East is East and West is West but the twain is slowly beginning to meet. But not yet.


The soft, cooperative, non-competitive, group-oriented Eastern journalism has appeared at the doors to Western journalism. And Western ethical voices are beginning to stress many of the attributes of Eastern media morality. Without a doubt the Western press is standing on the fault line of change.


And, as the communitarians say, it is about time. The theoretical planks of Western media, instituted in the European Enlightenment-individualism, freedom, competition, and pluralism-are still endangering a concern for normative ethics and threatening the survival of remnants of communal concern. Profit-making, not public service, is increasingly the bottom line in Western journalism. Relativism, not absolutism, is the modern mantra. Subjectivism, not objectivism, is becoming the beating heart of Western journalism. Opinion, not facts. Spin, not evidence.


Although Western journalism is mired in free-wheeling, egocentric, individualism largely appealing to the narcissistic, entertainment-oriented, attitudinally illiterate audiences, the basic mindset of the Far East is increasingly injecting itself. Eastern communalism with its cooperative undercurrents is standing at the Western door and knocking-but softly. There is no insistence to be admitted; in fact, it is with humility and shyness that it manifests itself to Western journalists.


The Two Basic Perspectives


Eastern journalism is based on humility, group-concern, politeness, understatement, self-restraint, and a sense of merger with the world. Western journalism is based on self-pride, individualism, bluntness, aggressiveness, and a sense of isolation and alienation.


Eastern journalism is team-oriented, whereas Western journalism is predicated on competition and personal achievement. The ethical parameters of Eastern journalism are set by the journalistic "team," whereas in the West such limits are mainly undefined, except on occasion by a strong-willed executive. The Eastern journalist listens to his companions; the Western journalist talks but does not hear. The Eastern journalist is a team player; the Western journalist is a team star. The Eastern journalist wants to fit in, submerge self, and promote social harmony. The Western journalist wants to stand out, to promote self, and discount the importance of social harmony.


Admittedly, the above are generalizations and there are numerous exceptions in both journalistic stances.


In the West today there are indications that, among the intellectuals at least, there is a tendency to embrace many Eastern values. Communitarians, with their stress on the good of the group and benefits of conversation and compromised positions and the establishment of "community," are a manifestation of Eastern thinking in the West. And in journalism, the so-called public (a/k/a civic) journalists, with their desire to bring more of the public into editorial decisions--in short, to democratize journalism-are breaking with the older Enlightenment free-wheeling mindset.


Western journalism is still a maverick journalism, with individual journalists seeking a higher place in the hierarchical structure, and media giants seeking ever-greater power and profit. By and large, Western media are highly competitive, self-indulgent, profit-oriented, and largely devoid of any serious community responsibility for providing helpful and enlightening information. Sex and crime, reinforced by athletic events and entertainment figures, dominate the news. Diversion, not knowledge, reigns supreme, narcotizing the public and keeping the people happy but unthinking.


The libertarian theory postulates that the marketplace will solve the ethics problem. If the media of the West go too far afield morally, the market will bring them back in line. So much for theory. The people generally don't have the will, the effort, or the desire to drastically change the media. They are accustomed to their daily stimulant or soporific and feel at home with sensation and gloom-and-doom. Western media prompt them to retreat into themselves, isolate them from community behind their walls and fences, and just let the rest of the world go by. But this may be changing.


Coming: Communal Concern?


A more communal concern, a sense of democratic, citizen-involved journalism is evolving. The Eastern values are slowly affecting the West. The rhetoric of media ethics, unimpressive at the moment to be sure, has shifted away from freedom and individualism to a concern for social control and cooperation. Various voices in the recent past have spoken up generally endorsing some type of institutionalized community-determined ethics. The long-popular relative ethics is slowing fading.


Although heavy-handed government control in many countries discourages the development of alternate kinds of civic or communal normative ethics, global reality is beginning to insist that there be an end to individualistic ethics. For such an ethics has not worked. Uncontrolled ethics has not made the media more ethical. Personal ethics have not spread to the media institutions, and public respect for the media is at an all-time low.


This brings up the natural question: So if we need more control-some kind of ethical guru-ism-just what kind of control will it be? Providing the answer to this question is, without a doubt, the principal concern of this century. Coming together. Cooperating. Sharing. Thinking of the good of associates, neighbors, others. The community's interest, not just our personal interests. How do we go about getting such a situation in journalism? How do we in the West take on part of the culture of the East and become members of "teams" instead of individual players?


