a way that’s relevant – and hopefully interesting – to our audience. And THAT is interpretive. Every day, we make judgements about what information is most relevant to our audiences and judgements about how to best communicate that information.

    Of course, that process – hopefully – is guided by things like education and professional experience and ethics. But a certain level of personal interpretation is simply unavoidable because the editorial process is interpretive by nature. We are all products of our personal experiences and beliefs. And any judgement we make is colored by these things that, well, make us human.

    As photographers, every time we use our intuition to position ourselves, every time we look through our viewfinders and decide what to include and what to leave out and how things are arranged, and every time we decide when to push that button and make a visual record, we are interpreting what we witness. Period. I don’t know how any honest photojournalist can think otherwise.

    What’s important is that those decisions are guided by certain professional principles. And this is a dialogue we need to be CONSTANTLY having with our audiences. There are two terms which constantly (and traditionally) pop up when discussing journalism – Truth and Objectivity. And I think they are very poor terms to frame any ethical discussion. As NPPA Ethics Chair John Long has said, “Truth” is a loaded word. There are as many definitions (interpretations) of “Truth” as there are people on the planet. And “Objectivity,” in my opinion, is an antiquated concept. To me, personally, pure objectivity suggests a lack of caring and curiosity. Objectivity in photojournalism would be standing back and shooting everything with a wide angle lens, then letting the audience pick out what’s most important. Including everything is lazy and thoughtless. And frequently, that’s what we get from Citizen “Journalists” and their smart phones.That’s not very compelling, though. And it’s certainly not any of us are advocating for. What are we advocating for?

    Long has put forth much better principles to frame ethical discussions: “Fairness” and “Accuracy.” And these principles work for journalism produced in ANY medium. Interpretation, guided by the principles of Fairness and Accuracy, produce relevant, compelling journalism and help frame much more constructive discussions about the process. The public needs to understand these principles, too. They need to recognize when a journalist has made the effort to be as accurate as possible. And as fair as possible. As well as when they haven’t made an adequate effort to do so. It’s our job to teach them and engage them in those discussions. That’s how we establish credibility and stay relevant as journalists.

    What aggravates me, sometimes, is that our teachers and mentors tell us that we need to develop a unique point-of-view. One that separates us from the pack and captures the attention and imagination of the audience. But then we turn around and profess our “objectivity” as journalists to our audience. It’s slightly disingenuous, if you ask me, because the principles upon which we act are reflected in our work, and the audience sees it. They see what’s important to US through our work. We have to be able to discuss that and persuade others why it should be important to them.

    Instead, it’s better to include the audience in discussions about the WHOLE process, including the decision-making process and the principles that guide those decisions.

    Honestly, I don’t think it’s a matter of changing our ethical codes. It’s more a matter of clarifying them and bringing them into a wider consciousness.

    Powerful journalism is persuasive, Mark. You preach to your students: Tell stories that MATTER. Well, what matters is a judgement call. That’s interpretive in nature.

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