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July 27 2011


Rethinking Journalism Ethics, Objectivity in the Age of Social Media

In response to the rapidly changing media environment, many schools and academic programs are offering novel approaches to journalism education.

This seismic change creates tensions within programs, especially when it comes to how to teach ethics for this increasingly mixed media.

In an earlier column, I put forward some principles for teaching ethics amid this media revolution. But these principles do not address some specific problems.

Whither objectivity?

Today, students don't just learn how to report straight news on deadline. They not only learn to write reports that are neutral or objective; they also learn how to write blogs, use social media, write investigative pieces, and explore point-of-view journalism.

Schools of journalism have always taught, to some extent, what is called "opinion journalism," such as learning to write an editorial that supports a candidate for political office. But the amount of opinion and perspective journalism in programs today is much greater than in the past; and media formats for the expression of this journalism multiply.

One problem is whether the ideal of journalistic objectivity should be emphasized in these changing curricula.

The new journalism tends to be more personal. It prefers transparency to objectivity or self-effacing neutrality. Across journalism programs, there is a trend toward teaching a perspectival journalism that draws conclusions, and argues for interpretations. This challenges the previous dominance of objectivity as an ideal.

So the question is: Should educators maintain or abandon objectivity in their teaching?


Redefining Objectivity

For starters, I think we should address this problem by doing two things: First, we should redefine, not abandon, objectivity as one of the principles that define responsible journalism. Second, we should develop ethical guidelines for specific forms of new media -- guidelines that are consistent with general principles such as truth-telling.

The traditional notion of journalistic objectivity, developed in the early 1900s, defined objectivity as a story that reported "just the facts" and eliminated all interpretation or opinion by the journalist. This notion of objectivity needs to be abandoned. It is an outdated idea that sees everything in black and white: A story is either factual -- and only factual -- or it is subjective opinion. We are given a choice between strict objectivity and un-rigorous subjectivity. This is a false dilemma.

Objectivity is not about perfect neutrality or the elimination of interpretation. Objectivity refers to a person's willingness to use objective methods to test interpretations for bias or inaccuracies. Objectivity as a method is compatible with journalism that interprets and takes perspectives. Every day, scientists adopt the objective stance when they use methods to test their hypotheses about phenomena. The same stance is available for journalists.

Why is the redefinition of objectivity necessary?

Traditional objectivity as just the facts is a false model of how journalists do their work. Journalism is interpretive through and through. It provides little guidance for many forms of journalism, such as point-of-view journalism. In addition, adherence to traditional objectivity can retard curriculum reform. The fear that teaching perspectival journalism entails teaching a "journalism without standards" is unfounded. Perspectival journalism can be more or less supported by the facts, well-argued, and respectful of counter views.

The ideal of objectivity should not be abandoned because it supports important journalistic attitudes such as a "disinterestedness" that follows the facts where they lead.

Guidelines for specific formats

My second suggestion is that educators should develop ethical guidelines aimed at specific forms of journalism.

The evolution of interactive, online media tells us something that journalists have known for years: Ethics of journalism is not monolithic; it's not "one size fits all." To be sure, general principles such as truth-telling, editorial independence, objectivity and accuracy apply across all forms of responsible journalism. However, in addition to these principles, more specific norms apply to certain types of journalistic practice. For instance, the aims and norms of satirical journalism are not the same as those of straight reporting; the aims and norms of column writing are not the same as those of a TV news anchor. What norms are appropriate depends on the form of communication in question.

How do these thoughts apply to the problem of changing journalism curricula?

It means that, while teaching should honor the general principles, ethics courses need to develop "best practices" guidelines for specific forms of journalism. For example, we need to specify what truth-telling and accuracy entail for the live-blogging of events. We need to develop guidelines for the responsible use of Twitter and other social media.

The issue is not whether certain media formats are inherently unethical. The issue is what norms are appropriate for any specific format. We need both comprehensive principles and specific guidelines that allow students to engage new media in a creative but responsible manner.

The first step, then, is to clear away old ways of thinking that act as obstacles to the redesign and the teaching of journalism ethics.

Only a fundamental redesign will allow journalism ethics to make the transition from an ethics constructed for a media from another era to an ethics relevant to today's mixed media.

More from photographer Roger H. Goun on Flickr.

Stephen J. A. Ward is director of the Center for Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists' (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC's Graduate School of Journalism's in Vancouver, B.C.

