Philip Meyer, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor emeritus, is the former holder of the Knight Chair in Journalism at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He researches in the areas of journalism quality, precision journalism, civic journalism, polling, the newspaper industry, and communications technology. Before becoming a professor in 1981, Meyer was employed in the newspaper industry for twenty-six years, the last twenty-three with Knight Ridder, where he started as a reporter for The Miami Herald. In 1962, he became the Washington correspondent for the Akron Beacon Journal, then a national correspondent, and finally a market researcher at company headquarters in Miami from 1978 to 1981. Meyer, who has been a Nieman Fellow, has written several books, including The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, Precision Journalism: A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods, and Ethical Journalism: A Guide for Students, Practitioners, and Consumers.
When Everyone Is a Journalist, Who Will Make the Rules?
Ruhl Lecture, University of Oregon, April 13, 2010
By Philip Meyer
The field of journalism ethics developed as a subset of business ethics. Its rules and values are adaptations to the marketplace. Market-driven morality is not necessarily a bad idea. Of all the existing media accountability systems, the marketplace has certainly been the most powerful.
But as the marketplace changes, the rules will change – and not always with good timing. There will always be some cultural lag as we try to apply the old rules to the new information technology. We have a history that includes some strange rules.
For example, (Slide 2) consider Nelson Antrim Crawford, who published a book on journalism ethics in 1924. He declared that it was immoral for a publisher to let a customer buy more than 2,000 copies of a single issue without inquiring into their purpose. This precaution was necessary, he explained, because of the possibility that the customer wanted to use the paper to promote a business or a cause on the basis of something that had appeared in that issue. To allow such use, would cast the paper’s credibility into question.
Pick any random news organization’s code of ethics created in any random year, and you will find encapsulated in it the history of media abuses in some prior period. Media ethics are reactive. We react not only to our own sins but to those of the people we cover. The first effort of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to write a code came in 1923 while the Teapot Dome Scandal was starting to bubble in the administration of Warren G. Harding. The second wave of interest in media ethics followed the Watergate affair.
Media ethics (Slide 3) have followed the tradition of the rule makers like Immanuel Kant more than the outcome-oriented philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham. That’s because news people have to make decisions under deadline pressure, and we don’t always have time to think through all the consequences of our actions. So we just grab a rule, apply it, and go. Our categorical imperative was stated best by my late colleague, Gene Miller of the Miami Herald. “Publish, publish, always publish,” he liked to say. Or as our publisher, John S. Knight, put it: “Get the truth and print it.”
The subtext, of course, was, “And let the chips fall where they may.” That emphasizes the nonconsequentialist character of journalism ethics – the rule is more important than its consequences.
The Society of Professional Journalists has a more detailed set of rules, and it revises them every decade or two. Its guidance elaborates on Jack Knight’s rule and adds three more broad categories. Each can be summed in two words: Minimize harm. Act Independently. Be accountable. But unlike many professional associations in other fields, SPJ does not have a formal enforcement mechanism for its code. However, the accountability section of the code requires members to expose the unethical practices of their peers. And SPJ officers do, from time to time, invite public attention to some of the more egregious violations of the code. This strategy is in keeping with John Milton’s idea of the healing power of information. (Slide 4)
But does John Milton need revising in the Information Age? Let truth and falsehood grapple, he said. “Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
Mark Twain had a more cynical view. “A lie,” he said, “can travel halfway around the world while truth is putting on its shoes.”
Twain and Milton are not necessarily in conflict. Truth will eventually don its running shoes, catch up, and overcome the lie. But that’s in the long term. We have to live in the short term. And, in managing our day-to-day lives, we need some critical thinking and short-term strategies to sort enduring truth from the ephemeral lies. I can think of one rule — I think of it as a moral rule — that has emerged from this situation: beware of information that neither you, nor someone you trust, has verified. This rule underlies a nice slogan that I heard recently. In research, you can make Wikipedia your first stop, but never make it your last stop.
