Why We Need Radical Change for Media Ethics, Not a Return to Basics

    by Stephen J. A. Ward
    August 19, 2013
    Image courtesy of NS Newsflash of Flickr.

    Talk of media revolution is so ubiquitous that we sometimes become inured to the force of what we say. We nod our head in agreement that change is everywhere, but we fail to think through the consequences of change.

    During my public talks, I note that many people accept the fact of media revolution but they deny what follows from that fact — a revolution in media ethics. Funnily, when it comes to ethics, we become conservative, even if we are progressives in our teaching and practice.

    "If we teach students from a radical mind-set, we do them a service. If we teach from a retrenched conservative mind-set, we do them a disservice."
    Click on the image for the full series. Original photo by Taqi®™ on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Click on the image for the full series.


    I have been told repeatedly that the idea of a new media ethics is just a matter of “pouring new wine into old bottles.” That is, new practices should conform to existing “bottles” — existing codes of ethics. Current journalism principles are treated as eternal verities which, apparently, do not change in meaning, application or relevance.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, we have new wine and new bottles.

    The “new wine” includes integrated forms of mainstream journalism, such as professionally guided sites for citizens’ video of human rights violations; or community-edited websites; or crowdsourcing on breaking news.


    “New bottles” refers to two things: First: a questioning of existing principles such as impartiality — or, at least a demand for clarification of their meanings. Second: a stress on new values, such as transparency over objectivity; or, a preference for the unfiltered sharing of information over a filtered verification of “the facts.”

    Responsible media practitioners remain committed to general principles, such as seeking the truth and reporting independently. But beyond this general level, the media revolution has undermined a previous professional consensus on the best forms of practice, and the norms that guide them. Our media revolution creates multiple and conflicting interpretations of journalism.

    Media ethics, like media, is in turmoil.

    Going radical

    Photo by Flatfield on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Flatfield on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    To deal with today’s turmoil, we need a radical media ethics, not a conservative retreat to “basics.” We should be radical in philosophy and bold in our ideas. We need to reinvent media ethics from the ground up. Piecemeal improvements are not sufficient.

    We need to be radical in three areas: 1) Meta-ethics: one’s view of the nature of ethics; 2) applied ethics: what principles should guide practice; 3) global media: what norms should define a media that is global in reach and impact.

    Let me describe briefly how to be radical in each area.

    In meta-ethics, reassuring talk of “old bottles” is a mindset not ready to meet the future. At the bottom of this view is the idea that ethics, if it is to guide anyone, needs to be static, unchanging and based on “foundations.” Disagreement, change and turmoil are threats to ethics. So when a revolution happens, we circle the wagons. We preserve the status quo.

    In contrast, I believe media ethics (and ethics in general) is, and always has been, a matter of constantly inventing and altering norms to meet ever-new social and technological conditions. Media ethics in a revolution, then, must be open to the future. Contestation and change are natural to ethics, not regrettable aberrations. In the long run, they are good things. Today’s alternate interpretations of journalism are a rich resource for constructing a more adequate ethics for interactive, global media.

    Ethics as invention is not just a theoretical notion. What meta-ethics we adopt influences how we react, practically, to new and difficult questions. As journalists, teachers and ethicists, we need a mindset that allows us to bridge the old and the new — to retain what is valuable from the past yet embrace new and valuable ways of communication. Thinking of ethics as always evolving and always contested helps us to reform applied ethics. Rather that stress fidelity to past principles, we construct editorial guidelines for journalists in new “media ecologies” — such as integrated newsrooms. We propose new conceptions of how mainstream journalists should use social media, and how newsrooms should validate citizen content.

    This new ethics is already being constructed by newsrooms.

    Finally, media ethics must radically redefine itself for a global age. Historically, media ethics has been non-global or parochial. It was a set of rules for serving local publics or, at most, a nation. But today, journalism reaches across borders. The role of the journalist needs a global interpretation. We need to rethink how global media should cover transnational issues from war to climate change. We should be radical in the ways of moral invention, envisaging a global media ethics for our interconnected world.

    Shape of a future ethics

    Photo by Roger H. Goun and used here under Creative Commons license.So let’s be radical. Let’s imagine a media ethics of the future. What would it be like, concretely? I think it would stress these previously underdeveloped areas:

    Ethics of new media ecologies: Future media ethics will guide journalists working in non-traditional environments from non-profit websites to investigative centers within academia.

    Ethics of how to use new media: Future media ethics will say useful things on the responsible use of new media, and how to deal with integrated newsrooms.

    Ethics of interpretation and opinion: The era of news objectivity as “just the facts” is dying. Interpretive and advocational journalism grows. Ethicists need to fill this gap by distinguishing between better and worse interpretations. They need to provide a specific meaning to such key concepts as “informed commentary,” “insightful analysis” and “good interpretation.”

    Ethics of activism: Activist journalism will also proliferate. But when are activist journalists not propagandists? When are journalists partisan political voices and when are they journalists with a valid cause? Rather than simply dismiss activist journalism on the traditional ground of objectivity, how can we develop a more nuanced understanding of this area of journalism?

