McGuire on Media

Developing a replacement principle for Poynter’s “Community”

I have used The New Ethics of Journalism by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel for two semesters now and my initial skepticisms about the Poynter Institute rewrite of ethical principles remain. 

The new Poynter code wisely kept the primary ethical value, Seek Truth and Report it. I argued from the first time I read Poynter’s revised code that they had made a mistake substituting Transparency for Independence. I believe they both belong in an ethics code as separate principles.

When Poynter replaced minimizing harm with a standard they called “Community” I was concerned but open minded. I wrote, “While Community is a strong substitute, I think it  will require constant coaching and development.”

I  originally bought into the idea of at least exploring whether Community could work as an ethical principle. I acknowledge some of the book’s intentions about Community. As the book says, Community indeed should be a product of journalism. Community should be the space that defines and informs our work. I can even argue that historically journalism has made a mistake making Community a means to an end.  It should be an end

That does not make it a third ethical principle.

I do think the concept of Community can fuel a new mind set, new work processes and spawn ever expanding set of tools to make this concept possible. I have definitely become convinced that Community as McBride and Rosenstiel define it, is a crucial business principle for the new newsrooms of this century. Communities, indeed, should define and dictate workflow, content, mission and targets of opportunity for news organizations.

All that being said, Community is not an ethical principle.

It is not a concept or statement that can effectively tell journalists how to behave and act.  I argue Community is too amorphous and lacks the ability to guide us in ethical decision making. To me, that is the entire objective of an ethics code. It should help me make ethical decisions.

However, that criticism does not go far enough. I don’t trash things without proposing a solution. In pursuit of a third or fourth principle I took a look at the original Poynter List: Seek truth and report it as fully as possible, Act Independently and Minimize Harm. And, I considered the new SPJ code:  Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm,  Act Independently and Be Accountable.

So as I write my new code I obviously start with Seek Truth and Report It. And, consistent with my past arguments, Independence and Transparency should be separate elements of the code.

So, in my quest for a fourth principle I considered what elements of Community would be good to guide my thinking.

McBride and Rosenstiel had some excellent ideas which I believe can guide our search for a fourth principle. The principle of trusting our community to enrich the news and the news conversation is important. Audience is not the enemy.

I think Poynter is correct that we we need to regard the audience as teacher, tipster and guide to better journalism. If the audience cares, it’s a story.

I believe one of the strongest elements of The New
Ethics of Journalism is the chapter exploring fear. The use of fear, exploitation and sensationalism to manipulate our communities is an ethical transgression, plain and simple. I also believe diversity is an important ethical underpinning of everything we do.

So, I discussed with my ethics class the question of how we write a powerful new ethical principle that guides behavior. What is our trigger word?  Obligation? Respect? Leadership? Authenticity? Service?

After considerable reflection I resorted to Kant to develop my fourth principle:Respect the dignity of every person and our collective audience.

To me, this means we will serve and respect diverse audiences. It means we respect the capabilities of our audience to guide our work. It means we will not frighten, titillate or bully our audience and our community for ratings or page views. It means we will not do unnecessary, mean-spirited harm.

My good friend and fellow ethics professor at the Walter Cronkite School, Rick Rodriguez,  raised a fascinating issue when he asked “Do we really respect the dignity of people like Jeffrey Dahmer?” My reaction was everything you’d expect from a Catholic-school educated man: We hate the sin. We love the sinner. Or, in the context of this ethical document we probe and expose the bad behavior  but respect every human’s basic dignity.

So as I go forward with my teaching my advocacy for journalism ethics, my personal ethics code looks like this.

Seek truth and report it

Be Transparent

Be Independent

Respect the dignity of every person and the dignity of our collective audience.