Academics who have worked in news media often restrain themselves when corporate representatives, including ones on accrediting panels, speak about increases in plagiarism or decreases in diversity as the primary ethical concerns in journalism and mass communication.
These are concerns, to be sure, and I take them seriously in my role as director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. But bottom-line corporate practices that eliminate fact-checking, paid internships and adequate newsroom personnel-while promoting technological shortcuts that improve "productivity"-also are factors in many ills, including plagiarism and diversity, which the industry can address by reinvesting in newsrooms.
By their silence, journalism administrators may be accomplices in questionable practices. Criticism of industry was once our collective responsibility. In the '70s and '80s heads of journalism programs routinely challenged professional counterparts on such issues as bias during the civil rights movement, prejudice against women in the newsroom and coverage of AIDS. This is one of the often-unsung functions of the academy with respect to professional schools. They are not merely vocational institutions teaching complex technical practice. Increasingly, however, that seems to be our role because too many journalism administrators are relying on media conglomerates to help fund operations, especially since legislatures have cut our budgets. Some of us seem to be oblivious about the tradition of educators' holding media accountable, when their policies and practices serve to undermine the Fourth Estate, or its function as a watchdog over government.
This year I have written a series of reports about corporate practices forthcoming in such publications as Quill and the Chronicle of Higher Education. In a recent book, Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford, 2005), I have documented how each new technological invention and innovation since the 19th Century has removed reporters farther from the communities that they are supposed to cover. That phenomenon alone has created a host of ethical issues.
In this piece, however, my objective is to challenge readers, especially journalism school or department heads, to address in future issues of MEDIA ETHICS what I consider to be some of the most ignored ethical issues in corporate journalism. You can find plenty of data, pro or con, by accessing "State of the News Media 2004" report, available at http://www.stateofthenewsmedia.org.
The "State of the News Media 2004" report says that, between 1991 and 2000, newspaper profits rose 207 percent while increases in newsroom personnel were only about 3 percent (largely eliminated during the 2001 downturn). Ethical issue: How do journalism schools uphold our centuries-old tradition of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted when the comfortable own the media?
U.S. newspapers have about 2,200 fewer newsroom employees today than in 1990, according to the "State of the Media" report, which also notes that the number of network correspondents has been reduced by a third with a 30 percent increase in work load since the 1980s. Worse, reporters are being asked to do work that used to be done in the composing room or the control booth. Ethical issue: What is the consequence of downsizing the number of reporters in a republic based on the premise that truth, not profit, should rise to the top?
The focus on profit-taking and the downsizing of newsrooms has resulted in a flood of opinion that is more easily produced than fact-based journalism. Editorializing now seems customary at major outlets, especially network and cable television, with "balanced stories" containing polar but generally unauthenticated viewpoints. Ethical issue: Is expression of opinion condoned because it is cheaper than gathering of fact and, if so, is it also profitable because it can be aligned with a target market according to lifestyle or demographic statistics?
Mega-corporations like Viacom, whose annual $26 billion in revenues is greater than the gross domestic income of many countries, continue to offer our most talented students internships without pay, especially in broadcasting. As a result, students often take out additional loans to take advantage of earned opportunities. Ethical issue: Why are journalism programs condoning this practice, which seems to instill in future employees a fiscal rather than journalistic lesson?
Reporters do much of their work sitting down perched in front of computers instead of sources. Granted, some stories researched online produce startling results, depending on the savvy of the journalist. However, "crutch technology" occurs when reporters remain leashed to the computer cord. Often they are discouraged (or even prohibited) from attending seminars or leaving the newsroom to dig for information or travel to interview sources face-to-face. Instead they are expected to take shortcuts e-mailing interviews and googling facts to produce several stories per day. Ethical issue: What is the impact on investigative reporting when journalists are confined to cubicles rather than being allowed out on the street, discovering cover-ups merely by monitoring beats?
The new editor of Insights, published by the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, is seeking manuscripts and ideas are being sought about convergence issues. "How do you successfully teach students about it and assure they have practical experiences with it," he asks, "especially if the department or school does not have the facilities? What does an effective convergence curriculum look like? Where are the successful models, in relatively affluent schools and in those with more modest resources? What sets them apart? How, if at all, can this be done within accreditation guidelines?" Ethical issue: Why are our concerns associated with implementation when our focus should be on moral rather than technological convergence?
When the audience is drowning in opinion, then what do opinion pages become? Web journals compete with opinion pages by emphasizing instant feedback, often without much research or insight, undermining the op-ed standard of "think before you speak." Opinion pages, once the conscience of the metro newspapers, contend with blogs by offering ersatz analysis of front page stories. Ethical issue: What happens to an informed electorate when the op-ed pages no longer advocate for a cause-but provoke for a response?
There are other ethical issues, to be sure, which journalism administrators and educators ought to be monitoring. The penultimate one may be: Should we be training our students for the media that once existed, concerned about constitutional rights, or for the media that now exist, concerned about profit?
A paramount issue may concern the synergy of journalism education and professional media. Free speech is meaningless without education. Education is meaningless without free speech. Together journalism educators and professional practitioners are responsible for an informed, enlightened electorate. Universities have upgraded technology and downsized the full-time professoriate too, dedicating billions of dollars to information technology (used in part to download music and file share in residence halls) and further eroding what the citizen needs: more objective analysis, from which wisdom may result.
Without an informed and educated electorate, do we get the governments that we deserve?
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 4,20.