McGuire on Media

Three new ethical principles are important, positive step but Independence needs to stay

The New Ethics of Journalism did a positive service for journalism by proposing the new core ethical principles to guide practitioners through a transformed digital age.

In my blog post last week I praised the book, writing that I admired “the boldness of the changes” while agreeing with the motivation behind them. I added that the presentation of the changes was “clear-headed and forceful.”

The former ethical principles were Seek Truth, Act Independently and Minimize Harm. The new core principles offered by Kelly McBride, Tom Rosenstiel and Poynter are Seek Truth, Transparency and Community.

I am comfortable with the three but when I teach the three to my ethics students in the Spring I will make some key contentions about each principle.

Seek Truth is the rock of all ethical principles. McBride and Rosenstiel utilize important sub points: accuracy, honesty and fairness, giving voice to the voiceless, hold the powerful accountable and be accountable. Those are strong and important but I think one important aspect of seeking truth is ignored. I would add “tenacious commitment to verification.”

When Rosenstiel partnered with Bill Kovach on the Committee for Concerned journalists to produce 10 principles of Journalism the discipline of verification was one of those principles. It belongs on any list of ethical values surrounding truth. In today’s rapid-fire news world when something becomes “old and tired” in six or seven hours, verification rises to the top of of our ethical requirements. The way to beat back the messengers’ relentless attempt to skew and control the message is to fearlessly verify, no matter what, or how long it takes.

Transparency is an important ethical value and I endorse it completely. I also agree with Steve Buttry who wrote in October of 2012 that this principle should read “Act Transparently and Independently.”

I get that journalism is changing and that people want to know where you stand. Transparency is crucial and we ignored that ethical obligation way too much in the past. Too often, the press has not been straight up about its entanglements, interests and direct involvement in important stories. Those ethical transgressions  must end and  readers need to know where journalists and their news organizations stand.

McBride and Rosenstiel explain transparency by calling for demonstrations of how reporting was done, clear articulations  of your point of view and its impact and acknowledgement of mistakes and errors. That presumably is enough to make it ethical.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that gives free license to the agenda-based reporters who threaten to take over journalism. Disclosure is not enough for the crooks and charlatans who want to argue their news should be respected as much as anyone else’s.

Let’s say I am a reporter and I take $25,000 from a prominent health insurance company to write a story about health insurance. Let’s also say that I meet all the disclosure requirements of transparency. Not enough.  Even if the reader knows I took the $25,000 to feather my own nest, I have committed an egregious ethical violation.

I am just as concerned about some of the partnerships news organizations are forging with deep pocket “investors” who are inevitably going to want something for their money.  I am fully aware many news organizations are taking this kind of money. I am unwilling to condemn it out of hand but I believe those relationships need more debate before getting a free pass.

My friend Steve Buttry endorsed the new principles with one complaint about the failure to address linking. Outside of that post I have not seen much discussion of the new principles. That could mean universal acceptance, apathy or that I am missing the debate. For the health of journalism I hope that debate becomes more obvious especially on this Independence point.

I am convinced we need to hold on to independence as a core ethical value to prevent arguments over how much transparency satisfies the requirements. Our demand for independence as a core ethical principle makes it clear our journalism is not available to the highest bidder. Selling out has always been wrong and it always will be. The journalism world has changed at a dizzying pace. Our moral standards should not change at all.

I always like the spirit and the moral high ground that “minimize harm” demonstrated but it was a nightmare with students. As my Cronkite colleague, Rick Rodriguez, correctly points out “Our students too often used that as an excuse to not be tough.” More often than not, I found students believed minimize harm meant don’t make anyone sad.

So, it’s good to be rid of minimize harm. While Community is a strong substitute, I think it  will require constant coaching and development.

Many of us have espoused community obligation for many years, but it took Poynter, McBride and Rosenstiel to correctly label it for me. As early as my stay in Lakeland, Florida in the late 70’s I coached the staff to write a 100 word description of or area. Then I submitted it was our obligation to reflect that statement every week in our coverage.

When The New Ethics of Journalism espouses that we engage community as an end I think that is the level of community understanding they seek. The specifics of the Community point in the book calls for: understanding the community, seeking out competing perspectives, individual responsibility with collaboration, minimize harm  and empathy, and encouraging the community to self-inform.

It’s an absolute quibble, but after discussions with Rick Rodriguez, I think I would argue for dropping minimize harm and emphasizing empathy.  We should walk in out subject’s shoes before we skewer them. 

Bottom line: these new ethical principles are excellent but let’s add Independence to the transparency value.