    Ethics of global democratic journalism: New thinking in ethics will need to reconstruct the role of journalism in global terms.

    If we do all of this, we will be truly radical.

    If we teach students from a radical mind-set, we do them a service. If we teach from a retrenched conservative mind-set, we do them a disservice.

    We need to help the next generation of multimedia journalists develop their own novel and progressive ethical frameworks for the media world that lies in their future.

    Series image photo by Taqi®™ on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Stephen J. A. Ward is Professor and Director of the George S. Turnbull Center in Portland, Oregon. The center is the Portland base of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Previously, he was the first James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics and founder of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also has been director of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He is the founding chair of the Ethics Advisory Committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

    Tagged: back to j-school 2013 higher education j-education j-school journalism journalism ethics new media ethics reporting
    • Jeff Kaye

      Well put – a radical ethical agenda for the digital age which seeks a new direction. A core issue is how the reader (the one who may be influenced by the information received) is able to judge the ethics of the work being read / viewed / heard. Activist journalism (which is fast-becoming dominated by NGO’s funded by high net worth individuals and trusts / foundations) has a determination and direction which may be more obvious than the more traditional press – but only to those who know the directional aims of the NGO. With rapid access to media and rapid feedback mechanisms through Twitter and the like, the time to determine the ethical position is tight.

    • truthonly

      This is a confused bunch of mumbo-jumbo. It is like Alice
      in Wonderland. “Ethics means whatever you want it to mean.”
      Ethics is not that complicated. Tell the truth without spin, and
      when you get it wrong, publish a correction immediately, and as prominently as
      the original. Clearly delineate ideology and opinion from facts. That is all it
      takes, period. If you think ethics is an evolving thing, then you are
      confused indeed. Ethics that changes with the times is not ethics at all.
      There is no such thing as modern ethics.

      • Steve Behrens

        With “strategic communicators,” other persuaders seeming to outnumber journalists in new jobs and college majors, and heaps more money for camouflaged flackery for foundations, corporations and political operatives, the last thing we need is ethical definitions that blow with the wind.

        While media consumers certainly need activist journalism, informed analysis and candid commentary, most of all we need fair reporting that provides a factual basis for evaluating all of that attempted persuasion. Labels mean almost nothing as “Fair and Balanced” O’Reilly demonstrates, so the difference needs to be so stark that users know fairness when they see it.

    • Rich Horton

      Its funny how the rest of the world is only now catching up with Alasdair MacIntyre. Though, it must be said, there are plenty of people on the left and the right who won’t like the consequences.

    • John

      Are you kidding me? This is a publishable article? What did you even say? Ethics are ethics. Be fair, be objective, be transparent. There is no favoring one or another, as they should exist in harmony.

      Ethics cannot be simplified to such vague terms as you say. It’s simple: tell the truth and if you cannot verify beyond a reasonable doubt what the truth is, don’t write anything. Write both sides of a story. Consult experts from both sides. Act with diligence etc. That was so hard, I need a nap…

    • eltiki

      It’s interesting to see how some of the commentators on this article fear the loss of objectivity, but as this article points out, we need to evolve past this idea of objective fact. One of the key problems of this legacy perspective is it leads to false equivalency, so that in the case of human-caused climate disruption, news outlets still give a platform to climate change deniers despite the scientific consensus that it is human caused. Under the rules of “objectivity” and “fairness” one could justify a news report that would include someone who believes in the earth is flat. At a certain point judgement have to be made by the journalists and editors, and the more we know where these journalists are coming from (as opposed to those articles written in the “voice from nowhere”) the better we stand to understand the decision about what were included or excluded in a story. Moreover, under the guise of “objectivity,” the perimeters of an issue will often include a “balanced” discussion which only represents Republicans or Democrats, but excludes a wide range of alternative perspectives.

    • Prof. McGrath

      To Prof. Ward, the film The China Syndrome does a great job of questioning everyone’s ethical dilemmas and the role of the media. Watch it again sometime.

    • Doctor Who

      This article looks like the guy was smoking cocaine when he wrote it. There is no such thing as ethics on the internet. The internet has killed raltional thinking.

    • Lauren Jones

      I think this article is presents a straight-forward call to action regarding the
      future of ethics in the media’s realm. As the world becomes more
      connected and digital media takes over as the primary means of communication, having a code of ethics apply in this universe will be necessary. It is important to take into account that these rules will cross borders and cultures. “Ethical communication should ‘benefit most of the people involved’ with ‘minimum harm to individuals.’ What is useful in one culture may well be detrimental in another.” (Johannesen, Valde, & Whedbee, 2008). Professor Ward makes a great point that we cannot regress back to basics on this issue, but instead but continue to evolve radically and creatively. We wouldn’t want to go back to the 1950’s in regards to what is allowed to be shown on television, why would we want to do the same in the digital world? Evolution has to be brought forth in the discussion on ethics, and I think the digital world is where we will see this played out.

      Lauren Jones
      Undergrad, Organization Communication & Development
      Drury University
      Springfield, MO

      Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K.S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in Human
      Communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

    • charper51

      Objectivity hasn’t been a part of the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists for nearly 20 years.

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