McGuire on Media

Book Review: The New Ethics of Journalism

This blog post was filed last week but it did not register on Google’s search engine.  This is another attempt.

 The New Ethics of Journalism edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel is the book for which many of us have been waiting.

The book’s co-editors have fearlessly rethought the ethical constructs with which we have worked for so long. Their solution may not be without flaw but it will serve as excellent fodder for rethinking ethical precepts in a dramatically different journalism era.

The book is a provocative conversation starter for newsrooms, people concerned about the future of journalism and for attentive readers and viewers who want to give their media literacy a gigantic jolt. It is smart and wonderfully in tune with the radical changes the digital age has brought to journalism.

I probably read the book, however, with an attitude problem. I desperately wanted the book to be my new ethics text because I strongly believe that former textbooks simply did not effectively speak to the ethical challenges of the digital age. In the last two years I constantly told students that ethics was in real flux and the old texts did not help me make that point.

The book’s co-editors also  saw it as that ethical text. I asked Kelly McBride via email, “Did you and Tom (Rosenstiel) view The New Ethics of Journalism as an ethics text? She wrote back, “Yes, and more, of course. We think it’s perfect for the modern classroom, where ethics seems to be stuck in the problems of the 1990s.”

As impressed as I am with the book, and as much as I try to not be a guy stuck in the 90’s, I do not see it as the perfect ethics text.  It is good and I am going going to proudly use the book as my core text for the Ethics and Diversity class I teach at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School. However, I am going to have to use my own cases and  personal insights or find a supplemental text to address plagiarism and fabrication, privacy, bias, celebrity coverage , sports ethics , taste and mean-spiritedness, and source relationships. Students love to work through cases and, for me,  there aren’t enough of them in this book

I actually think there is a good reason the book is not the complete answer as a text and I think the co-editors made the correct decision. Most of us know that absolute control is an artifact of the, “we’ll edit, you will read,” era of journalism. The co-editors seem to have properly ceded much of the control of this book to the individual authors. That made for an incredibly rich and varied book but also probably made it impossible to fit the book into a preconceived vision. 

Again, it was the right choice because the book is going to make for much richer debate in a number of important areas. The most important may be diversity. We have called our required Cronkite course, Ethics and Diversity.  For many, the Diversity component has been difficult to teach.  I submit the Eric Deggans chapter entitled, “How Untold Stories Can  Reflect Diversity” will propel thoughtful, emotional discussion for at least 4 class sessions.

I have always admired Deggans’ work, but this chapter is a show-stopper.  I have never been as engaged or as informed on the Trayvon Martin story as I felt after reading Deggans’ piece. Deggans makes two powerful points that have lived with me since I  read them. He says trying to read minds is one of the biggest pitfalls of race coverage and he contends that we only talk about race issues on a national level in a crisis. Deggans’ work will perfectly organize the diversity discussion for my ethics class.

The organizing principle for the book and much of its power comes from the proposal to change the three organizing ethical principles from seek the truth, independence and minimize harm to a more contemporary construct: seek truth, transparency and community.  I admire the boldness of the changes and I agree with much of the motivation behind the changes.  I take a few issues with the construct, but I will save that analysis for a future blog post. The presentation of the three new principles is clear-headed and forceful.

The book’s pursuit of truth discussion is excellent. I think I have contended before that Clay Shirky is probably the most important media thinker breathing air.  His piece, “Truth without Scarcity, Ethics without Force,” should be required reading for every practicing newsgatherer and especially those failing to understand that journalist practitioners are no longer in control.

Roy Peter Clark’s “Kicking the Stone” is an eyes-wide-open analysis from an old hand and should give assurance to anyone who thinks this book is just change for change sake. It is not. It is a book which recognizes times have changed and journalists must change too.

Most of the articles in the book are worth reading and debating but a few stand above the crowd. I was struggling with the community concept, just a bit, until I read Monica Guzman’s tremendous chapter, “Community as an End.” It is the last chapter in the book and it is is the perfect capstone. Guzman is an active journalist who demonstrates beautifully how the new world integrates with the old one.

I especially enjoyed Steven Waldman’s chapter on The (Still) Evolving Relationship between News and Community. He used his experiences from co-founding Beliefnet.com to great effect in explaining  community. His brief mention of “attack prayers” teaches an amazing lesson and made me laugh out loud.

I learned a lot from Dan Gillmor’s, “Do Private Platforms threaten Public Journalism?” but in the interest of transparency I must disclose that he is currently sitting in the office across the hall on the third floor of the Cronkite Building.

One last sobering article must be mentioned  for special praise. “The Destabilizing Force of Fear” by danah boyd and Kelly McBride is frightening in its own right.  The piece raises crucial questions about how journalists, professional and amateur, are over-relying on fear to engage audiences. For me, it also raised disturbing questions about manipulation of the public will. My class will spend a lot of time contemplating that threatening reality.

McBride, Rosenstiel and the fascinating roster of writers that go way beyond the list of usual suspects, have produced a fresh, provocative book that should be labeled as a must-read for journalists and those concerned about journalism. That is cause for cheers.

As I said, the book is not a perfect text. It will need supplemental materials   because it needs more cases and it doesn’t address some questions I think are still important in 2013 such as plagiarism. privacy and taste. The key point, though, is I am going to excitedly use the book as my new ethics text because it reframes the ethical debate and that was sorely needed. I think the result will be a far savvier ethics course that students will see as contemporary and not outdated.