New journalism ethics?

Is journalism moving toward a new set of ethics? A new book of essays from the Poynter journalism institute is drawing a lot of attention in journalism circles. The book was edited by Poynter ethics specialist Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. It argues that the fundamentals of journalistic ethics are moving from truth, independence and “do no harm” to a new hierarchy: truth, transparency and interaction with the community.

The book holds that journalism doesn’t necessarily have to be independent of any political or social point of view. It can equally well come from some viewpoint, so long as the journalist is transparent about what his perspective is. The book’s concept of community interaction incorporates the idea of “do no harm” but goes well beyond that — to a real synergy between journalists and the people who consume news.

The book and other new views of journalism were the subject of a forum last night at the Ford Foundation in New York (tweeted in detail by those attending, under the hashtag #newethics).

Carrying the flag for AP were Senior Managing Editor Mike Oreskes and myself.

Mike said transparency is an important value, but is not a substitute for independence. Disclosing connections, conflicts or partisan affiliations is important for journalists who have them. But in a world inundated with information of various levels of credibility, he said, it’s more important than ever that at least some of our journalism be thoroughly independent

There was a lot of talk about truth and how it is harder to find in the cacophony of different voices on the Internet. Mike urged that we separate the words “fact” and “truth.” Much of the day-to-day work of journalism is establishing and verifying fact.

Clay Shirky, a New York University professor and author of an essay in the book, argued that the easier a fact is to establish the less important it is. Mike dissented, citing “the president is dead.” It is either fact or not. And surely important.

But Mike agreed that larger truth involves complicated subjects that can require a great deal of knowledge and expertise. He mentioned climate change. There are weather stations around the world that have recorded increases in temperature over the years, he said. Those measurements are facts. But it is the judgment of scientists that this warming is a global trend probably caused by carbon use. Journalists, Mike said, need to be clear about the distinction.

As AP standards editor, I said the AP is already doing many of the things the book recommends. We’re transparent about where we’re coming from: we strive to present an objective view of world rather than serve a specific point of view. We publicly correct our mistakes. We work to be open to the communities we serve, especially through the hundreds of AP staffers who interact with AP’s readers and viewers on social networks.

Many aspects of journalistic ethics will continue to evolve. But fairness and accuracy are bedrock principles we expect to stand on for a long time.

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About Tom Kent

Deputy managing editor and standards editor of The Associated Press, responsible for accuracy and balance across all AP news services. Frequent contributor to forums and conferences on newsroom ethics and organization. Adjunct professor at the School of International Affairs and Journalism School of Columbia University. Former AP correspondent or bureau chief in Russia, Iran, Belgium, Australia and the United States. Graduate of Yale University. Languages: French, Russian, Spanish. @tjrkent