While working on a memoir about my newspaper career, I went to Wikipedia to check the date of a story in which I had participated, the 1967 race riot in Detroit. I found a long, detailed article on the riot, but, toward the end there was an egregious error. The piece cited two opinion surveys in the riot area that tried to determine its underlying causes, and it attributed both of them to the afternoon paper, the Detroit News.
(Slide 5) What? I directed and wrote both of those surveys, and I was working for the morning paper, the Detroit Free Press. Indeed, those surveys contributed to the Pulitzer board’s decision to award the 1968 prize for local general reporting to the staff of the Free Press. And Wikipedia gives the credit to the Detroit News?
The Wikipedia article cited a source, a book that I had not seen before, “Violence in the Model City,” by Sidney Fine. I checked it out and found that Fine was not the source of the error. He gave full and fair credit for the surveys to the Free Press. Then I logged on to Wikipedia, and corrected the Detroit riot article. I am happy to have the ability to do that, to give truth my little boost, but I am uncomfortable with such a casual, even random, method of making truth victorious. And I worry about the source of the error. Was it careless or was it malicious? Where is the accountability?
Now here’s a research idea for you! Why not try to quantify the accuracy of Wikipedia? Use a methodology similar to that employed by Scott Maier in evaluating newspapers. I would especially like to know how accuracy in Wikipedia correlates with time. In theory, the longer an article has been posted, the more opportunities there will have been to correct errors. On the other hand, if malice is persistent, liars will have more time to overpower truth, and the correlation could run the other way.
Truth telling seems like such a simple rule, yet we still manage to complicate it. When information was dispensed on a 24-hour cycle, newspapers could print corrections, and the original errors would remain in the archive along with the corrections. I can remember a time when I was young Miami Herald reporter, reading a copy of the Sunday paper just off the press. I found that I had made an embarrassing error in a local person’s name. I immediately called that person to apologize before he could spot the error on his own. And I wished that I had an invisible rubber band attached to all those papers in their delivery trucks and front yards that would enable me to snap them back with the touch of a button.
Today, the Internet gives us that button, but some feel constrained from using it. Some bloggers consider it immoral to withdraw an error because it would mean covering up their mistakes. They are willing to admit the mistake. But fixing it would be a coverup. Here, I think we need to consider a shift from rule ethics to thinking about the consequences of our actions.
Let me explain with another personal example. I spoke at a meeting of newspaper editors and later was quoted by one of them in his blog. The quote was accurate, but the editor identified me as “Dr. Meyer.” I am not any kind of a “Dr.” I have never earned nor sought a PhD. One of the surest ways to ruin an academic’s career is to catch him falsifying his credentials. That’s why, for my own protection, I have to vigorously and instantly correct anyone and everyone who calls me “Dr.” So I sent the editor an email advising him of his mistake.
All he had to do was open his blog, edit his otherwise good comments and erase the offending title. But he didn’t. Instead he left it there to preserve the record of his error. Then he appended a note at the bottom of his essay:
“Updated correction: Meyer is not a doctor.”
Do you see the effect? It sounds like I was inflating my credentials, and he caught me at it!
Surely the first step in helping truth overtake a lie is to remove the lie from the record. The compulsion to preserve errors reminds me of those drivers involved in fender-benders who refuse to get their vehicles off the road until the police come. Is their wreck so precious that they want it bronzed – like baby shoes? But clearing the road for traffic should be more important. In my state, we have signs on the freeway that say, “Fender bender? Remove vehicles from roadway.” That ought to be the code for Web corrections. Just get the wreckage out of the way.
We need a way to keep order amid all the chaos of free-floating information. When news was produced and distributed by large and profitable institutions such as newspapers, wire services, and broadcasting companies, those organizations provided the order. Their reputations – and their profitability – depended on earning trust. And to earn trust, you have to tell the truth.
