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Tyee Books

How Journalists Invented Ethics

And why they still struggle to get it right.

By Shannon Rupp 13 Jul 2006 |
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  • The Invention of Journalism Ethics
  • Stephen J. A. Ward
  • McGill-Queen's University Press (2004)

Two local journalism professors have produced guidebooks on Canadian journalism ethics that offer some hope to scribes toiling in the trenches of big media and the audiences enduring the daily drivel they produce.

Stephen Ward's The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond and Nick Russell's Morals and the Media: Ethics in Canadian Journalism (2nd edition) remind us that the standards of today's newspaper barons are not the ones writers should aspire to, or the standards readers should tolerate. Together the books provide an eye-opener for all ink-stained wretches, but particularly those who skipped J-skool and learned their techniques from editors who often confuse "ethical" with "expedient."

But as good as these books are in different ways, some of the concerns, particularly in Russell's book, seem almost quaint. Reading about how to do more ethical journalism is a little like reading about how to be a better blacksmith -- why perfect a skill for which there is no market?

Ward, a former Canadian Press reporter who teaches in UBC's Master of Journalism program, has produced an essential book on the evolution of the widely misunderstood concept of objectivity. Ward traces its origins in the philosophy of science, then he applies his philosopher's training and an experienced reporter's understanding of best practices to develop a sophisticated model for journalists that he calls "pragmatic objectivity."

Since even reporters misunderstand the much-maligned concept, Ward opens with a history of objectivity, which emerged in science as a technique for overcoming human fallibility. The goal was to find a way to test research and distinguish knowledge from assumptions and beliefs. Part of that involved researchers stepping back and questioning themselves.

Ethics depends on who's buying

By the mid 19th century, publishers had figured out that the money was in selling ads, not selling subscriptions, so they applied a pop culture version of objectivity to newswriting to produce copy that wouldn't offend any of the readers (or advertisers, or politicians, or others with power and something to sell) they were all so anxious to reach.

Ward says that in traditional objectivity's heyday -- the 1920s to the 1950s -- reporters were expected to be, essentially, stenographers who recorded facts without giving them context. They dutifully transcribed every opinion as if it were equal to every other opinion, something that is often seen today. He points out that, not only did it serve readers badly, it is impossible to remove the human element -- someone chooses which facts to print in which order, so a value judgment has to be made.

"We have simplified objectivity to the point that is indefensible," Ward told The Tyee. Originally, the concept involved scientists challenging and questioning their own findings to ensure they weren't blinded by their enthusiasm. "It was about [scientific investigators] caring so much about the truth, that put a restraining force on their passion. They knew anyone can be biased; they balanced that with objectivity," Ward said in an interview.

Ward believes the solution for more meaningful journalism -- not to mention more interesting stories -- is for writers to take a scientific inquirer's role, testing and challenging the information they gather before publishing it. "The future of journalism is investigative, interpretive journalism," he says. "I'm interested in preserving some kind of solid investigative journalism."

The kind of journalism Ward advocates is nothing new, but he notes that journalists tend to ignore their own history. In the 1920s investigative journalists were known as "muckrakers" and "new journalists" exposing corruption in a variety of industries including newspapers. Upton Sinclair's 1920 book The Brass Check: The Study of American Journalism, coined the titular term that still exists -- Morals and the Media, defines as "brass cheque" as an advertiser agreeing to buy ads in exchange for a favourable mention in the news columns.

Objective, fair, or neutral?

In the late '50s and early '60s there was another wave of new journalists: Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and a host of others. Jessica Mitford's 1963 book The American Way of Death, about corruption in the funeral trade, prompted changes in legislation all over North America. However, some, such as Hunter S. Thompson, applied literary techniques to reporting facts in a way that was suspect.

Over the years there have been endless challenges to the concept of objectivity in favour of terms like "fairness" and "neutrality." "New journalism" cropped up so often that, lately, the term "new, new journalism" as been bandied about.

Creative writing programs have been turning out practitioners of "creative non-fiction," although the term makes many journalists cringe. The Georgia Straight's senior editor, Martin Dunphy, is legendary among investigative reporters for his attention to detail and accuracy. He notes wryly that: "The problem is that too often there is too much 'creative' and not enough "'non-fiction.' Too many young writers, especially, are a little too loosey-goosey with the term -- if it's non-fiction it has to be strictly truthful."

And therein lies the problem that continues to plague journalism -- how to remain factually accurate while providing enough context to allow readers to understand what is going on.

Ward's idea of pragmatic objectivity addresses the concerns of journalists like Dunphy, in that he would have reporters act more like scientific investigators -- testing and checking what politicians and PR people say, rather than merely reporting it. While some publications are embracing this technique, recognizing that it is more accurate than just an inverted pyramid of facts, other newsrooms still dismiss it as putting too much stock in the reporter's opinion.