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July 23 2011


Rules of the Road: Navigating the New Ethics of Local Journalism  »  Tools  »  J-Lab

A online book that discusses ethics, more than a collection of thou-shalt-nots. Well worth reading and thinking about.

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Sponsored post

July 20 2011


July 07 2011


British scandal sheet wracked by scandal of its own

rupert murdoch's "News of the World accused of hacking phones of murder victims, dead soldiers" "Journalists at News of the World, a tabloid that is the world's top-selling English-language newspaper, have been accused of hacking into the mobile phone account of missing British teenager Milly Dowler, intercepting messages in search of news. They then allegedly deleted messages to keep her mailbox from filling up, giving her family and friends false hope that the schoolgirl -- later found murdered -- was still alive. "

http://www.delicious.com Bookmark this on Delicious - Saved by jimmykduong to journalism ethics - More about this bookmark

July 04 2011


February 15 2011


5 Principles for Teaching Journalism Ethics in the Digital Age

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

Our global media ecology is a chaotic landscape evolving at a furious pace. Professional journalists share the journalistic sphere with tweeters, bloggers, citizen journalists and social media users around the world. The digital revolution poses a practical challenge to journalists: How can they use the new media tools responsibly?

There is, also, a second challenge for all of us who teach journalism ethics across this country and beyond: What to teach?

Teaching is difficult because a once-dominant traditional ethics, constructed for professional journalism a century ago, are being questioned. Journalism ethics is a field where old and new values clash.

On one side are traditional values such as those found in the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. These include: a commitment to professionalism, separation of news and opinion, methods to verify reports, a concern for accuracy, and the ideals of objectivity and minimizing harm.

On the other side are values of the "always on" universe of interactive media: immediacy, transparency, edgy opinion and partisan journalism, anonymity, and sharing. The speed of new media tempts many users to ignore the restricting methods of accuracy and verification.

Good-bye Consensus

Amid this din of differing views and controversy, we teach journalism ethics. We no longer teach from a framework of generally accepted ideas.

A decade or so ago, teaching journalism ethics was simpler. Few people wondered who was a journalist. In classrooms, instructors introduced principles from authoritative codes of ethics and textbooks, and showed how the principles applied to situations.

Today, we not only teach without a consensus, we lack an ethics that provides adequate guidance for the many new forms of mixed media.

No new canons of journalism have been written on how journalists should use social media on breaking stories, whether newsrooms should publish reports trending on Twitter, or whether mainstream sites should grant anonymity to commentators.

Mixed media ethics is a work in progress.

New Standards for Educators

How does one teach students about a topic in flux? Here are five features of a good journalism ethics course that every professor should implement:

1. Start from the students' media world.

Be experiential. Begin by discussing how they experience and use media; explore the tumult of opinion about journalism. If you downplay the debate and try to lay down the "laws" of journalism ethics ex cathedra, you will lose credibility in the eyes of your students.

2. Assist students with reflective engagement.
Once you've reviewed the context of journalism ethics, tell the students that -- while you can't provide all the answers -- you can help them think their way through the issues. You can help them engage reflectively on principles and you can provide methods for analyzing ethical situations. Also, give them perspective. Go back and look at what journalism has been down the centuries, and examine previous revolutions in journalism.

3. Insist on critical thinking, not what is fashionable.
Work against a tendency to dismiss principles simply because they are traditional and not trendy. For example, new media enthusiasts may rush to reject news objectivity as an ideal. They may use specious reasoning. In such situations, instructors need to ask for better reasons; to indicate areas where objectivity might be needed; and to introduce nuanced versions of objectivity that avoid the obvious objections.

4. Be transitional.
Teach the course so students can follow the transition from a traditional professional framework to current thinking.


Start with a fair assessment of professional journalism ethics. How did it arise and what are its essential features? Then compare this framework with the values that underlie mixed media today. The guiding question is: To what extent do traditional principles apply today? What editorial guidelines are needed to address new situations, new quandaries? Much of the teaching of journalism ethics should involve discussions on how journalism ethics might re-invent itself so it can guide journalists across multiple media platforms.

Show that the invention of new guidelines is possible. Examine how news organizations are constructing new guidelines on a range of problems -- from verifying citizen content to dealing with rumors on social media. Challenge them to write their own ethics policy on online anonymity or other burning issues.

5. Be global in your teaching.

The global impact of journalism requires students to think about their responsibility to inform a public that crosses borders. In a media-linked world, students should ponder whether journalists need to adopt a more globally minded view of themselves. They need to consider a global journalism ethics. Moreover, we should teach the plurality of approaches to journalism ethics from Scandinavia and Europe to Asia.

