McGuire on Media

Ethics students face a tough set of choices as they move forward

Journalism is marked by tough choices and a complicated set of responsibilities. There are few right and wrong answers, but there are responsible ways to think about those answers. When making ethical decisions we must get beyond “gut instinct” and use accepted decision-making processes and formulas.

The media ethics landscape has been seriously complicated in the last few years by the ubiquity of 24/7 news, the Wild West nature of the Internet and the reduction of newsroom resources. Our ethical principles are under attack and you, the journalist and reader of the future, have to make some difficult decisions about the ethics you want to guide journalism.

Those words were written in August 2008 in my syllabus the last time I taught our required Media Ethics class at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State. They all remain true, but now they should probably be written in all caps. Media ethics are under daily assault. The Tiger Woods case and the frequent repetition of rumors is a perfect example of how gossip sites, the Internet and the weakened control of mainstream media combine to make sound ethical decisions more of an abstract aspiration than a daily practice. Frank Deford’s observation rings true. “So far as I can tell, the only two specialties in journalism that are expanding today are gossip and sports statistics.

In an almost chilling commentary to a recent blog I wrote about the Tiger Woods case Adam Kress wrote this insightful comment: “I agree with you completely on all the arguments about journalistic responsibility and ethics. Those are the standards that guide my career. But what you fail to realize is that this story is not about journalism, it’s about how information is dispersed in 2009 and beyond. The “story” is no longer owned and operated by the mainstream media, it’s owned by the people. The people have made their desires known, and like it or not, it’s not to wait for the AP report. The people do not have a right to know the Tiger story, but they furiously demand it.”

An old friend of mine, John Matthews made this comment on the same blog: “The 24/7 electronic news cycle (oxymoron) has overwhelmed the ‘right to’ and ‘need to’ know. I concur with your conclusion. I also believe your voice is totally lost in the media sewer that spews solid waste to a populace that has or is losing faith in what was once considered respected sources and a respected profession.”

If Kress is correct and what the “audience demands” has become the new ethical prerogative civil public discourse in America could be in for a bumpy ride. If Matthews is correct the question becomes can some part of the media lift itself out of the sewer and attempt a return to ethical standards for mainstream media practitioners which might restore faith to the news gathering process?

That is where my new class of students enters the ethics fray. Time-honored ethical practices are under attack. The scary thing is we probably can’t even identify the attacking enemy. But that raises the question of whether we simply allow ethics to erode or if we think ethical standards are worth saving.

The crucial question that must be raised in this debate is who is going to make that decision about the correct media ethics path to pursue. Will it be old-fuddy-duddy-former-editors-come-lately-to journalism teaching? Or will it be the journalists of tomorrow represented by people in the class that begins nest week?

I believe the answer to that question is clear and obvious. I believe it will be today’s students who are entering a world in technological and ethical flux who will make what Gene Foreman, the author of the excellent new ethics textbook, The Ethical Journalist, calls “moral decisions you can defend.”

This spring I am constructing my ethics class in way that I hope encourages students  to explore the arguments and processes that formed the backbone of yesterday’s ethical decisions at the same time they come to appreciate that they live in a stunningly different world than I experienced.

I will attempt to post this semester’s syllabi for both my classes in the next couple of weeks.