Negating the Negative


What is needed for the media is a blueprint for the future of the Western media systems, a kind of controlling mechanism that will ensure both freedom and responsibility. Pluralistic, highly competitive, ethics have simply not worked to produce this result. The negative is overpowering the media and needs to be itself negated. But first we should admit that the media-in all countries-are superficial, arrogant, propagandistic, irresponsible, and extremely negative and obviously in need of some kind of disciplined moral and quality control. If we don't accept this premise, then nothing really will change.


The literature of journalism is brimming over with examples of media irresponsibility. Articles and books spare no space in exposing the sins of the media, the arrogance of media bosses, the general loss of credibility found in mass communication around the world, and the danger to national security posed by some newspapers. Seminars, workshops, and lectures spew forth their indictments of a wayward press. Television, probably more than any other medium (with cyberspace running a close second), typifies the vast and dismal deserts of trash, dullness and superficiality that dominates the world's media scene. But no medium is immune.


Free market journalism, some die-hards will say, will correct itself, will regulate itself, will gravitate toward quality and responsibility. It will change pace with the ethical realities and, with a kind of social Darwinism, provide increasingly better fare for the people. But, unfortunately, there is no empirical basis for such a belief. Empiricism shows that the bad news tends to drive out the good news and that superficial spin crowds out thoughtful interpretation. Some excuse this by saying that they are giving people what they want.


People's needs, however, are not the same as people's wants. By and large, what the media give the people is what the media say is what the people want-and not what they need. The media, in many ways, determine what the people see as their world, see as their interests, see as the values of their time. The world is created every day by the media. And it is a very sad, dark, and dangerous world.


And it is a negative or shallow world. A world of tragedy on one hand and a world of entertainment on the other. It is a world inhabited by criminal acts, by disoriented and psychopathic individuals, by dishonest politicians, by drunken and drug-addicted trouble-makers, by sexual perverts, by insensitive paparazzi and other privacy-invading journalists, by an unjust justice system, by acts of violence and terrorism, by unscrupulous national leaders, by arrogant plutocrats, by immoral treatment of the poor, by broken and dysfunctional families, by substandard education, by broken promises, and a whole variety of harmful social practices.


It seems that in Western libertarian journalism the mission of the press is to titillate, not educate, and what we are left with is crass, not class, journalism. Many Western journalists, however, have been bitten by the Eastern communitarian bug and social concern is clashing with the older egoistic proclivity. The Asian emphasis on the group is beginning to permeate the ranks of Western journalism. Not for the first time, of course. Western thinkers, such as Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, have indicted individualism and Enlightenment liberalism, but the pluralists, relativists, and freedom-enthroners have dominated since the Middle Ages, and journalism has evolved into a money-making, competitive game played before an increasingly uncaring population.


The Solution


Let us now turn to the ethical views that tend to result from a new concern with globalization, with the spreading and sharing of ethical values that impinge on the world's moral thinking. This is not simply a media phenomenon, but it is one of building communities, of establishing some commonality in morality-in short, of improving global ethics and quality, including communication ethics. But such an emphasis affects the media and points ethics in a more monolithic direction.If the ideal goal for journalism worldwide is to have media systems that are both free and responsible, it would mean that the press would be free of outside control and at the same time held to high standards by somebody. Who would this "somebody" be?


If the ideal goal for journalism worldwide is to have media systems that are both free and responsible, it would mean that the press would be free of outside control and at the same time held to high standards by somebody. Who would this "somebody" be?


The only answer that seems viable to me is: Change Western journalism into a true profession.


Professionalizing journalism embraces the Eastern value of the group-of cooperation--but in the West it is a touchy subject. It is often seen as a tendency to shut out people from practicing journalism, an attempt to create an elite, exclusive body. And that, for the Western libertarian, is anathema. But, on the other hand a true profession of journalism would assure journalistic freedom and institutional autonomy and at the same time create a structure to insure high quality and morality among the professionals.


The profession would determine its own code of conduct and make its own decisions. Government or any other extra-media source would have no say in the editorial decisions of the professionals. The profession would have ethical principles that were accepted by members and should not be breached. If they were, then those guilty parties would be "de-pressed"-would lose their status as bona-fide journalists.


Not only would journalistic freedom (from outside control) be assured, but internally the unprincipled practitioners could be eliminated. In addition, quality control could be instituted on a professional scale. Membership in the profession could be tightly regulated. Entrance exams and interviews could be conducted by professional committees, and licenses could be issued by the profession itself.


Continuing education could be instituted, sabbatical leaves established, and the professional journalists could be expected to improve constantly in their areas of practice and specialization. Call it authoritarianism if you will. And surely it has seeds of authoritarianism in it. But it is at least authoritarianism by the profession itself. It does lead to an elite body that governs itself and corrects and improves itself. It would instill pride in the journalists, and would create a close-knit, familial group (mirroring Eastern tradition) that develops around the belief that public service, cooperation, and group solidarity is vitally important.