Revolutionize Thyself

Journalism ethics instruction, therefore, must revolutionize itself.

> Teaching should be dialectical -- helping students to move back and forth between alternate conceptions.

> Teaching should be holistic -- helping students to bring many kinds of facts and ideas to the discussion.

> Teaching should be Socratic. Through questioning and discussion, students formulate their own ethical framework.

Finally, the teaching should challenge, not discourage. Instructors should persuade students that ethics is worth studying even if there are no universal "answers." Students should see the turmoil in journalism as an exciting intellectual and practical challenge to develop a more adequate ethics for a new global mixed media.

Only if we teach in this manner will we prepare journalists for the future and the changing technologies it promises.

Ryerson University photo by Angie Torres via Flickr.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists' (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by the USC Annenberg nine-month M.A. in Specialized Journalism. USC's highly customized degree programs are tailored to the experienced journalist and gifted amateur. Learn more about how USC Annenberg is immersed in tomorrow.

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July 13 2010


When It Comes to Corrections, Most News Sites Fail

Because web pages are just computer files, news stories on the web can be altered at will after publication. That makes corrections on the web a little more complex than corrections in print -- but it also makes them potentially much more effective. Unlike in print or broadcast, you can fix the original. You can make errors vanish -- though not without a trace, if you're doing it right.

So why do so many news organizations continue to handle their online corrections so poorly? At MediaBugs, where we're devoted to improving the feedback loop between the public and the press, we've just published our first survey of corrections practices at more than two dozen Bay Area news outlets. The report's top-line conclusion? Mostly, they're doing it wrong.


Three quarters of the 28 news outlets we reviewed provide no corrections-reporting link of any kind on their home or article pages. Even media organizations that show signs of working to handle corrections carefully fall down in various ways -- and lots of others don't look like they're even trying.

Many bury information about how to report errors behind confusing trails of links. Some provide multiple, poorly labeled avenues for feedback without telling readers which ones to use for error reports. Others provide no access to recently corrected articles beyond a search on "corrections," which often turns up multiple stories about prisons.

These findings are disheartening -- not simply for how poorly editors are protecting their readers' trust in them, but also because handling these matters better doesn't take that much effort.

There's really just a small number of things any news website needs to do if it wants to handle corrections and error reports responsibly:

  • Append a note to any article that's been corrected, explaining the change;
  • Keep a list of these changes, linking to the corrected articles, at a fixed location on the site;
  • Post a brief corrections policy, with information about how readers can report errors they find;
  • Make sure that your corrections listing page and your corrections policy (whether they're on the same or different pages) are part of your site navigation -- they should be accessible by one click from any page on your site.

In addition to our survey, we've provided a brief summary of best practices for corrections and error reporting that we hope will be helpful to news site editors and their readers alike.

No More Excuses

Fifteen years ago, in the early days of web publishing, it might have been understandable for editors to have a hard time figuring out how to handle corrections: This pliable medium was new and strange.

But news on the web is no longer in its infancy, and "We're new to this" just doesn't cut it anymore as an explanation for the kind of poor practices our MediaBugs survey documents. The explanations you generally hear are truthful but don't excuse the problems: "Our content management system makes it too hard to do that" or "we just don't have the resources to do that" or "we've been meaning to fix that for a while but never seem to get around to it."

The web excels at connecting people. That's what its technology is for. Yet when it comes to the most basic areas of accuracy and accountability, the professional newsrooms of the Bay Area (and so many other communities) continue to do a poor job of connecting with their own readers.

It's time for news websites to move this issue to the top of their priority lists and get it taken care of. They can do this, in most cases, with just a few changes to site templates and some small improvements in editing procedures. Of course, we hope, once they've done that, that they'll do more: At MediaBugs, we want to see that every news page on the web includes a "Report an Error" button as a standard feature, just like the ubiquitous "Print" buttons, "Share This" links and RSS icons.

MediaBugs offers one easy way to do this -- our error-reporting widget is easy to integrate on any website. You can now see it in action on every story published over at Spot.Us. But there are plenty of other ways to achieve this same end.

As long as readers can quickly and easily find their way to report an error with a single click, we'll be happy. But before we get there, we've all got some basic housekeeping to take care of first. End the suffering of orphaned corrections links and pages now!

December 21 2009

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