Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ethics: The Never-Ending Debate

I find it interesting that Kovach and Rosenstiel's main thesis in bold print is that 'journalists have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.' It doesn't say they have the RIGHT to, it says they have the OBLIGATION to. (There are several people in the world that I do not think I necessarily want exercising their conscience.)
After many hours of discussing objectivity in almost every journalism course this semester, including reading about it in earlier Kovach and Rosenstiel chapters, on page 237 they quote Linda Foley, the president of the Newspaper Guild, as saying, “It's credibility, not objectivity, that's important for us in our industry...” and “the ability of journalists to exercise conscience is much more important than anything they believe or any beliefs they bring to their job.”
While, yes, we would all like to believe that it's understood by each journalist that, for example, plagiarism is bad and objectivity is good....look at cases like Jayson Blair and we can see that perhaps this 'obligation' that journalists have is not so well upheld. There is no way that we will ever be able to get everyone to agree on what is 'good' and what is 'bad' so how do we decide, whether in the newsroom or in life, just how ethical something someone does is? The only method we have is to judge it with our own standards which are flawed and imperfect and non-universal.
So we try to label and define things-for example, David Craig talks about how 'truth,' 'accuracy,' and 'objectivity' are almost consensual cornerstones of journalism ethics in professional codes around the world, but in professional usage, “truth encompasses accuracy, honesty, lack of distortion or misrepresentation, and fairness.”
When looking at the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, it includes:
1.Seek truth and report it
2.act independently
3.minimize harm accountable.
To me, a few of these seem to counteract themselves. If you are truly acting independently and objectively seeking truth then how can you also be minimizing the potential harm? To 'minimize harm' gives the impression of “fluffing” your story so it doesn't seem so bad or eliminating facts/details that may be used to help paint a more accurate and transparent picture.
I think that David Craig best explains the three-way tug-of-war between objectivity, truth, and this 'obligation' at the end of his article, 'The Power and Ethics of the Story.' He says that “the difficulties connected with objectivity do not require journalists to abandon truth as an ethical responsibility because truth encompasses more than objectivity.” To me, this basically means while objectivity is a huge part of accurate storytelling, there are other methods that we as journalists must equally give as much attention to and look at that could contribute to our most transparent writing.
While I enjoy talking about it, after a while ethics is frustrating because there never has been and never will be a universally 'right' answer. We try so many methods and definitions and theories and philosophies in an attempt to give ourselves a feeling of organization but no matter how many classes or seminars or professional organizations it is discussed in, journalists-as humans-will always have varying degrees of just how 'wrong' they think something is or what they are willing to do given sets of circumstances.

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