The problem of ethics in journalism, we want to argue, is not the inability of journalists to know right from wrong but their inability to talk articulately and reflectively about it. The challenge of ethics in journalism is not, then, to facilitate the discovery of moral laws that yield ethical truths, for being ethical requires neither a knowledge of abstract principles nor a familiarity with arcane theories of morality. Rather, being ethical requires the facility to argue articulately and deliberate thoughtfully about moral dilemmas, which in the end means being able to justify, publicly and compellingly, their resolution. In journalism and elsewhere, the aim of ethics is, in a word, accountability.
Our being-ethical-means-being-accountable theme emphasizes ethics as a process, not an outcome; an argument, not a choice. Ethics in this tradition views disputes and disagreements as an opportunity for a public discussion open to everyone affected by what the press does; it thus expects from journalists a commitment to respond, openly and candidly, to any serious question about what they do and why they do it. Above all else, ethics understood this way depends on the competence to communicate in a way that makes clear how judgments inform choices and how principles inform judgments; it depends, therefore, on eloquence among journalists commensurate with the eloquence of their most worthy critics.
Our conception of ethics draws from, but is not entirely wedded to, the model of discourse ethics developed in recent years by Jürgen Habermas. Like Habermas, we offer a neo-Kantian approach to ethics that embraces Kant's emphasis on the importance of procedure but rejects Kant's mode of justification, which can be fairly termed monologic. With Habermas and others who view ethics as a fundamentally social phenomenon, we endorse a mode of justification that is essentially dialogic.
Our conception of ethics also takes seriously Kant's passing reference to the viability of common sense as a source of ethical knowledge: There is "no need of science or philosophy," Kant wrote in recognition of the power of "ordinary practical" reason, "for knowing what man has to do in order to be honest and good, and indeed to be wise and virtuous." But it is principally Clifford Geertz and Hans-Georg Gadamer, not Kant, to whom we turn for a culturally and philosophically rich appreciation of that system of thought that so often gets dismissed, unthinkingly and uncharitably, as mere common sense. Specifically, we turn to Geertz for a sense of the logic of common sense as a distinct and distinctively valuable form of knowledge; and we enlist Gadamer for a model of moral knowledge that honors, rather than discounts, the decisively important role common sense plays in "seeing" what is right. Taken together, Geertz and Gadamer provide a comprehensive and arguably compelling framework for understanding what the ideal of eloquence (which we define as an opportunity to extract principles from practice) implies for a model of journalism ethics intended to meet Alvin Gouldner's simple but demanding test of accountability: "To be 'accountable' means that one can be constrained to reveal what one has done and why one has done it; thus, the action and the reasons for it are open to a critique by strangers who have few inhibitions about demanding justification and reasonable grounds."
Common Sense and Ethical Knowledge
Common sense refers to the kind of instrumental "know-how" acquired through experience, a type of competence developed through coping with everyday problems; it implies a learned and considered judgment, a decidedly pragmatic response to the world aimed at succeeding-or at least surviving-in it. Common sense implies not only the ability to act but the ability to act in correct or useful ways.
Commonsensical claims always distinguish themselves as local claims-a type of "local knowledge," to cite the title of the book in which Geertz examines the logic of common sense. Moreover, the wisdom common sense conveys exists not only locally but only in action, which is to say that common sense as a form of knowledge does not exist prior to, or independent of, practice. The content of common sense exhibits itself only in concrete situations and under particular circumstances, which is basically Geertz's point when he describes common sense as "unapologetically ad hoc." Our everyday intuitions, it follows, defy the logic of formal, deductive systems of thought; common sense expresses itself phenomenologically, not propositionally.
