from The Handbook of Global Communication and Media Ethics, First Edition. Edited by Robert S. Fortner and P. Mark Fackler
We are in the middle of the fifth revolution in journalism ethics since modern journalism began in the seventeenth century.1 The changes are prompted by a broader media revolution where new forms of communication transform societies and create a media-linked global world.
The new global media ecology is a chaotic landscape evolving at a furious pace. Professional journalists share the journalistic sphere with tweeters, bloggers, citizen journalists, and social media users around the world. The future of professional journalism in various forms, such as investigative journalism at newspapers, is cast in doubt as audiences migrate online and newsroom budgets shrink. Much has been written on how new media expands our idea of who is a journalist, while generating controversial practices (Friend and Singer, 2007). This democratization” of journalism – the spread of publishing technology among citizens – occurs as journalism acquires global reach and impact.
Ultimately, these changes challenge the foundations of journalism ethics. The intersection of the amateur and the professional in journalism creates both communication possibilities and ethical debates. Time-honored principles such as objectivity are questioned. Journalists adopt new descriptions of themselves, as “sherpas” guiding readers through the information maze, as global “aggregators” of bloggers and web sites, as facilitators of online dialogue. All work to the relentless demands of a 24-hour news clock.
A multimedia, global journalism creates a tension among values on two levels. The first level is due to online journalism. The culture of traditional journalism, with its values of accuracy, prepublication verification, balance, impartiality, and professional gate-keeping, rubs up against the culture of online journalism which emphasizes immediacy, transparency, partiality, nonprofessional journalists and postpublication correction.
The second level is due to the emergence of a journalism that is global in reach. If journalism has global impact, what are its global responsibilities? The result is a tension between local and global values, patriotic journalism and a more global approach to reporting (Ward and Wasserman, 2008).
Journalism ethics must do more than point out these tensions and describe the trends. It must develop a new and coherent approach to this tangle of values and issues. It must develop guidelines for problem areas, such as the pressure to report rumors online. Nothing less than a philosophical rethinking of journalism ethics from the ground up will do. As I will argue, we need to construct a multimedia, global journalism ethics.
The aim of this chapter is to explain the idea of a multimedia, global journalism ethics and to propose what I call “multidimensional objectivity” as one of its principles. I begin by describing three features that should characterize this new ethics: ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism, and a commitment to “public-guided” ethics.
I then argue that a global journalism should embrace multidimensional objectivity since it is better suited to a multimedia, global journalism than earlier notions of journalism objectivity. Multidimensional objectivity is my updated conception of pragmatic objectivity, which I introduced in The Invention of Journalism Ethics (Ward, 2005a).
In describing a new ethics, I am not describing an existing entity. A global journalism ethics has yet to be constructed. It is, at present, a project, an ideal, a movement. Therefore, my method is philosophical and normative. Looking at current trends, I say how journalism ethics should change if it is to guide responsible journalism in the twenty-first century.
Shape of a Future Ethics
To argue for a future ethics, I need to say how I envisage journalism in the future. For brevity, I focus on a few structural features of the newsroom in the future – those features that will have the most impact on ethics.
The newsroom of the future will practice “layered journalism.”2 Layered journalism brings together different forms of journalism and different types of journalists to produce a multimedia offering of professional-styled news and analysis combined with citizen journalism and interactive chat.
The newsroom will be layered vertically and horizontally. Vertically, there will be many layers of editorial roles, positions, and supervisor personnel. There will be citizen journalists and bloggers in the newsroom, or closely associated with the newsroom. Many contributors will work from countries around the world. Some will write for free, some will be equivalent to paid freelancers, others will be regular commentators. In addition, there will be different types of editors. Some editors will work with these new journalists, while other editors will deal with unsolicited images and text sent by citizens via email, websites, and Twitter. There will be editors or “community producers” charged with going out to neighborhoods to help citizens use media to produce their own stories.
Horizontally, the future newsroom will be layered in terms of the kinds of journalism it produces, from print and broadcast sections to online production centers.
Newsrooms in the past have also had vertical and horizontal layers. Newspaper newsrooms, for example, have ranged vertically from the editor in-chief at the top to the cub reporter on the bottom. Horizontally, large mainstream newsrooms have produced several types of journalism, both print and broadcast. Today, many newsrooms exhibit the characteristics of layered journalism. Newspapers have interactive websites and employ bloggers. Online news websites, such as OhMyNews.com in South Korea, combine professional and citizen journalists in complex ways.
However, the future production of journalism will develop this layering to an even greater degree of complexity. Future newsrooms will have additional and different layers. Of course, not all sites for the production of journalism will exhibit the features of layered journalism. Some sites will be operated by a few people dedicated only to one format, such as blogging. However, a substantial core of the “new mainstream media” will consist of these complex, layered journalism organizations.
Ethics of Layered Journalism
What sort of ethics is most appropriate for layered journalism? Four types of problems will dominate: vertical, horizontal, public, and global.
