Journalism Ethics

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Journalism is the profession of writing, editing, and publishing high-frequency periodicals that aim to report and comment on events of public interest, commonly called news, with its frontline practitioners those who gather the data—reporters, photographers, videographers—and those who approve the data and prepare the collection of text and visuals for presentation—editors and producers. The unique role-related responsibility of journalists, which includes all of these practitioners, in democracy is to communicate to citizens information needed for self-governance. Self-governance includes the most mundane of decisions, such as what weather to prepare for when driving to work, and the most complex of choices, such as voting on referendums or candidates for public office.

As a profession journalism is dependent on certain ethical standards to maintain the credibility needed to perform its role-related responsibilities. The professional acts of discovering, reporting, and disseminating the news is dependent on various technologies. Thus insofar as both changes in science and technology alter the practice of journalism and journalists report on scientific and technological news, journalism ethics is of relevance to science, technology, and ethics, and vice versa.

Origins and Ethics

Journalism has emerged parallel with the development of technologies for the rapid, mass dissemination of written texts and broadcast messages. Although anticipations can be found in serial official announcements such as the Acta diurnal (Daily proceedings) of the Roman Empire or the Tching-pao (Palace news) of the Chinese T'ang dynasty, the first modern news sheets appeared in Germany in the 1450s, where Johann Guttenberg invented the printing press. The first true newspaper was probably the Gazette de France, which began publication in Paris in 1631. Since then both Germany and France have maintained strong journalistic traditions, which after World War II exhibited special expertise in reporting on science and technology in relation to, for instance, nuclear weapons and environmental issues. Indeed one can argue that the strength of the environmental movement in Europe rests in part on such reporting.

The early 1700s is sometimes described as the golden age of English journalism, with what are now classified as more literary journalist-publishers such as Joseph Addison (1672–1719) and Richard Steele (1672–1729), among others, developing the occasional general interest essay in the Spectator and the Tatler. Such essays are no doubt ancestors of the personal columns and op-ed perspective pieces of the present. In another development, when the London Times, founded initially in 1785 as the Daily Universal Register, published dispatches from correspondents at the front during the Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), it was the first time the public was able to read about the results of military battles from other than government sources.

In the United States the rise of the journalism profession is strongly associated with the writing and publishing of early patriots such as James Franklin's New England Courant and his younger brother Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette. In part because of the contributions of the press to successful revolutionary politics, the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution (1791) guaranteed freedom of the press to a historically unprecedented degree. The development of this freedom during the mid-1800s drew on new technologies to create a pluralistic, mass circulation penny press, which in the late-1800s began to be consolidated into a set of newspaper chains that themselves drew on new means of communication such as the telegraph. These major newspapers subsequently separated themselves into the high-standards press (New York Times, Washington Post, among others) and more popular publications that practiced what was criticized as yellow journalism.

Reaction to the distortion and sensationalism of yellow journalism, with its power to influence events through muckraking exposes and jingoistic politics, led to efforts to professionalize the field. In 1892 Joseph Pulitzer proposed the creation of a school of journalism at Columbia University (which did not happen, however, until twenty years later). At virtually the same time, in 1909, reporters themselves established their first professional association (the Sigma Delta Chi fraternity, which in 1988 changed its name to the Society of Professional Journalists). It was in these two contexts that ethics began a process of explicit development, with the first code of ethics for professional journalism written by members of Sigma Delta Chi in 1926. Two organizations focused on science writing emerged at about the same time. The American Medical Writers Association traces its origins to 1924, with the development of its own code of ethics in 1976. The National Association of Science Writers was formed in 1934 to promote the dissemination of accurate information regarding science.

Following from the interdependence of technical and professional growth, wire services contributed to the development of common journalistic standards. Wire services, which sent a single story or photograph to multiple outlets via telegraph, then telephone lines, then satellite, both reflected and influenced subscriber news organization standards. The service had to meet the professional demands of its subscribers, but it also served as a model for local news organizations.

