To everything there is a season. And, so it seems in the cycle of doing ethical analysis of American journalism. Photo manipulation, plagiarism, reporting so shoddy that it makes a scholar wince-all these journalistic sins (and more!) rise to the level of public awareness and outrage over and over again.
With each public spanking, the media miscreants promise that it will never happen again. Until next time. Other news organizations reassure the world that what happened could never happen in their shop. Until it does.
What keeps this critic from becoming a cynic and wondering what good my professional life has been, is that even as the level of practice has, at best, endured, the level of research and teaching in the field of journalism ethics has steadily improved.
* Fifteen years ago, submissions to AEJMC that employed clinical (case study/ethnographic) methodology and those that employed philosophical (conceptual-logical or normative argumentation) methodology were rejected for "lacking research design." Today, the Media Ethics Division of AEJMC is a creative programming force within the association, shepherding and vetting submissions that represent the best of clinical and philosophical methodologies along with research methods that explore ethical issues using more traditional social science means.
* Fifteen years ago, the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics did not exist. This year, its conference will include at least three panels devoted to media ethics, and will peer review a host of paper submissions in the field. The Media Ethics Division is holding its mid-winter meeting in conjunction with the February, 2004 APPE meeting.
* Fifteen years ago, the Journal of Mass Media Ethics was in its infancy, with contributors-and sometimes editors as well-puzzled by what makes a good manuscript. Today, there are a dozen or more journals that publish high quality scholarship in journalism ethics reflecting the spectrum of research methodologies. Literature has improved with books of substantial scholarship supplementing the case-study-based textbooks.
Teaching has improved, with more media ethics faculty having background in moral philosophy, or at least having some coursework in the topic to complement their journalistic education and experience.
But, the cynic might ask, what good is this if practice has not improved? In stark contrast to 15 years ago, we have a solid group (as compared to a handful) of knowledgeable and creative scholars and teachers.
We have what we need to prepare pre-professionals to recognize a conflict of interest or a deceptive act at 20 yards. We have the wisdom in the field necessary so that novice professionals can go into practice knowing that certain acts are just wrong, knowing how to find alternatives between the false dilemma of "print or don't" and, most importantly, knowing to employ their ethics along with their writing and reporting skills when they are on the job. Journalism educators are now preparing journalists who are better than the profession that is going to receive them.
We know what those eager young reporters and photographers and videographers will find when they walk into their first jobs-media managers who settle for mediocre journalism and media owners who will barely pay for even that quality of work; a substitution of entertainment and marketing values for news values throughout the industry; an emphasis on the "perfect quote" and "perfect picture" that changes the practice of outstanding journalism from something that took time and thoughtfulness and well-honed logical skill to flash in the pan, be-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time (or make it appear that you were).
Our well-educated and ethically sensitive young journalists-in-waiting will find themselves in news organizations that see themselves as serving consumers rather than educating citizens.
These problems in the industry cannot be solved by applying systematic moral analysis in the ethics classroom. Our students won't have the answer to the state of the industry in their ethical toolbox. But they can make something even more powerful. If they have been taught by those who take journalism ethics seriously, they will have been empowered by those who see ourselves as change agents. Whether we, as journalism ethics scholars and educators, work to change the current state of practice through editorials and commentaries and columns or through hands-on work in the newsroom or by simply raising the hard questions to practitioners whenever we have the chance, we are models for our students. And, they will go into the field knowing that their job is to question less-than-ideal practice as much as it is to get the facts right.
Fifteen years later, journalism scholars and educators are in the position to change practice, one well-trained graduate at a time.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp.1,3.