Gadamer, too, understands common sense as the faculty that combines our "outer senses" into a "judgment about what is given"-a judgment, significantly, mediated through a feeling of community and thus a judgment always mindful of others: Although it expresses itself in individual action, common sense, Gadamer writes, is "a sense that is acquired through living in the community and is determined by its structures and aims"; it is truly a common sense, a shared judgment, an act of wisdom recognized by others as right and proper. Thus, unlike Geertz, who deals broadly and culturally with the characteristic form of common sense, Gadamer focuses on the "moral element" of common sense, where common sense means good sense and where "good" implies a moral calculation based on a practical acquaintance with community norms and mores. As such, common sense serves as a source-often the principal source-of ethical knowledge. That is, ethical knowledge often depends on common sense for both knowledge of what a situation demands from us and a more general knowledge of what others expect us to be. Knowledge of the first kind concerns the recognition of the situation as a "situation of action and hence in light of what is right," Gadamer explains. Knowledge of the second kind amounts to a broad "social sense" of what is widely embraced as good, what Gadamer characterizes as "common sense as public spirit," specifically, that "public spiritedness which contains commonly shared and undisputed assumptions."
Common sense figures prominently in Gadamer's conception of ethical knowledge in recognition of the key role it plays in weaving means and ends, particulars and universals, into "the self-knowledge of moral consciousness." In a dense but provocative discussion, Gadamer makes the point, one he regards as crucial to understanding the nature of ethical knowledge, that neither means nor ends can be known prior to, or independent of, the specific and concrete situation that requires knowledge of them: "Moral knowledge can never be knowable in advance like knowledge that can be taught." In the case of ethical knowledge, paradoxically, we cannot know what is expected of us unless we know what the situation demands of us, but we cannot know what the situation demands of us until we know what is expected of us.
Gadamer confronts this paradox by recognizing common sense not as "a formal capacity, an intellectual faculty to be used," but, with Geertz, as a form of knowledge that "already embraces a sum of judgments and criteria for judgments that determines its content." Common sense, then, accounts for ethical knowledge as it mediates between particulars and universals, between a consideration of means and a consideration of ends-but these cannot be understood as separate and sequential processes. Ethical knowledge is indeed practical and applied but its application, Gadamer cautions, does "not consist of relating some pregiven universal to the particular situation"; its application "is neither a subsequent nor merely an occasional part" of it but rather "codetermines it as a whole from the beginning." This is why Gadamer rejects as "pointless" any distinction between knowledge and experience; and why he claims that ethical knowledge "contains a kind of experience in itself," an experience through which individuals discover themselves in relation to the values of the community in which they live. If, to sum up, no one can know in the abstract what is right to do, because no one can anticipate the particular confluence of conditions that distinguishes one situation from the next, individuals can and do interrogate situations and in the process come to know what is right. And through this process, which repeats itself over and over again as new situations present themselves, individuals can cultivate their capacity for moral reflection and self-knowledge; they can develop and refine their habits of thought such that the practical wisdom of common sense begins to live up to the ideal of phronesis, a form of knowledge that both Aristotle and Gadamer recognize as an intellectual virtue.
Rehabilitating Common Sense
Recognizing common sense as journalists' first and at times principal source of ethical knowledge implies neither an endorsement nor even an acceptance of its claims. On the contrary, any serious account of common sense must acknowledge what Antonio Gramsci once called its "crudely conservative" image of "what is," an epistemology of practice that distinguishes itself as parochial, uncritical, inconsistent, incomplete, and contradictory. As it frames and determines "proper" courses of action, common sense gives guidance, not reasons; it offers ways of dealing with immediate situations, not theories or explanations that might apply beyond the here and now. Common sense, in short, provides plans for conduct that individually and separately make good sense but which collectively amount to little more than what Gramsci described as a "chaotic aggregate of disparate conceptions" of the world at large.
Still, as tempting as it may be to dismiss common sense, doing so would only denigrate, not dislodge, what is in journalism and elsewhere a principal source of everyday knowledge. As compelling as their critiques might be, the works of Gramsci and others do not render common sense irrelevant or even unappealing; they only remind us that common sense by itself lacks the rigor and rationality-the thoughtfulness-that we might prefer to associate with any system of thought. Rather than discounting it or theorizing it away, then, a more appropriate response to common sense would be its rehabilitation.