Journalism ethics at the macro level describes and criticizes the practices of news organizations and the role journalism plays in society. Drawing on the disciplines of history, sociology, philosophy, and political theory, scholars work to distinguish those practices that are ethically obligatory, desirable, and proscribed. At the micro level journalism ethics both describes and argues for normative behaviors of individual practitioners and the profession.

In a democracy, journalists play a central role in providing citizens with the information they need to practice self-governance. In a highly scientific and technological democracy this responsibility extends to accurate reporting on science, technology, and engineering. This role-related responsibility in journalism to present informative accounts of issues and events, including of science and technology, serves as the basis for a cornucopia of ethical issues.

At the macro level such issues include critical assessment of (a) domination of media attention and story spin by the most powerful; (b) the presence of less powerful individuals and groups often not considered immediately newsworthy; and (c) the determination of events, issues, and people as newsworthy based on audience interest, government promotion, or corporate influence. These macro issues are apparent in which scientific actions get reported and which get ignored. The science that finds its way into the public press is that most easily distilled, most eagerly promoted by articulate spokespersons, and which attracts funding or policy discussions.

At the micro level issues include (a) conflicts between media exposure and individual desires to limit such exposure; and (b) conflicts between professional journalist responsibilities and recognized or unrecognized bias by reporters.

Scientific and Technological Change

While the Internet has made it possible for all people with computer access to broadcast their messages, recognized news outlets remain in the hands of a few corporate owners. "In Britain now, 85% of the national daily press is in the hands of four groups … In the United States … six companies control most of the media" (Bertrand 2003, p. 5). Technology has offered the tools for true participatory democracy, but technology has also limited the countries and corporations that can reach the world through satellites in geostationary orbit.

Since the early-1800s, technology has influenced how journalism is practiced, produced, and presented. Technological advances that have affected journalism include methods of recording events as well as methods of data transmission from the field to the news organization and from the news organization to its audiences. The challenge for the profession is to use evolving technology to meet the institution's unique role-related responsibilities. Technology also makes some unethical acts, such as fabricating photos or recorded quotes, easier to perform and more difficult to detect.

The standard of objective reporting, for example, finds its origins in the development of the wire service in the early-twentieth century. For the first time, it was possible for reporters, and then photographers, to be present at a distant scene and disseminate coverage of the event to large numbers of news organizations at the same time. What sold best to audiences in a variety of markets was journalism that appealed to the broadest possible interests. Journalists covering the story could not make assumptions about the political, religious, or cultural beliefs of readers and viewers as they might have when reporting for a specific hometown audience. Thus the reporting that worked best for the most general audience became the standard. Generations of students in journalism schools learned to report the five W's and an H—who, what, when, where, why and how—with the importance of each obvious in its order of appearance in the news product. The technology of precomputer pagination dictated an inverted pyramid style of reporting that put the most important facts at the top of the story so that the layout staff could lop off from the bottom of an account material that did not fit into limited space.

While these technologically influenced norms served as standards for the field of journalism, they did not necessarily assist in meeting role-related responsibilities. For example, one general interpretation of objective balancing of facts is the myth that each story has two sides that must be accurately presented. Complicated stories involving policy decisions have many sides. When a story is reported as a two-sided issue, the reporting itself creates a polarized debate rather than a nuanced public discussion. The attempts to establish a national healthcare system in the United States in 1994, for example, was reported as a political debate between the Clinton White House and the Republican-controlled Congress. The story of the need for uninsured citizens to access needed healthcare was overpowered by the win-lose style of its presentation. It took another decade before the public issue of developing a new healthcare policy could be discussed without the goal being lost in the reporting. Technological advances during the 1990s added to technology-accommodating norms, such as photo-transmitting cell phones. Digital cameras and satellite transmission made the delivery of information from the field to the news organization instantaneous. In homes the introduction of cable and satellite television and the World Wide Web (WWW) allowed for multichannel broadcast, 24-hour news channels, and instantaneous transmission of material from the news organization to the audience. Indeed, in an era of live coverage, the news organization itself is bypassed by journalists and nonjournalists who are on the scene, broadcasting and making their own decisions about what to reveal and what is and is not news.