First, there will be “vertical” ethical questions about how the different layers of the newsroom, from professional editors to citizen freelancers, should interact to produce responsible journalism. By what standards will professional editors evaluate the contributions of citizen journalists?
Second, there will be “horizontal” questions about the norms for the various newsroom sections. One set of questions will be about the values that all sections should honor, regardless of their medium, or “media platform.” Another set of questions will revolve around whether to allow certain sections to operate according to different guidelines because of the distinctive nature of their media platform. For instance, should the online section be allowed to publish stories before the print section because of the speed and immediacy of the Internet? How important will “being first” be to the organization, and what protocols will be used when online journalists come under pressure to report unverified claims because the story is already “out there” on the Internet? Questions of consistency will loom large. Can “local variations” in the ethics of sections within a news outlet be justified? For example, if a newspaper requires the authors of letters to the editor in its print version to be signed, how can it justify allowing commentary on its online chat forum to be anonymous?
Third, layered newsrooms, and the rise of the citizen as both producer and consumer of media, will raise serious questions about the role of the public in journalism ethics. Is ethics a discussion for professionals only? Can the public do more than complain about bad journalism to news councils?
Fourth, there will be questions about the relationship of the newsroom to the world at large. As journalists use technology that influences citizens around the world, they will become tangled up in questions about international standards for journalists and about the responsibilities of journalism to a global world.
Finding a reasoned and coherent way of answering these difficult questions is the goal of a reinvented journalism ethics. This sketch of the ethical questions of the future leads to my claim that an adequate ethics will have to display three general properties. It should be ecumenical, public-guided, and cosmopolitan in attitude.
I now explain each property.
The multimedia nature of the layered newsroom calls for an ecumenical approach to ethics. I borrow the term “ecumenical” from its original Christian context, which is the desire to find unity among the sects of Christianity, despite their differences.
Ecumenicalism does not seek to impose a unity that ignores (or is intolerant of ) differences. It is an attempt to recognize differences within a common framework of values. By analogy, ecumenicalism in journalism is the search for a new framework for today’s mixed media, a unifying set of values that are realized in different ways by different forms of journalism.
Ecumenicalism starts with the notion that a healthy public sphere in a democracy is as free as possible, and populated by many forms of communication and a diversity of communicators. Different forms of journalism fulfill different public functions.
Ecumenicalism also believes that this freedom and diversity should be used in an ethical manner, if the public sphere is to be a place for reliable public information and reasoned debate. A core group of public informers must be dedicated to responsible journalism in the public interest. They must be committed to norms and principles that support informed and deliberative discussion on essential public issues. Ecumenicalism does not assume that all communicators will use their chosen medium in an ethical manner, especially not in an age where the number of citizen journalists and media producers grows exponentially. It does believe however, that, if deliberative democracy is to be possible, ethics needs to be taken seriously and by a substantial group of practitioners across media platforms.
Journalism ethics is ecumenical if it provides a unifying conception of the main goals and values of all forms of responsible journalism. It seeks to articulate what should be the (changing) roles of journalism in a democratic sphere. Such aims are often articulated in short phrases such as “informing a self-governing citizenry,” or “serving the public interest.” Journalism ethics must expand and clarify the meaning of such phrases as journalism and society evolve. In addition, ecumenical journalism ethics should articulate a number of general principles and standards as means toward the aforementioned aims. The principles may include truth-seeking, editorial independence, minimizing harm to the vulnerable, and being accountable and transparent to one’s public.3
Journalism ethics is ecumenical if it also adopts another central idea: these aims and principles can be interpreted and practiced in many different ways in a diverse public sphere. “Respecting differences” ecumenically means rejecting the idea that there is one set of aims and one set of principles that all journalists must adopt uniformly. Instead, ecumenicalism asserts that ethics should work from the assumption that journalists will not adopt uniformly the same set of aims and principles, and even where they agree, journalists will interpret principles and aims in different ways. This diversity of ethical interpretation can occur on several levels. With regard to aims, journalists can understand “serving the public interest” as objectively reporting on event, or as interpreting events, or as bringing about needed social change. Similarly, journalists can disagree on principles. An objective reporter may argue that journalists need to be neutral in serving the public interest; the investigative journalist and the blogger reject neutrality and argue for informed inquiry and discussion from a perspective.
Journalists can also disagree on specific standards and rules of practice. For example, the print reporter for a quality newspaper may argue for prepublication tests for accuracy and verification through careful editorial gate-keeping. The online journalist may argue that she works in a medium where speed and the transparent sharing of information as it arrives, even if it is not fully verified, is more important than withholding information. The online journalist can argue that she still subscribes to the overall goal of journalism to inform the public and stimulate debate, but that norms of practice need to reflect the nature of the medium.
Ecumenicalism responds to this diversity of views and forms of journalism by asserting what I call the principle of communicative intention: The norms of practice for any specific form of communication, including forms of journalism, is influenced by the nature and intent of the communication, as well as by what the public expects of this form of communication. So we should seek to shape the ethics of journalism to fit the communication form.