But a point of view appears to be exactly what readers want. Ward notes opinion blogs are increasingly popular, probably because readers are trying to make sense of the flood of information. Ward suggests that because of that, there is an even greater need for journalists who are trained to separate knowledge from opinion and news from spin.

"If people want to rant and rave, may a thousand voices bloom," Ward says. "But we still need professionals trained to provide responsible journalism."

Pay doesn't justify excessive training

If Ward's book is one every journalist ought to read, more than once, Nick Russell's book is the one that should be shoved into the hands of novices as they set foot in newsrooms. Officially, Russell is retired from his post as a journalism professor at the University of Regina, but he still teaches at the University of Victoria and he's best known in B.C. as the man who developed Langara College's fledgling journalism program into a successful, practical training course (1968 to 1983). He thinks now, as he did then, that the low salaries in journalism can't justify the cost of masters' degrees and his book reflects his practical approach to preparing rookies for life on the beat.

The book is broken down into The Framework (theory and ideals), The Pressures (the problems of flaks, advertisers, con artists, and the law) The Pitfalls (reporting violence, sex, and other morally charged situations) and Renewal (codes of conduct, press councils, and other reassurances for the public).

Morals and the Media is a clear and easy read, reflecting Russell's own skill as a journalist. He doesn't offer a rulebook; instead he explores real incidents and how they were handled, introducing wannabe scribes to the ways in which different journalists -- or different media -- handle potential ethical disasters.

For example, he recounts the 1990 incident in which it appeared that CKVU-TV reporter Margot Sinclair was suspected of having a personal relationship with then Attorney-General Bud Smith. Russell records that different columnists came down on different sides of the issue, and some simply discussed the difficulties for reporters in the legislature's hothouse environment.

While he doesn't tell readers what to think, there's little doubt, in most cases, of the best course of action -- or perhaps that's just the reporter in me talking. Russell's list of ethical dilemmas at the end of every chapter – the "Tough Calls" – are obviously designed to trigger class discussions and, again, there's little doubt of the right conclusion.

That is actually the book's strength. In the era when the philosophy of self-serving moral relativists is so popular, Russell's book offers something of a life raft to writers drowning in a sea of incoherent thinking. While Ward's book demands some understanding of logic and how to define knowledge, Russell's book is the Everyhack's guide to ethical thinking.

Journalism ethics an oxymoron?

Although the preservation of knowledge is admirable, in an abstract way, hasn't concentration of ownership turned journalism ethics into -- as J-skool students have always joked – an oxymoron?

Russell dismisses the question as cynical. Despite accounts of journalists faced with corporate bosses who pressure them to write puff pieces (fake journalism that promotes something or someone, often an advertiser) or who kill stories that will not please the owner, Russell believes that reporters still make a lot of ethical decisions and they need guidelines apart from those set by (possibly venal) employers.

"Proprietors don't make a lot of every day decisions," he says. It's because of conflict of interest and pack journalism that working journalists need a personal code of conduct. "And management should develop [an institutional] code of their own," Russell says.

He also points out that institutional standards are much higher than they once were -- partly because the public has demanded it. "When I got into journalism [at the Vancouver Sun], it was standard policy not to run corrections."

Still, it's fair to wonder if a book like Russell's isn't more likely to get a green reporter fired at a lot of outlets -- that is if he's lucky enough to get a job in this shrinking market.

I recounted the story of a newly minted journalism grad at a local magazine whose article was rewritten to include complimentary bumf about an advertiser -- the classic brass cheque. He refused to put his byline on it. The publisher insisted. "I'd rather have my name associated with pornography, than that," the naïf told the proprietor, with predictable results.

Russell allows that magazines have long been "compromised," but he points out that his guide is useful because it prepares writers for the pitfalls of journalism. "It's a way of alerting them long before they get into trouble -- it gets their antennae up."

As for the notion of ethical journalists as this generation's answer to blacksmiths, Russell chuckles and points out that the question says more about my place in the long tradition of reporters who revel in their role as cynics than it says about his book.

"History shows that many things are better in newsrooms than they were 100 years ago," he says, with a smile in his voice. "For example, there are women reporters and editors now."

Well, touché. But women have written for newspapers since the 19th-century owners discovered women's pages were good for selling ads. Was it a good bargain to get so little -- the illusion of a more diverse newsroom -- in exchange for so little diversity in the news stories?

I'd say no, but for novices and optimists who believe improving their own skills will have some impact on the quality of newspapers, these two books are must-reads.

Shannon Rupp is a regular contributor to The Tyee who recently wrote about celebrity in Born unto Brangelina, a Sign! and the new puritanism in The 'TV Is Evil' Industry. A year and a day ago, she wrote about Journalism's Chronic Illness.  [Tyee]