If there's a word that has a red flag attached to it during the teaching of media ethics, that word is presuppose.
When journalists become professors, they of course draw on their professional experience to teach the next generation. "Giving something back to the profession," we call it. However, with each new generation-X, Y, Z or whatever hard-drive letter we assign-presupposing becomes more dangerous.
For example, in a recent capstone course for seniors-misnamed "senior seminar" because there were 31 seniors in it-students were shown clips from George Bush-John Kerry "debate" no. 2 in St. Louis. That was the one where the organizers and candidates agreed on what sort of passed for a town hall forum.
There were some specific points argued that students were asked to exercise news judgment on. Who had the best answers on Iraq? Kerry or Bush? And about taxation? Abortion? Executive judgment? Students were asked to evaluate and determine who won each point. Presumably, because the instructor presupposed these students had the same basic ethical footings that he brought into his professional career decades earlier. Without question, some did, but shockingly-or maybe not so shockingly because the instructor presupposed-others said they could not ignore their personal views of the candidates. Independent judgment was impossible, some said in questionnaires about each subject, because they had political biases and there was no way they could ignore them.
Wow! What have we come to in journalism education? For one thing, an instructor presupposed that in a journalism school where we take pride in inserting ethics into every course we teach, students would park their politics at the door and apply the venerable principle of fairness that had been pounded into them for four years, beginning in Journalism 100.
What has gone wrong? Have generations changed? Have the media changed, such as the laughable but tragic hijacking of the term "fair and balanced" by a Fox News Channel that is obviously not? These seniors during their college careers have participated in bitter discussions about fairness. They've been taught that objectivity, as the late David Brinkley said, is impossible to achieve because if it were all reporters would be vegetables because all come at this most challenging profession with life experience. That life experience presupposes some kind of attitude about politics, but it does not mean reporters can't be fair when covering a candidate whose views they don't like-or, of course, any other story at all.
Grizzled professors who used to be journalists presuppose that their students will look at the issue as simply as they did. You can travel with a candidate, get to know him or her, or at least feel like you know the candidate because you hear the same stump speech in Fresno that was given in Cleveland. You get to know the people who have paused whatever career they're in to work for a candidate. Some may be staking their future on a chance that if he or she wins, a staff job might follow. Others may just want their political idol to win so badly that they don't worry about the future. So you end up making friends with the candidate's worker and maybe the candidate him- or herself. No presupposing there; that path is fraught with all kinds of ethical dangers.
The only presupposition that makes sense is that young journalists need to be taught that their careers presuppose fairness. They also need to understand that their careers don't preempt citizenship. There will be those quiet moments when they can exercise their political beliefs. Whether it's filling out an absentee ballot in the privacy of a hotel room in the midst of a raucous campaign, or early on Election Day at a neighborhood polling place prior to at least an 18-hour day covering the election in which they just voted, journalists do get the chance to be citizens. That's the only place where a journalist may ethically impose his or her political bias.
In recent months journalism students have been hit over the head with New York Times reporters plagiarizing and downright lying, the CBS document fiasco, and most recently Newsweek attaching Martha Stewart's head to a model's body for a cover "illustration." There's a time when stupidity ends and ethics violations begin. Stated in different terms, stupidity often begets ethics offenses. We can't presuppose when big guys in the industry do stuff like this that students will presuppose it's wrong.
Don't ever presuppose.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 8,22.