Ed Manassah has been studying the ethics of journalism for more than three decades. On the other hand, Jen DeChellis, a junior at Bellarmine, hadn’t really given it much thought until last week.
I asked DeChellis, a business major, what she thought ethics was all about, and got a simple, useful definition: “Ethics is following your morals and values on a daily basis.”
More enlightening was this rule of thumb that I learned last week at an ethics seminar presented at Bellarmine: “Law tells us what we can do; ethics tells us what we should do.”
Manassah, the former publisher of The Courier-Journal, is busy as ever running the Institute for Media, Culture and Ethics at Bellarmine. He came up with the idea of inviting a group of local media types, activists, professors and students to a seminar on ethics. He asked a couple of ethics experts from the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, to come in and lead the discussion. Bob Steele and Kelly McBride were good, but they might have been just as effective had they scribbled a few words on a blackboard and gotten out of the way.
Manassah’s hand-picked audience had plenty to say about ethical dilemmas in media.
DeChellis is from Youngstown, Ohio, and doesn’t pay much attention to local media. She wouldn’t know LEO editor Cary Stemle from WHAS-AM DJ Terry Meiners. She didn’t recognize that the room she was in was populated with some of the area’s best-known personalities, from talk show host Francene Cucinello to well-known anchors like WHAS-TV’s Rachel Platt. She may be one of the few in the audience who wasn’t familiar with activist Christopher 2X from his appearances on local TV news broadcasts.
She doesn’t read the daily paper, or she might have been impressed with the opportunity to meet the top brass from The Courier-Journal.
It could be argued, and it was, that ethics is more important today because of what technology has done to established media. With newspapers doing video, TV stations putting resources into Web sites, bloggers competing with them for eyeballs, and a new economic dynamic that demands that even reporters are aware of the bottom line, it’s easy to forget the basics of journalistic ethics. There’s more opportunity to cross a gray line between what’s OK and what’s not, whether it’s for the sake of getting a story or helping a media organization’s bottom line.
“The ethical dilemmas that people face are more complicated as we have become more wired,” said Manassah. “The changing media landscape has created as many problems as it has brought to the table. People have to look hard at things and not take things on blind faith.”
It seems that ethics would be a simple enough topic — in life or in the media. You might say it’s simply the practice of doing the right thing. Easy enough. Do unto others. Don’t take credit for the work of others. Beware of conflicts of interest. Be independent.
It’s not so easy.
Consider these questions. How ethical is it for a TV station to have its snow closings list sponsored, knowing that it could create pressure to over-hype the station’s weather information? What if, as a professional journalist, you feel embarrassed about your TV station management’s policy of chasing pot roast fires and promoting it as “Breaking News”? Can you justify using information you obtained as a result of an honest mistake if it could hamper a homicide investigation?
In your efforts to attract readers online, should you allow your product to become a forum for any goofball with an agenda to post insensitive, anonymous comments on a serious news story? Is the content on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace fair game for journalists gathering information about the suddenly famous?
OK, so ethics is not simply a matter of choosing between right and wrong. There’s a new reality in the way we consume news these days. It’s a fact that the number of people reading newspapers is going down. The audience for TV news is fading. No medium is immune to the reality of lost loyalty from consumers.
What’s not falling is the number of options for well-informed citizens to get news, and the number of ethical dilemmas that journalists face every day.
Rick Redding, Louisville’s media critic, writes frequently about news and media on his blog, thevillevoice.com