This two-fold approach of ecumenicalism – unifying aims and principles, and more particular norms of practice adapted to different forms of journalism – is one way that ethics can address the four kinds of questions of layered journalism noted above. Of course, not every practice can be justified by simply stating that it follows from the nature of one’s medium. It is difficult to see how posting a flimsy (and false) rumor that does serious harm to a person’s reputation could be justified whatever the medium. It may be that an online writer’s love of immediacy and speed can never be reconciled with ethics. However, we should not rush to that conclusion.
Online journalism, for example, may develop new and reasonable norms of practice for dealing with the pressures of speed and immediacy. Online journalism may take advantage of the connected nature of the Internet to develop a postpublication process for checking and testing stories. Online groups and communities have already developed ways to monitor false claims and identify unreliable writers. Also, online journalism can use the Internet’s global linkages to let readers check for themselves the veracity of reports by inserting hyperlinks to original sources. True, much of this testing will come after the posting, but we should not thereby conclude that protocols cannot be developed that enhance the responsible use of the medium.
Even where it appears that an ethical approach is impossible, such as the use of unverified video and text from little-known sources, norms of practice can evolve. For example, mainstream news coverage of demonstrations in Iran after the June 2009 presidential election is a vivid example of how newsrooms can develop protocols that allow amateur and professional journalism to coexist. In Iran, professional foreign journalists were forbidden to cover “unauthorized” demonstrations. Meanwhile, Iranian citizens used the new media of Twitter, YouTube, cell phones, and text messaging to circulate pictures and commentary around the world.
Major news organizations, such as the BBC and CNN, used this information carefully. News anchors repeatedly explained to the public the limitations on their own journalists and why they were using citizen-generated information. They warned viewers that they could not verify the veracity of many of the images, or the identity of the sources. Although bogus and erroneous information was circulated by these means, vital information was also made public. The Iran coverage shows that the ecumenical search for combining responsibly the old and new forms of journalism is possible and indeed developing.4
The ecumenical approach seems almost inevitable, given the direction of journalism. It is unlikely that the new vertical and horizontal questions will be resolved by insisting that the blogger, the tweeter, or the citizen journalist adhere completely to the more restrictive norms of practice that guide other forms of journalism, such as “straight” professional news reporting. Conversely, more traditional modes of journalism, such as verified reporting in the quality papers, should not abandon the values that have long defined their medium. They should not simply opt for the more freewheeling practices of the Internet. The ethical challenge is to maintain common values for journalism while showing how ethical norms of practice can legitimately vary according to the medium.
If my argument is correct, the new ethics should be ecumenical. Yet, as noted above, multimedia technology, now available to the public, makes questions about the role of the public inescapable. This situation suggests a second feature that should characterize all plausible forms of new ethics. It is a commitment to a public-guided ethics.
As the walls between professional and amateur journalism crumble, it becomes clear that any future ethics should involve the public in a manner that goes far beyond current mechanisms for discussion. The new ethics will be “public-guided” if it creates opportunities for the public to have a voice in the formulation, monitoring, and reforming of the ethics of journalism – to construct norms that apply to professionals and amateurs (Ward, 2005b). The public, as themselves producers of media content, would be asked to construct an ethics for their blogs and websites. The public would be asked: What do they expect, ethically, of today’s news media? What norms of practice do they want bloggers to honor? What forms of editing should be used online? Do they want traditional media to remain committed to the values of gate-keeping and prepublication verification?
A public-guided ethics is to be contrasted to both an elite professional approach to ethics and an excessively egalitarian approach, or “populism,” that simply asks the public to vote on ethical issues. Majority vote decides all. A professional approach thinks ethical policy and decisions should be determined primarily (or only) by professionals inside newsrooms. Most existing mechanisms of public involvement take this approach. News councils and ombudsmen are usually industry - funded agencies designed to arbitrate complaints about stories after they have been published. The role of the public is that of a disappointed consumer. Citizens complain to an agency if the news “product,” like a cheap pair of new shoes, does not live up to expectations.
The interactive nature of online communication raises many possibilities for public discussion of journalism ethics, from virtual public forums to “citizen assemblies.” 5 Even traditional mechanisms such as news councils can revise their modes of operation. Take, for example, an attempt at public discussion of ethics by the Washington State News Council (WNC) in Seattle. The state news council received a complaint from Secretary of State Sam Reed against KIRO7 Eyewitness News, a CBS affiliate. Reed complained that two stories (aired October 15 and November 3, 2008) about voting irregularities were “incorrect” and “sensationalized.” KIRO did not reply to the WNC’s invitation to respond to the complaint. Eventually, Reed decided not to seek a public WNC hearing.