A Profession: A Communal Endeavor Professionalizing journalism would, of course, develop and differ from country to country. But in the West this model is proposed: A person to be member of the Journalism (Media) Profession would be expected to obtain the following credentials and stress (at a minimum) these procedures:

  • Have a university degree (preferably in journalism/communication or related area) provide samples of work; be loyal to the profession; subscribe to a code of professional ethics; participate in continuing education; submit to the profession's requirements; take a qualifying exam; and obtain a certificate or license from the profession.
  • Meritocracy would be a key concept for the professional. Pay and advancement would be expected on the basis of merit alone. The journalist would feel a part of a specially qualified, exclusive group--commonly educated and motivated.
  • The profession would have a way of expelling a person who practices irresponsibly. Or, at least, such a person would be held up as a poor example of a journalist. The profession would have a special board or committee to consider such cases. The profession would also honor those who do outstanding work.
  • A professional code of ethics would be needed. It would be drawn up by members of the profession or their selected representatives and would be ratified by the total membership. Through peer pressure and professional pride it would provide journalists with a common set of work policies and guidelines.
  • Control would exist for the profession of journalism but this is internal control. Every member of the profession would be licensed or certified by the profession. This would usually be after an entrance or qualifying nationwide exam has been passed. A qualifying exam, designed by a special committee of journalists, would need to be passed before the journalist is licensed.
  • Journalism and mass communication have a basic body of knowledge, eclectic in nature to be sure, which every professional journalist should master. Practical techniques, as well as fundamental sociological, psychological, philosophical, and economic information related to communication are especially important for the journalist. Also needed is a study of the history of communication in one's own country, as well as a broad understanding of global media systems, is needed.
  • A professional journalist would be expected to have excellent writing or speaking skills (or both). A love for, and dedication to, language would be essential for the professional journalist, and many people are, by their basic nature, suited to be journalists. And some are not.


Toward Freedom and Responsibility Objectors to the above proposal will point out that (1) professionalizing journalism is unrealistic, either in authoritarian or libertarian countries, and (2) there is no certainty that a centrally controlled journalistic system would be better or more ethical than the present diversified one. Both are good points. A profession would be extremely complex and hard to manage in a libertarian country and would, in an authoritarian country, be externally controlled. And there is no assurance that the ethics of a monolithic profession would not be flawed.


A trend toward professionalizing evidences a concern with freedom, responsibility-and quality. We don't have any good example to prove this statement because no such professionalized press system has ever existed. But it is a common-sense premise. A profession would emulate East Asian values in that it would enthrone social "teamwork," and would discourage eccentric and individualistic manifestations by journalists. Although Far Eastern countries could have professions of the type mentioned above, it would not be as necessary. Their whole cultures are essentially "professions"-associations created by their traditions and culture. Or, as in the case of Japan, they have sub-cultural "teams" or collective organizations-"journalist clubs"-which take on many of the functions of a profession.


A recipe for better journalism is what is being proposed here. Admittedly it is, in its broad concept, not new. Much talk is heard about "professional" journalism, but the core meaning of such a term is never really explored, nor is there a serious resolve to professionalize journalism. I believe it can not be done if government is in any way involved.


So what we have are media systems around the world either without authority or moral foundations and usually without autonomy and freedom. They are thrashing about, doing this and that, wallowing in relativistic bogs or stymied by authoritarian regimes.


Libertarian journalism has abdicated its roots of news and news-analysis and has turned into narcotizing entertainment and superficiality. Its mission: To have big audiences and make maximum profit instead of advancing toward ever more quality in news and analysis. It has largely adopted Machiavellian public ethics and retreated from humanistic ethics. Worldwide, it is in danger of becoming either a government bulletin board or an advertising platform replete with entertainment to make it acceptable.


Professionalizing journalism may not be the only answer to this press stagnation, but it is at least worth trying. Obviously it cannot succeed today in the highly controlled and regimented nations, but it could find fertile ground in the world spawned by Enlightenment liberalism. The concept of "professional journalism," at present only a glib and meaningless clich could, if really tried, bring to the present craft a status, a quality, and sustained freedom from government that would rescue it from elite management and spread its base of policy-making.


John Merrill wrote this paper in 2006 while a visiting professor at Northwestern State University of Louisiana, Natchitoches, where he held the Erbon and Marie Wise Chair in Journalism. He is a professor emeritus in the University of Missouri-Columbia. Merrill has taught and lectured extensively in the Far East. His e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.5,27-29.