Habermas' plans for the rehabilitation of common sense begin with two key questions, which set out the nature of his and our challenge:
How can we appropriate na've, everyday ethical knowledge in a critical fashion without at the same time destroying it through theoretical objectification?
How can ethical knowledge become reflective from the perspective of the participants themselves?
Like Gadamer, Habermas takes seriously the "everyday intuitions on which we immediately rely in our moral judgments"; he believes, as does Gadamer, that questions of morality "must be adduced from the perspective of participants if the questions and answers are not robbed of their normative substance and their binding force." Basically, Habermas presupposes a range of evaluative judgments about "something in the world that is more or less good for us" and turns his attention to normative judgments "about what we ought to do"; that is, Habermas takes as a given a community's sense of the good, its value preferences, and turns his attention to how members of that community can justify conduct that raises moral questions. True to theories of ethics that emphasize what is right to do over what is good to achieve, discourse ethics makes no substantive contribution to moral disputes. Discourse ethics instead posits a conception of justification rooted in an open and public debate; it offers a "procedure of decision-making," as Habermas puts it, that "seeks to make room for those involved, who must then find answers on their own to the moral-practical issues that come at them, or are imposed upon them."
The model of decision-making Habermas puts forth calls for a "cooperative process of argumentation," an elaborately defined procedure that facilitates "the exchange and assessment of information, reasons, and terminology." An alternative to theories of ethics that rely on hypothetical resolutions of questions of right and wrong, discourse ethics embraces a deliberative process designed to reach or at least approximate a rationally motivated agreement-a consensus -on the status of norms of action. With a discursive test of the norms or principles that govern action, discourse ethics reframes ethics in the tradition of Kant by defining reason and rationality in social, as opposed to individual, terms.
Discourse ethics demands a particular constellation of conditions for debate and discussion, a set of requirements that account for the particular form of communication- "communicative action" in the parlance of Habermas' work-through which norms can be properly articulated and examined. These conditions include two that, given our purposes, establish the contours of the mode of inquiry on which a discursive test of moral norms depends. First, the requirement of access calls for a fully open and free debate, a forum to which anyone affected by a norm can contribute without regard for credentials or other markers of an individual's status or stature in the community. Access in this context implicates freedom both negatively and positively: By eliminating conditions of coercion and domination, individuals enjoy a freedom from external pressure; and by creating or promoting conditions that affirm or strengthen opportunities for communication, individuals benefit from a freedom to express themselves openly and uninhibitedly.
Second, the requirement of argumentation sets forth certain expectations for a genuinely dialogic exchange of points of view, a model of communication based not on the strategic goals of influence, compliance, and control but on the ideals of reciprocity and mutual understanding. In the tradition of discourse ethics, individuals argue among themselves not to further their own interests but to find shared or general interests. Through consensus or compromise, the reasoned, impartial and therefore rational settlement that discourse ethics invites offers an opportunity to look beyond differences and toward the creation-not merely the identification-of common ground. Through what Habermas calls "reciprocal perspective taking"-or what, alternatively, Gadamer describes as a "sympathetic understanding" of others-discourse ethics promotes a sense of solidarity, a bond based on the establishment of grounds for social cooperation.
The requirements of access and argumentation apply to two analytically distinct forms of discourse-one concerning the justification of norms and the other dealing with their application. Discourses of justification test the validity of general principles; discourses of application shift attention to the appropriateness of particular judgments. But discussions of justification and application do not exist as distinct and separate processes. Just as Gadamer rejects any disjuncture between knowledge and experience, on the grounds that an interrogation of a situation involves a simultaneous consideration of both means and ends, Habermas' discourse ethics rejects the claim that moral norms exist independent of situations that give these norms their moral force.