But let’s take a look (Slide 6) at the history of trust in “the press.” Here’s a chart based on a periodic measurement by the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center. The vertical scale shows the percent of adults who report having “a great deal of confidence in the press.” Its high point came in 1976 when 29 percent expressed that high level of confidence, and then it started to fall. There was a bit of leveling off in the 1980s. Then in the early 1990s, it settled into a consistent year-to-year report of around 10 percent. I think I know what happened.
In the 1980s, newspaper owners knew that readership was falling. But all of their revenue streams were still strong, and so they invested in product improvement. The decline in confidence was stopped in its tracks. And we got a parallel leveling in readership. Then we hit the 1990s. I am sure you will recognize 1990 as the year that Tim Berners-Lee decided to call the thing he was inventing “The World-Wide Web.” The newspaper monopoly over local advertising was breaking, and publishers responded to reduced revenues with reduced product quality. Readership and confidence resumed their downward march.
Why did confidence stabilize at 10 percent? There is a certain amount of measurement error in every survey plus a hard core of credulous readers who will believe everything they read. That steady 10 percent looks a lot like background noise.
The solution to the confidence problem — if there is a solution in the Internet age — will have to come more from unaffiliated individuals and less by powerful institutions. But how will we keep track of all those citizen journalists and bloggers. How will we know whom to trust?
Reputation is still important. And journalism by lonely pamphleteers never did disappear. Myra McPherson recently published a biography of Izzy Stone, who used to drop by for occasional visits with my boss, Edwin A. Lahey, when I was in the Washington for Knight Newspapers. (Slide 7) “I. F. Stone’s Weekly” was a four-sheet compendium of paper-trail investigative reporting that he published from 1953 to 1971. He did not use anonymous sources nor unsupported speculation, but based his work on public records that could be verified. He was the first journalist to challenge President Johnson’s claim about the Tonkin Gulf incident that was used to justify expansion of the war in Vietnam. Stone’s habit of truth-telling made his work respected and attended to.
Today, the blogosphere is already shaping itself – through a process of natural selection — into a reputational hierarchy based on truth telling. But building a reputation takes time. Stone started from pretty far back. He was blacklisted in the McCarthy years, and he built his reputation from there. Isn’t there some way we could use the power of the Web to speed up the process of recognizing truth tellers?
Yes there is. But, for some reason, it is controversial. Citizen journalists, those participants in our national, Web-based conversation, need to organize themselves in ways that would enhance the discipline of the marketplace by making their virtue – or lack of it – more visible. In other words, truth needs some branding.
Without such a system, we’ll all be pulled toward reports slanted by people whose views we share, and that leaves less room for deliberation and consensus building. The function of news in a democracy should not be to reinforce attitudes we already have but to help us understand the views of others and come to some kind of accommodation. Whether the Web makes this goal easy or difficult depends entirely on how we organize it.
So how do we brand truth? Voluntary professional associations could do it by attesting to the competence and morality of their members. Another word for such testimony is certification. Traditional journalists recoil at the idea of certification, as though it violated their First Amendment rights. They forget that journalism schools have been awarding certificates of competence, i.e. bachelor’s degrees, for more than a hundred years. And this form of certification is widely accepted by industry. A survey in 2005 found that 85 percent of new hires at newspapers and 92 percent of those in television news departments, held journalism degrees. Patch Media, a fast-growing web-based local news operation, is hiring editors, and it is advertising for journalism graduates.
There are lesser degrees of certification, of course. A student here at Oregon who receives a passing grade in news writing is certified – at whatever level of competence the grade signifies.
He was right. And with anyone free to practice journalism, we need to find more ways to brand those who do it professionally. There are some tentative attempts. (Slide 8) One of the best is a program at Columbia University. It offers online training to high school students to qualify them for participation in Pearl World Youth News, an international news service for secondary schools honoring Daniel Pearl, the martyred journalist.
MinnPost.com, an online newspaper run by the former publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune requires its citizen journalists to read and sign the SPJ code of ethics. Thus it can attest that its writers know and accept that code.
