The ethics of hyperconnected media

My ethics class, fall 2010Most of you know that I teach media ethics at the University of North Texas. I do it to be around young people and their thinking, because it keeps me fresh. We should all be so lucky. The course is actually titled: Ethical Decision-Making in the Media, but I call it “Ethics for Journalism in a Networked World.” I do so, because they are different subjects, and the latter is what is required of anybody entering (or in) the field these days.

I’m writing about this today, because the question of ethics has been raised in the story of the firing of NPR’s Juan Williams over statements he made on his other job as a commentator on Fox News. An internal investigation by NPR resulted in one long-time employee resigning and an announcement that the network was reviewing its ethics policies. This has the usual head-scratchers scratching their heads. Poynter’s Kelly McBride wrote that NPR isn’t the only news organization in need of modern, realistic ethics guidelines for its journalists, and I agree. Why? Because things are changing.

Journalism is a profession rife with stars who get away with a lot. And in this new environment, stars tend to have more opportunities than ever, while newsrooms leaders don’t always have the resources to pay their stars enough money to lock them down exclusively or the time to manage their potential conflicts of interest and competing loyalties.

“The climate has changed a whole bunch,” Bill Marimow told me Friday in a phone conversation. Besides once being a senior news executive at NPR, he was editor of The (Baltimore) Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“In some cases, people who were truly outstanding become almost like franchises,” said Marimow…

The problem with these kinds of dissections is that they cling to tradition as a guide. That’s evident when Ms. McBride gets into solutions.

I’ve no doubt that they will have significant discussions about how journalists uphold traditional standards while they thrive and stay relevant in the modern world.

It will be tough to write guidelines that allow the rock stars of journalism to pursue opportunity and extend their influence, while preserving their primary loyalty to one central newsroom. “They have to get the language just right,” Marimow said.

Here we have the essential conflict, and it’s why I’ve chosen to teach media ethics at the university. The conflict is between the individual and the stage (one central newsroom). Remembering for a minute that the stage is all about economics and providing an environment conducive to advertising — this is exactly what it is — here’s what I teach my students:

The stage is what matters to traditional media, the driver of its pursuit of “impartiality.” An impartial stage, after all, is home to all, including advertisers. This is no accident.

Journalistic ethics are all about the impartiality of the stage, not the individual journalists. Without an impartial stage, advertisers will bolt, so the decision is about business.

The people formerly known as the audience (TPFKATA) expect an impartial stage. Why? Because we’ve told them it’s supposed to be that way. The problem is that people don’t believe it anymore.

Without a stage, there is no institutional wall of ethical protection. One, therefore, cannot pretend to be what one is not. This is the truth and the challenge of ethics in a networked world.

The stage says, “I am impartial.”

The individual says, “I’m trying to be fair.”

Artificiality is a curse in the Network.

Your personal brand is everything.

And so, I prepare ethical dilemmas based on scenarios where individuals have to make decisions based on their own brands, which is very different than learning to protect the artificial marketing of the stage. These people will go forward into the hyperconnected universe and do good, ethical work, and not because they follow a set of elitist canons that are in conflict with the culture. Why we cling to this as an industry is beyond me.

The biggest practical difference between one practicing journalism from a stage versus a personal brand has everything to do with the role of publisher-journalist. Business and journalism aren’t separate entities with those who run their own brands, and that’s where the ethical admonitions of industrial age journalism become impossible today. Conflicts of interest must be handled transparently and not be avoided altogether. This, I believe, is where NPR made its mistake.

Ironically, I find many of our old ethical beliefs to be in sync with today, things like accuracy, verification, and fairness. To these have been added, however, speed, transparency, and authenticity. We’re still discovering what all of it means, and until we get there, we’re going to have problems like Juan Williams or telling people that a congresswoman is dead when she’s not.

Meanwhile, let’s not be silent.

Futureview: the coming season of independents

As I face my class every Thursday night at the University of North Texas (“Ethics in a networked world”), I see the dichotomy that is today’s budding journalist. These young people are going to school to “become” professional journalists, yet they are painfully aware of how the industry is collapsing. Their only real hope for work is that they’re technically savvy and they come cheap. Beyond that, though, there’s a dark cloud that has many of them wondering if they’ve chosen the right field.

On the other hand, there is a great sense of value in their knowledge and abilities, especially as it relates to the actual creation of journalism. They don’t need an apprenticeship; they already know all they need to know, so it’s a matter of “just doing it.” In this, I see confidence, although it is somewhat tempered by confusion over a business model. “Go forth and make media,” I tell them at every turn. “Get a day job and let this be your passion, at least for awhile.”

David Carr has captured this energy beautifully in a weekend piece for The New York Times. He writes of the “velvet rope,” in which old school journalists determine who gets in and compares it to the meritocracy that is the Web.

Somewhere down in the Flatiron, out in Brooklyn, over in Queens or up in Harlem, cabals of bright young things are watching all the disruption with more than an academic interest. Their tiny netbooks and iPhones, which serve as portals to the cloud, contain more informational firepower than entire newsrooms possessed just two decades ago. And they are ginning content from their audiences in the form of social media or finding ways of making ambient information more useful. They are jaded in the way youth requires, but have the confidence that is a gift of their age as well.

As I’ve written many times before, I think we’re at the dawn of the age of the independent journalist, and this is why I pay so much attention (with clients and students alike) to the concept of personal branding. I think that aggregators of personal brands is the new big media model (can you say Huffington Post?), and that organizations catering to independents by offering legal and other benefits will flourish. We may again see a version of the velvet rope, but for now, it’s truly every person for him or herself in a media land grab unlike history has ever seen.

And I like what Fred Wilson has to say about it:

I believe the move from a velvet rope model to a meritocracy is a good thing and that the new media business we are building in the wake of the old one will be a better media business; leaner, faster, and controlled more by users than media moguls.

I realize that the change is gut wrenching and many have lost jobs and careers in the process. I don’t celebrate that. In fact, I find it upsetting. But I have also watched many reinvent themselves and come out in a better place too. Change is inevitable and we are better off embracing it than fighting it.

As David says, “It’s a wan reminder that all reigns are temporary”. This one will be as well. So let’s get on with it.

Indeed. Let’s get on with it.

On a personal note, it’s now Professor Heaton

I’ve lectured in several universities, and my essays are a part of college courses worldwide, but last night, it was me standing in front of my class at the University of North Texas.

my class at UNT

The course is “Ethical Decision-Making in Media,” but we’re really going to study “Ethics in a Networked World,” something about which I am rather passionate. There are 41 bright young people in the class, all seniors or above in the Radio Television Film (RTVF) department. All but one has a Facebook page. MySpace is, like, so teenager. We’re going to explore our increasingly networked world and ask questions about the values of transparency and authenticity. We may create a Wiki, but I haven’t decided yet.

I’ll post my thoughts throughout the semester. Who knows? Maybe we can ALL learn something.