Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Ethics of Journalism

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 01, 2007

Responding to Scott Karp, Why Journalism Matters:

The premise of Scott Karp's article is not so much a defense of journalism (though that's how it reads) as a defense of journalistic standards.

"What happens when you have thousands of people wielding the power of the press without any shared principles or standards? You get the Kathy Sierra mess."

This nice bit of wordplay allows the author to escape the immediate and obvious objection, specifically, that journalists have been responsible for as much, if not more, mayhem. No blogger that I know of has started a war, but journalists have started a number of them. So much for 'professional' journalists.

Ah, but of course, all journalists who cause mayhem are (ahem) just those without 'shared principles or standards'. That way, we can ignore the war-mongering and death-play that characterizes Fox News because, of course, they do not share these principles or standards.

One assumes, that is. Perhaps the author really does want to defend even the yellower forms of the profession. If so, then I think he will have a very difficult time accusing the blogosphere of anything like the excesses of the professionals. The Kathy Sierra mess? Excuse me? Does what Chris Locke did in any way resemble the irresponsible William Randolph Hearst? Or the radio reporters of Rwanda calling for genocide? Or the call-in radio shows even today lauding people who support the beating to death of homosexuals?

No - you can't defend professional journalism as it is. You can only defend some rarified and fictitious form of journalism as defined by some abstract shared principles or standards. A sort of self-defending form of journalism, one that rules that any of its excesses were not its fault, they were caused by people who obviously didn't share the shared standards or principles.

Just who is it that shares these standards and principles? Is it my local newspaper, which is owned by the local monopoly company (which also owns the papers mills and the gas stations) dreaming up an entirely fictitious 'anti-tax' protest to welcome the new Liberal government in our province?

One presumes not. But what media outlet is there that isn't attempting to fulfill the social, political or commercial mandate of its owners? And which has not, in its own way, contributed to as much unethical behaviour as any blogger?

Oh, the current Sierra scandal plays very well into the Journalists' 'law and order' agenda (you know - the one where they have managed to convince everyone that crime is out of control when in fact statistics show a general and persistent decline). The words 'death threat' play so well on the front page, as does the press's favorite image, the attractive (white elite) woman in distress.

What, pray tell, in what would the 'shared standards and principles' consist? Because, after all, we would not want to adopt a principle that would disqualify the majority of practicing professionals today? That they be blind to religion or ethnic background? No, too many 'Chinese gang' stories to cover, much less this whole terror thing. That the be gender-neutral in their observation and description of detail? No, the woman candidate might wear something in red, which would send the press gallery into a frenzy.

I don't think that there exist a set of 'shared standards and principles'. Not one that exists in any newsroom besides the ideal. Not one that could characterize mainstream journalism, on the whole, as superior to the world of bloggers.

I mean - we're several years into the phenomenon, there are tens of millions of people blogging, and this is the best you've got? This, as opposed to all else, is what shows the paucity of blogging, shows the ethical indeterminism of the medium?

In the same period of time, the professional journalists - a much smaller pool to begin with - has been caught out for faking news stories, faking sources, faking photographs, misleading the public, being paid off by the government, and more. I could continue for the rest of the day describing the things the professional media has done.

I would observe, moreover, that the professional journalists already have codes of practice and professional standards, and they do not appear to even slow the transgressions down. Did Fox News check out the code of conduct before repeating lies about WMDs and Yellowcake and the rest? Why did it take Jon Stewart, and not a board of inquiry, to point out to the authors of Crossfire that they were distorting the news?

From where I sit, professional journalists can sit there and piously pronounce until the cows come home, and it won't make one whit of difference.

I will continue to know that the vast majority of bloggers - yes, even Chris Locke - are honorable and responsible, can be trusted to report on what is genuinely important rather than made up to mislead or distract people, that when they are pursuing an agenda, it is their own, and not something their corporate masters or advertisers are promoting.

And, even, I will continue to know that it is the A-List that can be, of all the blogosophere, *least* trustworthy, and that precisely because they are *most* similar to professional media.

Shared principles or standards won't slow any transgressions from the A-List any more than they do from the professional media. The major lesson the A-Listers are probably learning this week is that, by the illusion of conflict within their ranks, they can generate much more traffic than they ever could while all appearing to speak with the same voice.

How long will it be before we get story-lines from the A-List, much like we get from professional wrestling today? How long before coverage of the A-List blogosphere begins to resemble what passes for 'entertainment news' today?

How long before professional journalists welcome A-Listers are more of their own?

The A-Listers will have to be able to prove that they can perpetuate a fiction, carry on a story-line, and mislead the readers. The A-Listers will have to declare an adherence to a set of principles or standards, much like professional journalists do, and proceed to pretend to pay homage to their ethics while at the same time violating on a routine, almost casual, basis.

When the A-Listers can master the art of fiction, then they will be allowed to be called journalists.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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