By bringing together, always in a particular context, a panoply of questions concerning the validity and appropriateness of moral norms, discourses of justification and discourses of application converge on the larger question of the (in)coherence of common sense and the prospects for its rehabilitation. That is, if common sense exists as the "sedimentation," to use Gramsci's apt image, left behind by a community's transformation of certain versions of science, philosophy, art, and so on into "the most widespread conceptions of life and of man," then discourse ethics offers the means for its excavation. By demanding a critique, not merely a recitation, of common sense, discourse ethics calls for what Stuart Hall describes as a "radically historicized" account of the "reservoir of themes and premises" that constitute "the taken-for-granted elements of our political knowledge," a critique that reveals precisely what common sense would otherwise conceal.
Being Ethical, Being Accountable
Although a fair amount of press criticism, some of it very good, appears in books, journals, and other periodicals-and increasingly online-very little of it engages local journalists and their local communities in an open and unconstrained discussion of newsroom norms and their everyday application to the practice of journalism. Editors will now and then report on dilemmas they face or plans they propose, but invariably this material takes the form of a monologue. An occasional letter writer will complain about the form or content of the day's news, but journalists seldom dignify it with a response of their own. A handful of newsrooms employ an ombudsman or readers' representative, but their columns, if they write one at all, rarely question journalism's traditions and assumptions. With very few opportunities to consider thoughtful critiques of their performance and to then respond accordingly, journalists, alas, lack the practice that the practice of public argumentation requires.
Journalists' resistance to criticism, particularly criticism intended to solicit a response from them, vivifies a professional ethos that discounts the value of debating in and with the public about what goes on in and around the newsroom. Perhaps more so in the United States than anywhere else, the prevailing view of independent journalism represents the triumph of autonomy over accountability; and this, in turn, fuels a curious ethic of defiance, such that, as John Peters and Kenneth Cmiel summarized it in their critique of media ethics, "one feels morally justified in the act of refusing to offer a moral justification." In this setting the First Amendment and other guarantees of a free press become not only a shield available to the press to deflect meddlesome agents of the state but a rhetorical device to which journalists can turn to ward off critics who, technically, pose no Constitutional challenge to a free press. Journalists conflate their rights, properly the domain of law, with what is right, properly the domain of ethics, as though the law somehow prescriptively affirms the propriety of conduct not expressly proscribed by it. Through this amalgamation of law and ethics, journalists position themselves as adversaries of accountability in just the way James Carey described: "To raise any ethical question with journalists is to invite the response that the First Amendment is being violated in even considering the issue."
Our "being-ethical-means-being-accountable" theme emphasizes eloquence as a hedge against arrogance and indifference. If a moral philosophy-any moral philosophy- "characteristically presupposes" a sociology, as Alasdair MacIntyre contends, then discourse ethics presupposes a critical sociology, one that takes no claims for granted and which insists instead that every claim gets to be questioned by anyone affected by it. This is a radical idea-at least a radically democratic one-insofar as it locates ethics in the community and not among experts and institutions. Thus, in any of the many forms it might take, discourse ethics guards against self-serving rationalizations and exclusivity in ethics, when journalists, like other professionals, come to believe that they not only monopolize the knowledge and skills needed to do what they do but that they alone can best handle complaints about misconduct within the profession. Significantly, it expands the domain of ethics considerably beyond what journalists and other practitioners have historically preferred: professional codes of ethics and their self-imposed standards of conduct.
Written by and for professionals, codes of ethics normally serve to isolate professions by insulating their members from outside pressure; they protect professionals by letting practitioners decide for themselves and by themselves what matters in the realm of ethics. Codes circumvent accountability to the extent that they establish a priori a profession's norms of conduct. Unless these norms (and their application) are themselves open to question and unless practitioners agree to respond to questions that go beyond what codes cover, accountability amounts to little more than a debate over whether practitioners have met their own standards of practice. While codes often invoke, as a source of their legitimacy, "the public" or "the public interest," in fact the public seldom plays any meaningful role in a code's creation, application, or revision. The interests of the public end up being considered only as they happen to coincide with the interests of the profession.
