In a recent post on my website I examined an ethical argument for transparency. I
will continue this internal dialogue with the caveat that I am not a
journalism academic. I do not prescribe my beliefs to anyone but myself.
This is a disgustingly theoretical post (I promise the next one will be
practical up the wahzoo). I should also note the inspiration behind
these two posts was a discussion at FOO Camp: Philosophy and Technology –
Tim O’Reilly and Damon Horowitz.
The First Chapter
The first post on this topic hinged on the idea that transparency is necessary for public participation in journalism.
This Wikipedia quote
puts it bluntly. The argument for transparency then isn’t ethical so
much as practical. It’s a second order argument. The process of
journalism must be transparent if we expect people to participate in a
meaningful way. This assumes, however, that we want people to
If we can reason that participation in journalism is ethical and
transparency is necessary for participation to occur, it follows that
there is an ethical argument for transparency.
Which means the next step is to examine the base of this syllogism:
There is an ethical argument for participation in journalism.
The Goal of Journalism
What is the purpose or goal of journalism? In philosophy I might pose this as, what is journalism’s Telos — its purpose, aim, end and/or design.
The reason this question (and blog post) is important is that if you look at the current understanding of ethics in journalism
you can see that it is more along the lines of a professional code than
an ethical debate or analysis. Public accountability is mentioned in many of the existing code of ethics. As is the rightful dissemination of
information to the public. But in almost all of these cannons of
journalism the public is acted upon and is rarely an actor.
When I ask what is the goal of journalism I am not interested in the
journalism industry or a journalism company. The goal for both of which
would be the same for any industry (protecting itself as an economic
good) or company (increasing revenue).
The tagline for my blog is “journalism is a process, not a product,”
and that continues to be my rallying cry. Too often our ethics, ideas
of success and end goals are determined by journalism as a product,
industry or company. I am more interested in the process of journalism.
What is the end goal for an act of journalism?
Now here I have to posit a question: If an act of journalism is committed but never published, is it an act of journalism?
Many people don’t know this, but I used to be a musician. I’ve
actually recorded at least two albums. But I never promoted my work. So if a work of art is not shared,
is it art? What is the distinction between art and hobby? Related: If
an act of reporting occurs but is not shared, is it journalism? What is
the distinction between journalism and journaling?
I ask this question because it gives me the platform to pose a
possible end goal of journalism — to inform. Journalism, which is a
tricky thing to define, is the process of collecting, filtering and
distributing information that has meaning. One caveat of course is that the
information is non-fiction (true and accurate).
If we take away the “distributing” of information we no longer have
the process of journalism. It is the final step in the process because
it is the final Telos of journalism — to inform our fellow human beings.
Size of the audience aside, journalism is fundamentally a process of
education. But when we look at the conversation about journalism, those two words are most
often coupled around journalism education (journalism schools) and rarely
about how the two endeavors are intimately tied.
Informing is Participatory
So the goal of journalism is to inform people about events
in the world. This is fundamentally a social act and would remain the
goal of journalism if we lived in a democracy, republic or any other
kind of society.
Historically speaking, the “participation” of journalism consumers was to consume. That is a form of participation, but not
necessarily the kind that I wan to justify. If it were,
this blog post could have been much shorter: “We can justify
transparency in journalism because people need to be able to read it!”
The kind of participation that I want to argue for is more engaging.
Members of the public are not participating by the sheer act of be
informed, but they are self-informing. It’s the difference between roads that
make public transportation possible and roads that make all forms of
Why Individual Participation is Ethical
And herein lies the base of this whole thought process. It comes down
to the individual. It is the individual, as part of a collective, that
journalism seeks to inform. The individual should be actively
participating in the dissemination of information for several reasons:
1. On a utilitarian level, they will become more informed and help
inform more people. If the good of journalism is to inform, then letting
more people participate will inform more people. Similarly, the mission of
roads is to enable travel/transportation, not to safeguard public transportation. (There could be
unintended consequences, of source, such as pollution.) The
mission of journalism is to inform, not to safeguard journalism companies. A
network has infinity more connections and that requires active
participation and self-informed informants.
2. They have a moral right as an individual to participate to the
extent that they do not hinder others from participating. (See individualism).
So, to review:
- Transparency is required for well-informed participation to happen.
- Participation is needed because….
- Journalism’s end goal is to inform other people.
- More people participating in the process of journalism means more people being informed.
- Combine this with individual rights and …
The journalism industry has a moral obligation to make the practices
and processes of journalism more transparent so that the larger
citizenry can participate.
Behind the lack of climax
Perhaps I could have shortened this blog post. I made every attempt to go step-by-step and lay out my line or reasoning.
Too often our discussion of participatory journalism, citizen
journalism, etc takes an industry or company view. Either citizen
journalism is good or bad because of its relationship to a bottom line.
Slighter better arguments are that participatory journalism is good/bad because of its quality (or lack of).
What I’m suggesting is that participation in the media is a net positive because of its intrinsic value.