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By Casey Bukro and Hugh Miller
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
When speaking to an audience about ethics in journalism, it usually does not take long before somebody suggests to the speaker that ethics in journalism is an oxymoron — incongruous or contradictory terms.
There it is laid out boldly. Naked doubts about journalism and journalists. Skepticism. A snickering challenge to what many regard as a pillar of American democracy. A shrug. A joke.
But it’s no joke to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, which recently released a report on trust in news as seen in four countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, India and Brazil.
These questions are at the heart of the study: “Why is trust in news eroding? How does this decline play out across different media environments and among different segments of the public? What might be done about it and at what cost — particularly when audiences may hold divergent views about what trustworthy journalism looks like?”
The report is the first installment of many that will be published over the next three years. This first installment focuses on those who study journalism and those who practice it.
Skip down toward the end of this installment, and the authors admit: “We recognize that as researchers we are traveling along not only a well-worn path but one that cuts through ever-changing terrain. The questions we outline above about (a) the role of the platforms, (b) audience engagement strategies, (c) transparency initiatives, and (d) preconceptions about news will serve broadly as a roadmap, and we will put news users – the people whose trust journalists seek to earn – at the centre (cq) of our work. This roadmap will guide our way forward while allowing us to be steered by the discoveries that hopefully lie ahead.”
This report would have benefited from less use of academia speak. And yes, we’ve seen some of this before. It says reporters and presenters should be presented as real, relatable people, not distant, faceless media figures. A similar concern once resulted in a journalism organization suggesting that people “take a reporter out to lunch” to get to know them. Television is adept at showing its reporters and sometimes describing their interests. Print journalism, especially newspapers, has a history of keeping their reporters out of the spotlight so that the emphasis is on the news, rather than the reporter. But that is changing here and there. Celebrated columnists always got plenty of exposure.
“Trust is not an abstract concern but part of the social foundations of journalism as a profession, news as an institution and the media as a business,” states the report. It is both important and dangerous, it says.
Here is what the authors say they know:
- There is no single “trust in news” problem. But rather multiple challenges involving the supply of news and the public’s demand for information.
- Public understanding of how journalism works is low. Social media isn’t helping.
- Some distrust may be rooted in coverage that has chronically stigmatized or ignored segments of the public.
- Assessments of trust and distrust are deeply intertwined with politics. Ultimately, many attitudes about news may have little to do with newsrooms.
The authors say they want to know how platforms are damaging news organizations’ brand identities, audience engagement strategies, transparency, where preconceptions about news come from and how they can be changed.
“Distrust in the news for many audiences may be rooted in deeply held preconceptions people hold about bias, motives and how journalism works. Sometimes called ‘folk theories,’ such ideas may be more or less true (and, of course, sometimes demonstrably false). Whether hostile or not, these preconceptions are likely to be based on a combination of factors ranging from personal experiences and partisan or other identities to popular cultural representations of news, whether salutary or less so.”
Such statements should not be accepted at face value, without some evaluation and examination.
That is why the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists exists, to take a closer look at the ethical dimensions of events in journalism. AdviceLine’s mission is to help individual journalists to reach informed ethical decisions, and to contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism.
AdviceLine asked Hugh Miller, professor of philosophy emeritus, Loyola University Chicago, to assess the Reuters Institute study. Miller is one of the AdviceLine advisors who takes calls from journalists seeking guidance on ethics. Here are his remarks:
The problem of trust is one of the central issues of journalistic ethics. In a sense, “trust” means the relationship that should exist between a news reader, listener, or viewer, and the news organization reporting, when that relationship is responsibly carried out. One could even go so far as to say that news outlets, if they are acting responsibly, have a “fiduciary duty” to their audience, to carry out reporting that embodies the values of ethical codes like that of the Society of Professional Journalists. The word “fiduciary” comes from the Latin “fides,” which means “faith.” A fiduciary is one in whom one reposes faith, and a dutiful fiduciary is one who lives up to that faith by behaving in a trustworthy way. If that fiduciary duty is violated, the lost trust will be hard to regan, and may never be.
Journalism today is being practiced in a sphere in which such trust is hard to find, to place, and then retain. The rise of the internet has led to an explosion of news and “news-like” information sources, including many that, however much they may want their audience to believe in them, trust them, have faith in them, have little inclination to behave dutifully or responsibly. How does a news outlet that does want to behave responsibly act in such an environment?
The Reuters study, as reported by Poynter, seems to be seeking answers to this and related questions. But it seems to raise a number of questions itself, in turn.
- The piece shows little awareness of, or interest in, the history of journalism, in the countries mentioned. But journalism is not only the “first draft of history,” it has a history of its own. Some attention to the kinds and levels of trust placed in news organizations’ products, and how they arise, increase, fall or otherwise change over time would seem indispensable to coming to grips with the problem of trust today.
- I find the use of the “brand identity” language problematic, from a journalistic ethics point for view. Certainly, news organizations are competitive and it matters a great deal to them who scoops whom, who gets which exclusive, etc. But perhaps emphasizing “brand” too much gets in the way of producing a trustworthy product. If having “CBS” or “MSNBC” on the screen or getting billable clicks matters as much or more than the quality of the “content” (another fraught term), maybe that’s part of the problem. This is especially true in the internet world, where attention spans are measured in fractions of a second, and where substantive, rigorously fact-checked pieces are often relegated to “long read” sections, and tagged with “tl;dr” (“too long; didn’t read”) one-line summaries. Readers should come away with the story first and foremost in their minds, not the name of the organization that reported it. Let them put that in their browser bookmarks.
3. By “platforms” I take the Reuters folks to mean Facebook, Parler, Twitter, etc. I think the rise of these platforms and the way that people get information increasingly via them is a great part of the trust problem. But they write that platforms degrade trust in news by “obscuring differences between information sources.” Indeed, they do; but this seems not to be their main ethical difficulty. Instead, in my view, the problem of the platforms is that their algorithms deliberately and calculatedly work to achieve attachment by users by giving them what the users show they want to hear, driving the “echo chamber” effect. Facebook or Twitter users, shepherded by the “you might be interested” functions of such platforms, might quickly find themselves in a “news” and opinion bubble containing few or no dissenting views to disturb their preconceptions (and drive them, annoyed, to another competing platform).
4. Finally, there is little here about the rise, and wealth, and backing, of pseudo-news organizations like FoxNews, OANN, Newsmax, breitbart.com, The Drudge Report, Western Journalism Review, et al, which produce “content” which is a blend of infotainment, legitimate stories (often sourced from other services), and vast quantities of political mis- or disinformation, sometimes produced in close consultation with political parties (e.g. Roger Ailes at Fox). Such organizations are allowed to pass themselves off as “news” or “journalism” enterprises, when actually they serve the function, as media theorist Steve Bannon once memorably put it, of “flooding the zone with shit” for the express purpose of degrading trust in mainstream news sources and public discourse generally. Why do we, as a nation, allow this? Why did the Federal Communications Commission abolish the Fairness Doctrine in 1987? Shouldn’t responsible news organizations fight to hold themselves and each other to high professional standards of responsible, truthful reporting and reasoned debate over opinions and values? What can be done about organizations that flout such standards? This is a very serious issue, and it will not be resolved by taking a laissez-faire, hands-off approach to the news reporting environment.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
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