The resulting norms, as questionable as the striving for two-sided objective news coverage, include the following:

  1. an assumption that on-the-scene coverage is the best;
  2. accessible information is synonymous with news;
  3. news is a never-ending evolution of first impressions or viewable dramatic events—while interpretation and context building may get viewers and broadcasters through quiet periods, it is access to new and dramatic pictures that creates breaking news;
  4. mediated reality is reality.

The first news team on the scene is more likely to report speculation than fact. Turning a camera to a scene and flooding viewers' homes with dramatic images creates mediated events, not news.

News stories developed for print dissemination or electronic news packages are more than recordings of slices of reality. If information is to be useful to citizens for self-governance, they need to understand the context and meaning behind events. Citizens are dependent on journalism to know what is happening in the world, but it is easy to confuse mediated reality with reality.

Experiencing the events of September 11, 2001 in New York City, or at the Pentagon, was far different from watching the scenes played out on television. Yet most viewers felt they experienced the terrorist attacks through the media. Watching the second plane hit the South Tower, watching the towers tumble, watching those on the scene scramble for safety was possible for everyone with access to a television screen, what one author calls mass interpersonal communication. (Newton 2001, p. 153). But making sense of a mediated event is limited by what the videographer, story producer, and news organization has chosen to show the audience.

American journalism has cultural domination of broadcast media in that it serves as primary source material for historians and others who create records of contemporary events (Winch 1997, p. 4). The importance of these accounts create the ethical necessity for journalists to use technology to enhance their ability to meet role responsibilities rather than allowing technology to create standards that interfere with meeting those responsibilities. The technological worldwide domination of American journalism also creates the ethical necessity for journalists to perceive of themselves as representing global, not national, interests. Reality, if left unrecorded, is not available for public consideration or discussion.

According to communication scholar Paul Ansah, a problem with the domination of technology and news is "the paucity of the horizontal flow of news among developing countries in the South, thus compelling people in those countries to see one another from the perspective of foreign correspondents whose value systems, ideological options and even prejudices are reflected in the reports" (Ansah 1986, p. 66).

The Internet gives every person with access to that technology the opportunity for free expression and access to a world of ideas. In twenty-first century university life in the United States, where professors expect students and colleagues to exist in a wired world, it is easy to forget that such access actually exists only for the privileged few. According to a 2003 UN report, 91 percent of Internet users represent 19 percent of the world's population.

Yet in a world in which anyone with access can find an audience—what might be called information anarchy—credible journalism is more necessary than ever to sustain democracy. Citizens "need a guarantee of authenticity. … There is an ever greater need for competent, honest journalists to filter, check, and comment upon the information available" (Bertrand 2003, p. 4).

Specific Ethical Concerns of Reporting on Science, Technology, and Engineering

Science coverage rose steadily from the mid-twentieth century into the early-twenty-first century. The explosive growth in technology and in medical knowledge fueled a steady stream of science news. The need for average citizens to achieve a higher degree of science literacy so that they could understand and operate new technological equipment and so that they could understand and access advanced medical technology created a greater and sustained need for mediation between experts and general public.

Increasing awareness and concern for environmental impact on the part of scientists, policy makers, and the public created the same need for the development of environmental journalism as a specialization. Journalism education responded with the development of science writing courses and curriculum.

A 1978 directory (Friedman, Goodell and Verbit) found fifty-nine colleges and universities teaching 104 science communication courses including those in general science, technical writing, environmental journalism, and agricultural journalism. A mid-1990s update of Sharon Dunwoody's directory found an increase in the number of programs, courses, and specializations. For example, specialized communication courses were offered in risk, engineering, cyberspace, marine science, and earth sciences, in addition to general science, and technical, environmental, and medical writing.

Journalists and scientists continue to recognize the need for collaboration between the professions and to understand the different professional conventions that make such collaboration difficult. Professional societies, web resources, and workshops for scientists and journalists are necessary to create a communication bridge between science and the public it affects.


SEE ALSO Communications Ethics.


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