With the complaint process stalled, the council took an unprecedented step. It held a “virtual public hearing” on the complaint. The WNC invited citizens to view the stories, read the complaint, then vote and comment as a Citizens Online News Council. Of about 100 people who voted online, only a few defended KIRO while most supported Reed’s position.6
Public-guided ethics cannot be a series of online votes. We need to structure public dialogue online and offline so that it is representative, reflective, and based on the core principles of good journalism. Otherwise, ethics can devolve into shifting opinion polls. Nevertheless, in the meantime, we can start exploring how the new communication tools can contribute to a public-guided ethics.
A third property of the new ethics should be a cosmopolitan approach to journalism and its global responsibilities. Cosmopolitanism can provide a unifying perspective from which to see the ultimate aims of today’s journalism.
The proposal to transform journalism ethics by adopting a cosmopolitan, global perspective swims against journalism history. Across the 400 years of modern journalism, from broadsides to blogs, its ethics has been parochial. It has been assumed that journalists serve the readers of a local newspaper, the audience for a regional news broadcast, or the citizens of a country. Most of the 400 codes of journalism ethics in the world today are for local, regional or national media. Little is said about whether journalists have a responsibility to citizens beyond one’s town or country. However, in a global world, why not define one’s public as readers within and without my country? Why not talk about global journalism ethics?
Some of the elements of a global ethics exist. When we compare codes of journalism ethics internationally we see agreement on basic principles such as to report the truth, to avoid bias, to distinguish news and opinion, and to serve the public. When African journalists drew up the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press in 1991 (MISA, 1991), they invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to promote press freedom on their continent. Already, there is a growing movement of scholars, journals, and books on global media ethics (Black and Barney, 2002; Cooper et al., 1989; Ward, 2005b; Ward and Wasserman, 2008). There exist a number of international declarations of news media principles. Of special note is the development of an international approach to the study of media communication and journalism. The studies provide a portrait of the “news people” around the world and how their media systems and values compare (Demers, 2007; Weaver, 1998).
However, it is possible to question the project of global journalism ethics. Why should we consider taking this audacious step? Is ethics not complicated enough?
There are several reasons. First, media corporations are increasingly global enterprises. Technology gives news organizations the ability to gather information instantly from remote locations. The reach of the Al-Jazeera and CNN networks, for example, extends beyond the Arab world or the American public. Global issues and the power of global media organizations call for an ethics that is global in its principles and in its understanding of media.
Second, global impact entails global responsibilities (De Beer, 2004; McPhail, 2006; Seib, 2002). Reports, via satellite or the Internet, reach people around the world and influence the actions of governments, militaries, and humanitarian agencies. A parochial journalism can wreak havoc. Unless reported properly, North American readers may fail to understand violence in the Middle East. Jingoistic reports can portray other cultures as a threat. A global journalism is required in a world where media bring together a plurality of religions and ethnic groups with varying values and agendas. Our world is not a cozy McLuhan village. Publication of cartoons of Muslim’s Prophet Mohammed in one paper in one country, Denmark, spread violence around the world. In such a climate, we need to emphasize journalism as a bridge for understanding across cultures.
Third, a global-minded journalism is needed to help citizens understand the daunting global problems of poverty, environmental degradation, technological inequalities, and political instability. Fourth and finally, a global ethics is needed to unify journalists in constructing a fair and informed media. Without global principles it is difficult to criticize media practices in other countries, including severe restrictions on the press.
In sum, the sufficiency of parochial ethics has been undermined by the globalization of news media. Journalism ethics will not be credible if it avoids engagement with these new complexities.
Elements of global ethics
To develop a global ethics, journalists would need to place much greater weight on their responsibilities to people beyond their borders. The attitude needed is ethical cosmopolitanism. The roots of cosmopolitanism go back to the stoics, Roman law, the Christian notion of a brotherhood of man, and Kant’s imperative (Kant, 1997) to treat all humans as “ends in themselves.” Cosmopolitan ethics asserts that our ethical behavior should be based on the equal value of all people, as members of a common humanity.
Cosmopolitanism (Brock and Brighouse, 2005) has received increasing attention because of the debate over the responsibilities of developed countries to the appalling poverty and illness on this planet. Nussbaum (2006), for instance, has put cosmopolitanism forward as an antidote to parochialism in ethics and especially in issues of justice.
Cosmopolitan journalists see themselves primarily as agents of a global public sphere, rather than as agents of a local public. Journalism’s contract with society becomes a “multisociety” contract with citizens in many countries. As I have argued elsewhere, a global approach would require a redefinition of the ultimate aims of journalism. The aim would become not just the flourishing of a local or national public but the flourishing of humanity at large (Ward, 2005c, 2010). For global ethics, a report would not be counted as accurate and balanced unless it included international sources and crosscultural perspectives. Also, global journalism would reject extreme patriotism. Journalists would become global patriots attached to the expansion of human rights, democratic life, and social justice around the globe.
Let us summarize where we stand.