Discourse ethics does not, however, reject codes of ethics. It rather repositions them by redefining their role. Especially during their early stages of development, codes can serve the useful purpose of bringing practitioners together to examine professional norms and to delimit the circumstances of their application. This becomes an obviously important opportunity for practitioners to begin the process of articulating and justifying standards of conduct for the profession, an opportunity that ought to be recreated often enough to accommodate new generations of practitioners and new ways of thinking about professional practice. But sooner or later these discussions, particularly as they take on disputed claims and questionable conduct, need to feed into successively larger discussions until, finally, everyone-not just professionals -has had an opportunity to participate in a fully public (re)consideration of professional norms. Codes of ethics enter these larger discussions, as do the points of view of other institutions and individuals, not as moral authorities but as, at their best, exemplars of eloquence.
Eloquence supersedes authority in the sense that discourse ethics honors what is being said and how well it is said-not who is saying it. Neither the views of the press nor the state nor the church nor even the great philosophers of our time enjoy a special standing in a discursive test of the validity and appropriateness of moral norms. Discourse ethics values all of these but privileges none of them. What finally matters-all that matters-is what Habermas calls the "unforced force of the better argument."
The better argument prevails as it resonates with the larger community and when in the end it wins the assent of everyone affected by it. Not to be confused with the so-called "rational choice" that individuals might make as they calculate the consequences of supporting one argument or another, winning assent does not imply a contest among competing arguments. Rather, assent comes from, to recycle some of Habermas' language, a "rationally motivated agreement" that an argument is "equally good for everyone," which reminds us that discourse ethics does not involve a marketplace process which aggregates individual interests but a deliberative process which brings into existence common or shared interests. The better argument, which gains its authority through debate and discussion, emerges over time and evolves in response to other arguments, counter-arguments, questions, suggestions, objections, and so on.
The process through which the better argument develops depends on a certain quality of debate and a corresponding competence to argue in ways that sustain it. What Gadamer refers to as the ability to "talk well" and what we prefer to call "eloquence," the competence to argue effectively amounts to a capacity to argue with an appreciation for, if not always a deference to, the interests of others. Eloquence exhibits itself in arguments aimed at reaching, often later rather than sooner, a broad and enduring consensus, which is to say that eloquence moves the discussion beyond individual self-interest and into the domain of generalizable interests. Indirectly, then, eloquence also manifests itself in the patience that discourse ethics often demands, a patience associated with a process that works continually and cumulatively until an agreement can be reached, however long that might take-and a process that opens up again when someone dislodges an agreement by objecting, eloquently, to it.
The model of press accountability we have outlined here does not provide answers to questions of ethics; it offers only the means to find them. Rather than dealing substantively with the distinction between ethical and unethical practice, discourse ethics focuses on the practice of being ethical. Abstract in its presentation and utopian in its goals, Habermas' discursive test of moral norms steers clear of any blueprint for conduct and proffers instead a regulative ideal to which journalists can turn to gauge the seriousness of their commitment to accountability. Even when this process of public justification fails to reach a consensus, the process itself can aid in the development of reflective practitioners and thereby improve the quality of journalism: If the large and lasting issues of ethics in journalism cannot be resolved, they can be, to use Carey's benchmark, "dissolved into a new set of practices, a new way of conceiving what journalism is and how we ought to go about it."
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This article is excerpted from "Ethics and Eloquence in Journalism: An Approach to Press Accountability," JOURNALISM STUDIES, 9 (August 2008), pp. 512-534; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Taylor & Francis Ltd, http://www.informaworld.com.
Glasser is a professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University; Ettema is a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University.