The need for certification programs is most obvious within journalistic specialties. Some newspaper copy editors have talked about creating a “master copy editor” designation. It should be possible to devise a qualifying test that would evaluate spelling, grammar, and mathematical competence and critical thinking. Precision journalism and computer-assisted reporting, are specialized fields where certification would help those with professional-level skills identify themselves. The American Medical Writers Association already offers training and certificates for medical journalists. As the Web enables more intense specialization within journalism, the demand for specialized certification programs will increase.
Certification ideally would also attest to a commitment to some specific code of ethics. When I taught the ethics course at Chapel Hill, students were often surprised to learn that there was more to the topic than memorizing list of rules. The rules are often in conflict. (Slide 9) In the movie “Absence of Malice,” the Sally Field character tells her editor, “I know how to tell the truth, and I know how not to hurt someone. But I don’t know how to do both at the same time.”
The minimize-harm rule of SPJ can refer to harm to individuals or harm to society. We should be especially worried about the latter. The Internet facilities the creation and distribution of specialized information so seductively that we are all drawn to news sources that pander to our existing world views. I believe that this trend is very dangerous for democracy.
There is a German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, who is just about my age, (Slide 10) who has proposed an ethical system that is different from both the rule makers and the consequentialists. He calls it “discourse ethics.”
He would define morality by what two reasonable people in earnest conversation, with different and conflicting interests, but each sincerely trying to understand the other’s point of view, would ultimately decide.
This is reciprocity. It means, “I’ll try to understand you, because I expect you to try to understand me.” But in public debate today, each side is more interested in getting its sound bite into the public domain than it is in understanding the other sides. And the news media encourage this narrow focus because it is a cheap way to generate content – and a cheap way to build audience loyalty.
In the decade of the 1990s, there was much interest in Habermas because of something called “public journalism.” (Slide 11) Its goal was to report the news in a way that would encourage deliberation. It used polls and public meetings to try to replicate on a large scale the kind of interaction that takes place in a New England town meeting. You attend not just to express your own views, but to understand your neighbors as well. The movement was encouraged by newspaper managers, but resisted in newsrooms where reporters suspected business-side interference. They called it “boosterism.” Newspapers, as well as the new media, should revisit the concept of public journalism. It could be a corrective to the current narrowing of our public communication channels.
The SPJ code also admonishes us to act independently. The Internet has been a great boon to the public relations business because the surplus of information creates a need to simplify, and the demand for simplification can be met by spin.
The legacy media have fairly clear rules that either bar conflict of interest or neutralize it through disclosure. It is important for us, the public, to know who is talking to us. But the surplus of content makes it harder for us to process, particularly where technical information is involved.
Gary Langer of ABC News, (Slide 12) who writes a highly respected blog on public opinion says that falsehood tends to flourish in an information-overloaded environment. “Polling, he says, “is the new PR; we swim in a sea of junk data, produced not to measure attitudes or behavior accurately, but to promote a product, project or point of view — validity and reliability be damned.”
How can a neutral member of the public tell the difference between an advocate and an objective observer in the blogosphere? Not so easily.
But the fourth prescription of SPJ, be accountable, can help if we will expand it to meet the needs of the information age. Accountability is one of the hallmarks of a profession. A professional society can require its members to account for their behavior. Exhortation, just saying, “Be accountable,” is not enough. The journalists of the future will have to organize themselves into professional associations that will have formal procedures for receiving complaints, conducting investigations, and providing accountability on a case-by-case basis.
I’m not sure how urgent such action is at this particular moment. But we are moving toward a moment of urgency. I see the ability of bad information to obscure the good, our impatience with the ability of Mark Twain’s slower truth to overtake John Milton’s weaker falsehood, leading to a clear and present danger that will motivate reform.
My warning to young journalists is that they should not count on the large and powerful news organizations of the past to continue to provide this service. These organizations will survive in some, smaller more specialized form. But their ability to define what is normal and what is professional is already being weakened. The new moral framework will have to spring from the ground up. All I ask of you today is that you start thinking about this moral burden that journalists of your generation will have to bear. Thank you for listening.