In the introduction, I argued that journalism ethics is in turmoil because of changes brought about by a media revolution, characterized by the twin forces of multimedia technology and the globalization of journalism. I argued that we needed to reinvent journalism ethics as a multimedia, global journalism ethics, and I explained how this new ethics should be ecumenical, public-guided, and cosmopolitan.
In the second-half of this chapter, I propose multidimensional objectivity, a reformulation of the idea of journalistic objectivity, as a principle for this new ethics, only the facts, and eliminates comment and interpretation by the reporter. The report is neutral between rival views.
Traditional objectivity was never just an abstract ideal. It was, from the start, a practical system of norms that restrained and governed practice. It disciplined journalism’s empiricism by subjecting reporting to standards of verification, balance, and neutrality. These standards were operationalized in newsrooms by rules on newsgathering and story construction: all opinion must be clearly attributed to a source, accompanied by direct quotation and careful paraphrasing; reporters must verify facts by reference to studies and numerical analysis; and news reports must be written from the detached tone of the third-person. Phrases that indicate a bias are eliminated, or translated into neutral language.
Traditional objectivity was a strict, reductive, one-dimensional form of objectivity. Objective reporters were completely detached; eliminated all of their opinion; reported just the facts. Objectivity was a policing action against the agents of error and bias – the reporter’s desire to interpret, theorize, campaign, and judge.
The heyday of traditional objectivity was from the 1920s to the 1960s in the broadsheet newspapers of North America. However, the second half of the century is a story of challenge and decline due to new forms of journalism, new technology, and new social conditions. Today, we arrive at a dead end. Traditional objectivity is a spent ethical force, doubted by journalist and academic. In practice, fewer journalists, especially online journalists, embrace the ideal; “objectivity” gradually disappears from codes of journalism ethics, while newsrooms adopt a reporting style that includes perspective and interpretation. Nevertheless, the best option is not to abandon objectivity tout court but to reform the conception.
Traditional objectivity went wrong when journalists, seeking to discipline the rush for news, adopted a popular but flawed version of objectivity – a stringent positivism of “just the facts.” In addition, writers used the misleading metaphor of the objective journalist as a recording instrument who passively observes and transmits facts. When positivism and the passive model of journalism collapsed, so did traditional objectivity.
The morale is that we need a notion of objectivity that is compatible with the idea of journalism as an active, interpretive, cultural activity. We start by acknowledging that all works of journalism are interpretations to some degree. This follows from a fact about human cognition. What we believe to be true is the result of much interpretation, hypothesis, and theory. The task of objectivity is not to eliminate active inquiry and interpretation. The task is to test our interpretations, selections, and judgments according to certain criteria.
In The Invention of Journalism Ethics (Ward, 2005a), I developed an alternate conception that I called “pragmatic objectivity.” I called the conception “pragmatic” because objectivity is valued, pragmatically, as a means to the goals of truth, fair judgment, and ethical action. The claim of objectivity is not absolute but rather a fallible judgment about a belief or report, based on a holistic weighing of several standards. Pragmatic objectivity is multidimensional. It attempts to evaluate the many dimensions of a story with a plurality of evaluative criteria.
How would multidimensional, pragmatic objectivity work in a newsroom? Journalists would construct stories according to a certain attitude, and then test the story according to criteria appropriate to journalism.
The attitude is what I call the objective stance. It consists in a number of intellectual virtues such as a willingness to place a critical distance between oneself and the story, to be open to evidence and counter-arguments, to fairly represent other perspectives, and to be committed to the disinterested pursuit of truth for the public. One is “disinterested” in not allowing one’s interests to prejudge a story. This is not neutrality. It is the attitude of a critical inquirer.
However, it is not enough to have an objective attitude. One has to apply this attitude by using criteria to test the story for objectivity. The criteria come in at least five kinds.
First, there are criteria that test for empirical validity. These criteria test the story for carefully obtained and collaborated evidence, and the accurate presentation of that data. Empirical validity is broader than reporting facts. It includes placing the facts in context.
Second, there are criteria that test for completeness and implications. Where appropriate, we check to see if the story reasonably reports the likely implications for society, avoids hype, and includes both negative and positive consequences.
Third, there are the criteria that test for coherence. These criteria test the story for coherence with existing knowledge and the views of credible experts. Journalists respect these criteria, for example, when they compare the clinical trial of a drug with existing studies.
Fourth, there are criteria of self-consciousness. An objective story is self-conscious about the frame it uses to present a study or event, and the sources chosen. Have powerful sources manipulated the media to present the story in a certain light? Is the story on crime in poor city areas not also a story about social inequalities? Is the media’s depiction of a war as a march towards freedom a biased perspective, ignoring the war’s economic motivations?
Fifth, there are criteria that test for intersubjective objectivity. Objectivity encourages inquirers to share ideas and facts with other people – other journalists, experts, and citizens. Through this interaction, mistakes are spotted, counter-evidence noted, other interpretations brought forward. The objective reporter is open to varying perspectives.
