Reflections on Journalism Ethics from a Starry-Eyed #PoynterEthics Attendee

On Tuesday, my internet universe came to life.

For the past two years, I’ve been reading and listening to a set of people who practice, discuss, teach, innovate, and reflect on journalism. They write books, they blog, they make podcasts, they write and produce for quality newspapers and news organizations. I really admire them. Their work has been my guiding light when I’ve found myself confused about the news. About the way a story was reported, about how to write with clarity and style at the same time, about where to read the news and how to think critically about it. They’ve provided insight when I’ve found myself confused by the actors that keep the news cycle rolling and how, as both a student of journalism (six months into my masters) and citizen of the internet, to be a part of that cycle without being overwhelmed by it.

And on Tuesday, I was lucky enough to sit in a room with many of these people, and listen to them talk about the actors that keep the news cycle rolling, and how to make the experience of doing so more transparent, more ethical, more efficient, more sustainable, and more lucrative.

Many of journalism’s present problems, perhaps, stem from attempts to professionalize it. To professionalize means to lock people out in order to prevent amateurs from competing. By contrast then, an apt definition for journalism is one that Monica Guzman gave: journalism is something that inspires acts of journalism in others.

In his new book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, Howard Gardner writes: “Whether we are dealing with a historian or an economist, a surgeon or a reporter, we need to understand how these professionals go about their work so that they can with some confidence, put forth a proposition that they believe to be true. If we do not trouble to understand the method–say, that of a blogger versus a trained reporter, or a barber versus a board-certified surgeon–then our chances of ascertaining truth are sharply reduced.”

And so, it was fascinating to see such esteemed thinkers grappling so transparently with the issues they’ve encountered in their careers and how to deal with them best.

They convened in NYC for a good 7+ hours at this symposium, and now they’re at work on a book that attempts to answer the question: what set of ethics should we aspire towards in an age of digital journalism?

I won’t share an overview of the event as you can read a nice one from CJR over here.  But here is some of what I learned on Tuesday and what I’ve been thinking about since.

Journalism is not a profession, I learned from Clay Shirky. It’s a trade whose highest aim is to serve the public. Many of its present problems, perhaps, stem from attempts to professionalize it. To professionalize means to lock people out in order to prevent amateurs from competing. By contrast then, an apt definition for journalism is one that Monica Guzman gave: journalism is something that inspires acts of journalism in others.

Guzman’s definition is probably the most useful way to look at the trade in an age when we’re all ruled by an impulse to discover. An impulse that is further strengthened by our ability to share our discoveries and creations on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit, and in return freely receive the instant gratification of feedback, collaboration, attention, clout, and power. It’s a little bit great and a little bit dangerous. But people will do as people want to do, and the only way to develop a coherent set of ethics is if that set of ethics is fueled by the task of empowering actors to do what they want to do smartly.

“If we do not trouble to understand the method–say, that of a blogger versus a trained reporter, or a barber versus a board-certified surgeon–then our chances of ascertaining truth are sharply reduced.”

How can this be done? By (again from Guzman, who I personally think was the star of Tuesday’s show) empowering people’s capacity to self-inform. This means a lot of different things, I learned.

It means smart, honest fact-checking and admitting when you get it wrong. It means transparency on several levels: understanding how content platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) choose to display information (algorithmically, for example), and how aggregators choose to curate news. It means incorporating both algorithms and a bit of human curation into those content streams. It means, as a reporter, showing how you acquired your information, what you couldn’t acquire, and why not.  It means sharing your relationships instead of feigning independence.

It also means taking conversations that media people have amongst themselves out into the world. Conversations about how fear can be used to manipulate the public to move, for example—and making the public aware of the mechanisms of this manipulation. Conversations about who gets to decide where our attention is directed, for example—and making them aware that greater access to information means less attention spent on it, which means less understanding where understanding is most necessary. Conversations about how the internet has changed our trade, and proliferated the mechanisms of storytelling such that we’re still figuring out how to keep telling stories that help people understand each other.

And so, I rest assured—and you should too—that really smart people are really committed to seeking the sort of journalism that can foster trust and understanding between the practitioners of journalism and their audience.

And they’d like to hear your thoughts and suggestions on what’s missing from the conversation. So take them up on it by tweeting your suggestions to #poynterethics.

Poynter has archived all of the conversation from the symposium online, which you can view here.

Jihii Jolly

Jihii Jolly is an FJP associate producer focusing on editorial production and social community development. She’s interested in journalism, the internet, Buddhism, ethics, and how they all connect. Currently, she’s pursuing an MS in Digital Media at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Twitter | Tumblr | Personal Site

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