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.

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