Journalists and their reports are objective to the degree that they satisfy these kinds of criteria. To evaluate a story as objective, we must weigh, holistically, a group of criteria. Satisfaction of these criteria enhances the credibility, balance and depth of the report, while adding to the likelihood of its truth.
Some people may be surprised that I include such things as context and self-consciousness as elements of objectivity. This is partly because of our cultural baggage. We assume, at least in journalism, that objectivity is not multidimensional. It reduces to facts. However, the language and the frames that we use can be as responsible for subjective reports as much as a lack of facts. Objectivity is a complex method that reflects the many dimensions of rational inquiry and evaluation.
Objectivity and uncertainty
The complexity of multidimensional objectivity may suggest that it is useful only in certain domains, like natural science, where there is clear evidence, tough methods, and established knowledge. However, objectivity as a method of thinking and testing is equally important in situations of uncertainty, where the journalist struggles to determine what is true or false, biased or objective.
At home or in foreign fields, truth-seeking inquiry in journalism is an imperfect process that only gradually separates fact from fiction, allegations from verified claims, and credible sources from manipulative partisans. Journalism truth is a “protean thing which, like learning, grows as a stalagmite in cave, drop by drop over time” (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2007, p. 44).
In war zones, the journalistic search for truth faces many obstacles: restricted access to conflict areas, threats to the personal safety of reporters and the confusing customs of foreign cultures. Unlike soldiers and aid providers, many foreign journalists work completely alone, with relative little resources or field support. In addition, war correspondents must try to discern what is taking place, despite the fog of war, the intense propaganda, the tug of patriotic feelings, and the speed of modern warfare. The war correspondent has little time to verify atrocity stories or tales of heroic action. Under such conditions, what is fact? What source is reliable? Who or what is objective? Consider an example from Canadian foreign reporting.
In January 2002, Claude Adams flew to Kathmandu to do a story on Nepal’s Maoist insurgency for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). He was investigating allegations that the army was executing civilians. He decided to focus on the killing of Khet Lamichhane, described as a peasant farmer in the mountain village of Bageswari, west of Kathmandu. Here is his experience, as he told it to me:
When we arrived there, townspeople gave us their version of the story: Soldiers and police had arrived early in a December morning, looking for a rebel unit that had spent the night in the village. There was some kind of altercation and they opened fire. Khet Lamichhane was shot in the mid-section and another man, a peddler, was chased into the woods and killed. Lamichhane, bleeding profusely, begged for help and water. The soldiers prevented anyone from helping him, and then told the townspeople to go inside and close their windows and doors. One witness said she heard a soldier asking an officer: “Should we give this man medical treatment?” The officer reportedly answered: “Give him another bullet.” Then there was a shot. When the people came out of their homes, Lamichhane’s body was gone. A day or two later, his family arrived at the nearby headquarters town of Trisuli and asked for his body so they could bury it. They were told Lamichhane had been cremated. A half-dozen townspeople told me this story.
A local politician insisted that Lamichhane was not a Marxist supporter, as did his family. A police official in Trisuli, however, said the soldiers fired because they were ambushed, and that Lamichhane was taken back to hospital where he died. Could I see the weapon he was carrying? No. Could I meet the doctor who declared him dead? Could I talk to an army officer who had been on the scene? No. Could I see any evidence that Lamichhane was a terrorist? No. I would have to go to the Interior Ministry. I repeatedly, phoned, faxed AND emailed both the interior ministry and the army headquarters in Kathmandu for more information on the killing, and got no response … I went back to the Human Rights Commission, but they could give me nothing more, other than to say that there were many similar cases of civilian deaths and disappearances. Weeks later, I contacted Amnesty International in London, but their inquiries on my behalf also could not raise any more information on the case.”7
Adams eventually included the story of Khet Lamichhane in a report on civilian killings in Nepal, despite the limitations imposed on his reporting in Nepal. What do Adam’s experiences in Nepal say about objectivity? Do the inherent limitations on conflict reporting make the idea of pragmatic objectivity irrelevant or useless?
I do not think so. To the contrary, it is precisely during complex journalistic assignments, that objectivity as a method of thinking and testing is crucial. Objectivity will not guarantee truth. No method can make such a claim. Following the method is better than not following it. In uncertain situations, the methods of objectivity are about the only defense the journalist has against bias and error. Adherence to objectivity encourages the journalist to question claims and to take into account the motivations of her sources.
Adams was trying to put a “human face” on a story, a human face on human rights abuses by focusing on one village and the death of one man. We see an experienced reporter struggling to retain the objective stance. Adams had an initial story angle but he seeks to follow the facts and to verify claims. He is open to sources. Adam’s gave the police official’s version of events in his story, as unlikely as it sounded. Adams put things in context, and he bears in mind existing knowledge of the conflict. He tried to make the whole story cohere. He treats objectivity as multidimensional. He weighs and balances various criteria.
However, this selecting and sifting process, frustrated by obstacles at every turn, never reached anything approaching certainty. Adams accumulated facts, testimony, and perspectives until the balance of probabilities tipped in favor of reporting the story.
