Has New Media Changed Journalism Ethics?

In mid-November, Accountable Journalism hit cyberspace. The Ethical Journalism Network and Reynolds Journalism Institute backed project aims to become the largest database of press ethic codes online. The resource site was created to make codes of ethics readily available to bloggers, journalists, freelancers, students, editors and the like.

While the press codes guides vary from publication to publication, journalists deal with specific and common ethical questions such as: “How do I report when a source says a slur?”,”What is the protocol for making corrections on social media?”

The Accountable Journalism database comes at a time when a debate about the changing ethical landscape has sparked among traditional journalism professionals, students, new media professionals and freelancers alike.

Milton Coleman, a veteran journalist, believes that ethical practices will have a place on all past, present and future mediums.

“I don’t think that ethical standards should be different based on the medium or on the audience–at least not when it comes to public interest journalism. Integrity and credibility must be the stock in trade of any public interest journalists,” Coleman said.

Coleman also asserted that ethics is not a generational thing but yet something all journalists should embrace.

“[Ethics] should not change from one generation to the next. The democratization of the news process has allowed more players to get into the game. Many of them are simply bad players; they’re bad journalists. Good journalists need to stand their ground–perhaps even more so now than before.”

Coleman currently serves as the ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.In the role as ombudsman, Coleman encourages journalistic practices among CPB grantees and encourages public discussion about public media. Another crucial aspect is also monitoring the financial assistance the CBP provides to content makers in public media.

Previously, Coleman served as deputy managing editor of The Washington Post, a position he held until 2009. Coleman has also served as the president of the American Society of News Editors and president of Inter American Press Association.

This seasoned industry professional believes that in order to acutely measure ethics in the age of the journalist, we can retreat back to an age old recipe of transparency.

“Transparency, analysis and performance are the metrics by which all journalism ethics are judged. Just as always–and before the digital age–journalism needs to be judged by what is published or broadcast, who was responsible, how was the information obtained and is it accurate and credible,” Coleman said. “A part of what I do as an ombudsman is to try to explain to the public how newsrooms operate and why they operate that way. At the same time, part of what I do is to explain to journalists how the public views what they do and how they might want to change what they do.”

As Coleman mentioned, the operation of newsrooms and transparency are crucial to keeping the public trust. Public trust and accountability in journalism have always gone hand and hand, as outlined by Walter Williams’ 1914 “Journalist’s Creed.”

“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust. I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism,” Williams wrote.

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Williams penned this 6 years after becoming the founding dean of the first journalism school at Mizzou.

Professor Yanick Rice Lamb, the department chair of Howard University’s Media Journalism and Film Department shares Williams’ sentiments.

With over 25 years of experience Rice Lamb, like Coleman, has seen first hand the digital transformation of journalism.

Rice Lamb believes that the role of the journalism schools across the country is to ensure that all communications students, even those who aren’t journalism majors, are exposed to ethics.

“We push for ethics. At one time we had a specific class for ethics in journalism only for print journalism majors… but now we have it as a course for freshman so they can get it when they get in and can start thinking about [ethics in the digital age].” Rice Lamb said.

A point to which Coleman agrees.

“Journalism schools need to teach you how to think and to act more so than how to write stories and do the internet.The duty of journalism schools in the digital age is the same as always–to prepare students to become good journalists,” Coleman said.

Rice Lamb and Coleman both acknowledge that the ethical landscape is changing in the digital space due to changing business models of news organizations.

 

“Legacy news organizations [that] were a near sole source on news and therefore were more concerned about accuracy and accountability, are struggling to find a viable business model to support really good independent journalists. That is a major problem in a democracy like ours that depends on an informed citizenry fed by a free press holding government and the governors accountable. That is the biggest challenge.” Coleman said.

Rice Lamb agrees.

“I think the church and state line between editorial and advertising, which used to be an iron curtain in the past [is getting] kind of a little fuzzier [today.] Some [writers], whether they are traditional or nontraditional journalists, will promote the products in their articles through sponsored posts. I think that’s one of the blurry lines ethically,” Rice Lamb said.

This is a point that Kyle Harvey, deputy editor of Slant News, doesn’t share with Rice Lamb.

“Sponsored post allow you to amplify your best content for max eyeballs. That content should be the most well rounded representation of what your company has to offer,” Harvey said.

His company, Slant News, is truly a “non-traditional newsroom.” Slant uses a pool of professionally trained editors that will guide their writers to a story that is SEO friendly and well-edited. The crowdsourced news site is open to anyone who wants to write and will compensate writers with 70 percent of the advertising revenue from their stories.

Harvey, a graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, has previously worked for more traditional news orgs such as the Turner Media owned Bleacher Report, NBC and The Grio. With his extensive digital media background, Harvey believes that ethics will always have a place in digital media.

“I think ethics within journalism are held at high regard especially now considering the speed at which content is shared,” Harvey said. “Speed wins or kills, but you never want to retract any stories. Your reputation is everything so double check if need be.”

Rushawn Walters, a journalism student at Howard University, believes that we still have a lot of work to do when training emerging digital journalists.

“A lot of ‘journalists’ don’t really know the basics when it comes to ethics and common practices. Because of this, they find themselves in strenuous situations. When working with digital, it’s so easy to copy and paste without making sure it’s correct or even factual. Recently, a recognized news organization tweeted that Drake died in a car crash. Their source? A random Twitter account. Digital has to be more strict in what it seems print organizations have mastered,” Walters said.

As Walters briefly mentioned, the verification of sources is something that has plauged digital journalist in the age of the 24 hour news cycle and quick turnaround time.

Facebook has heard the verification cry and created Signal in mid-September. Signal provides journalists with tools to track trending topics in a deeper context and data who is driving conversations on Facebook and Instagram.

First Draft News, A Google News Lab-backed venture, also aims to make verification easier for journalists and publishers. First Draft News hopes to answer journalists frequently asked questions by publishing case studies, how-to guides and podcasts in aims to help journalists navigate the ever changing landscape.

Other tools available are: Influence Explorer, Co Everywhere and Who Tweeted It First.

In these changing times, Coleman warns that no one should be in journalism for the money.

“Times have changed. If you want to make money, don’t be a news journalist. The days like mine are over. But if like me, you want to be in it to chase good stories and make a difference, I would advise that you look at who is doing the thing that you most want to do first, and press yourself to deal with that,” Coleman said. “You will need to learn the best possible skills relevant to what you want to do. Master the craft. You will need to be competitive and you will need to be patient. And you will need to have professional integrity and credibility.”

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