Monday, December 27, 2004

Ethical journalism or Shattered Glass?

So what is good journalism? It's a bit of a puzzle, and I know I don't have all the answers, but I can see a few pointers out there. I gave what I think is one part of the puzzle -- about oppenness and transparency -- in a previous blog, quoting Tim Porter (who also left me a kind comment). I think another significant piece of the puzzle is about professional ethics. I was thinking about this the other day after I watched again the movie "Shattered Glass" (Dir. Billy Ray, 2003), about the gross dereliction of journalistic duty perpetuated by New Republic scribe, Stephen Glass. This brings me to Bill Moyers, who completed his last "NOW With Bill Moyers" show on PBS before Christmas. Moyers got to the ethical heart of the matter in this speech he gave to the Society of Professional Journalists at their conference on Sept. 11, 2004 (reproduced in Alternet). he notes that the job of journalists "remains essentially the same: to gather, weigh, organize, analyze and present information people need to know in order to make sense of the world." He goes on:

    You will hear it said this is not a professional task – John Carroll of the Los Angeles Times recently reminded us there are "no qualification tests, no boards to censure misconduct, no universally accepted set of standards." Maybe so. But I think that what makes journalism a profession is the deep ethical imperative of which the public is aware only when we violate it – think Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Jim Kelly. Ed Wasserman, once an editor himself and now teaching at Washington and Lee University, says that journalism "is an ethical practice because it tells people what matters and helps them determine what they should do about it." So good newsrooms "are marinated in ethical conversations...What should this lead say? What I should I tell that source?" We practice this craft inside "concentric rings of duty and obligations: Obligations to sources, our colleagues, our bosses, our readers, our profession, and our community" – and we function under a system of values "in which we try to understand and reconcile strong competing claims." Our obligation is to sift patiently and fairly through untidy realities, measure the claims of affected people, and present honestly the best available approximation of the truth – and this, says Ed Wasserman, is an ethical practice.

Moyers goes on to state something that is only too obvious to anyone who cares about good journalism: "It's never been easy, and it's getting harder. For more reasons then you can shake a stick at."


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