If we see objectivity as a sort of perfection – a perfect knowledge of reality, or a perfect correspondence with fact, or a “proof” of a hypothesis, then we will not see how objectivity operates in journalism. We will interpret Adams’s struggles to produce a credible report as the absence of objectivity and a victory for subjectivity. However, this is clearly a false depiction. Adams struggles to improve his evidence through hard work. He does not just make up the story, or think of what he reports as merely subjective. Nor does he think of his reports as certain and absolute. He practices pragmatic objectivity – he seeks a degree of objectivity, as much as possible given the circumstances.
In practical enterprises we may have to accept a less rigorous and precise methodology of objectivity, yet all the while continuing to believe in the methodology’s importance.
Relevancy of Multidimensional Objectivity
I conclude by explaining why I think multidimensional objectivity is a suitable reformulation of objectivity for multimedia, global journalism.
In previous works I have argued for the continuing relevancy of objectivity in journalism, if our goal is an informed public journalism for democracy (Ward, 2005a). Objectivity, correctly understood, encourages journalists to subject their work to critical reflection and prods them to do better-researched stories. Adopting the objective stance helps to counter-balance a public sphere redolent with instant analysis, instant rumor, and manipulative sources. In other writings, I have argued that pragmatic objectivity is important for peace journalism, and should be incorporated into the principles of non-Western journalism traditions, such as developmental journalism (Ward, 2004).
In this section, my aim is not to justify objectivity as an ethical principle. It is to show how my idea of multidimensional objectivity fits with the construction of a new ethics characterized by ecumenicalism, public-mindedness, and cosmopolitanism. My point is: If you want objectivity to be part of the new ethics, multidimensional objectivity is an attractive conception.
Multidimensional objectivity fits ecumenicalism because it can provide a unifying methodological principle for different forms of journalism, yet it respects differences. Multidimensional is a flexible method that can be applied in different degrees and in different ways, according to the communicative intention of the form of journalism in question.
Even if journalists seek different goals – report the world, interpret it, or change it – responsible journalists can make multidimensional objectivity a method for testing whatever stories are produced, for whatever reasons. The form of objectivity that I have described is not identifiable with any one form of journalism, one style of writing, or one aim of journalism.
Traditional journalism objectivity applied only to one form of journalism because it reduced objectivity to a strictly factual description of news events. Objectivity, as “just the facts,” was not applicable to forms of journalism that were more obviously interpretive, such as the writing of editorials and columns.
By rethinking objectivity as a holistic method, we see the possibility of using the criteria of objectivity to evaluate many aspects of many kinds of journalism. For instance, the criteria of empirical validity, coherence, and openness to perspectives can be used to evaluate investigative journalism, despite the latter’s rejection of neutrality. In fact, good investigative journalism is clear case of using objective methods to ferret out the objective truth about what happened behind closed doors.
In the same vein, objective criteria such as coherence and self-consciousness are important elements in the construction of good interpretive journalism in the form of background pieces, analysis, and column writing. To be sure, the emphasis in this writing will be on argumentation and theorizing. That does not mean that the objective stance, and its intellectual virtues and criteria, cannot be a part of the journalism process. Satirical journalism is probably the form of journalism where the objective method is weakest. Satirical journalism seeks to state a truth or expose hypocrisy beneath the rhetoric of modern life and its politics. Often it does so through exaggeration and unfair portrayals, for dramatic effect. Yet in an open public sphere, satirical journalism plays an important role. Other forms of journalism are closer to objectivity in spirit, such as investigative journalism, as noted above.
Multidimensional objectivity is compatible with many motivations for doing journalism. Whether journalists want to act as watchdogs or impartial observers, they should be able to accept the idea of testing their stories. On this score, multidimensional objectivity is more attractive than traditional objectivity to advocacy and activist forms of journalism. There is no in-principle reason why a reporter for the Jewish Chronicle in Toronto or a gay rights magazine in New York cannot be committed to the advancement of their group but also committed to stories that satisfy multidimensional objectivity. A commitment to achieving certain group goals can weaken one’s commitment to telling the whole truth where facts may damage the group’s public profile. Putting that danger aside, it is also possible for reporters in these forms of attached journalism to refuse to distort the facts to suit their goals, and to seek a degree of multidimensional objectivity in their reports.
How does multidimensional objectivity fit with new media and its many platforms? The key is multidimensional objectivity’s flexibility. Different forms of journalism may employ only some of its criteria, or lay more stress on some criteria than others. Not all forms of journalism need to enforce all of the criteria of objectivity to the full extent. It depends on the communicative intent and nature of the medium. Multidimensional objectivity can be an attractive conception for responsible online journalism. Practitioners of blogging, writing for websites and citizen journalism could employ at least some of the criteria of multidimensional objectivity to test their stories, aligning objectivity with their medium.
The claim of compatibility between objectivity and online journalism may surprise those who assume that objectivity is a principle limited to traditional forms of news media. Part of the problem is the view that journalism objectivity must be as traditionally conceived – it must insist on strict neutrality and on the elimination of the “voice” and perspective of journalists. Such demands run counter to the more personal nature of communication on the Internet. However, if we redefine objectivity as multidimensional and pragmatic, we see that the objective stance and several of its major criteria express much of the spirit of online journalism. For example, take the objective stance as an attitude of approaching stories with a critical attitude, of being open to where the facts lead, and so on. Such attitudes support the online value of the Internet as a free “space” to question stories and events. Or take the criteria of coherence and self-consciousness. One of the dominant aspects of good online journalism is to use interactive dialogue and linkages to examine how claims or stories cohere with what other people around the world know about the topic. Also, online journalists often see themselves as being self-conscious and critical of the frames used by mainstream news media on major stories, and to offer alternative perspectives. These values are central to multidimensional objectivity.
The criteria that test for intersubjective objectivity are conceptually close to online journalism notions about how stories are to be tested by online communities. Multidimensional objectivity agrees with the idea, put forward by many who use the Internet, that the testing of ideas and stories is best achieved through interactive dialogue, not the inquiry of individuals. The Internet provides a tool for testing that includes many more people, and at much greatest ease, than was available to pre-Internet newsrooms.
It is true that the idea of intersubjective objectivity in journalism has been understood differently. Traditional journalists talk about prepublication testing and verification by teams of professional journalists within newsrooms. Online journalism raises the possibility of new forms of verification and correction – a postpublication testing by the many linked readers of a story. In this process, communities of online citizens collectively monitor postings for bias, manipulation of facts, bogus studies, and bogus experts. Responsible journalists, online and offline, agree on the importance of a methodology that tests stories, although their methods may vary.
What this shows, at the very least, is that there is no inherent opposition between multidimensional objectivity and new forms of journalism. In fact, there is an overlap of values that ethicists can use to develop an ecumenical ethics.
So much for objectivity and ecumenicalism. However, is multidimensional objectivity compatible with a public-guided ethics, and a cosmopolitan ethics? There is no incompatibility between objectivity and including the public in the formulation and monitoring of ethics. The opposite is true. Given its stress on intersubjective dialogue and testing, multidimensional objectivity by nature welcomes as many voices into the ethical discussion as possible. Also, multidimensional objectivity would provide useful standards to guide public discussions.
Finally, what I said about objectivity and foreign reporting in an earlier section of this chapter supports the idea that multidimensional objectivity is well-suited to foreign reporting in a global age. Traditional objectivity advised journalists not to let their own biases, or the biases of groups within their own country, distort the accuracy and fairness of their reports. With a cosmopolitan approach to journalism ethics, objectivity becomes a global objectivity that asks journalists to not allow their bias toward their country distort reports on international issues.
Multidimensional objectivity is a stance and a method that would lead to better coverage of global issues from poverty to social justice. The objective stance is just the sort of attitude you would want in global reporters since it asks journalists to put a distance between them and their beliefs and parochial attachments. Also, the criteria of coherence, self-consciousness, and intersubjective testing are key values for cosmopolitan journalism.
The conceptual distance between a concern for the inclusion of crossborder perspectives in stories and an ethical cosmopolitanism, with its concern for humanity, is not great. Armed with a cosmopolitan ethic and a method based on multidimensional objectivity, journalism would will be less prone to be swayed by narrow forms of ethnocentricism and xenophobia. Journalists would be less swayed by narrow patriotism wherever the national interests of their country comes into tension with other national interests.
It is not implausible, then, to claim that multidimensionality objectivity can “cross borders” and put itself forward as a unifying principle for the construction of a multimedia global journalism ethics.
This chapter has put forward a philosophical proposal. It proposes that we construct a multimedia global journalism that is ecumenical, public-guided, and cosmopolitan. The chapter also proposes multidimensional objectivity as a principle for this new ethics.
I have not provided the content of the new ethics itself – a detailed list of principles, standards, and norms. Nor have I “solved” the many ethical issues involving new media. I have provided only a philosophical outline of how to approach this construction. I offer a way of thinking about these complex issues, a conceptual scaffolding upon which others can build.
A new ethics is a work-in-progress. Therefore, attention to these general philosophical matters is crucial. If we do not approach these issues in the correct way, or if we start from an inadequate conceptual base, we will fail to complete the necessary construction. There will be many false starts and little progress.
Whether my proposal is useful can only be determined pragmatically in the course of time. It will be judged by its usefulness for developing a coherent ethical approach and for addressing the questions that confront journalism ethics today.
The role of the philosopher in times of confusion and disagreement is to step back and take in the big picture, to reexamine basic assumptions and explore the options. The philosopher points out pathways to the future, and plants a few seminal ideas in the hope that they may eventually take root in public discourse and reflection.
1 I describe the five revolutions in “Journalism ethics” (Ward, 2009). The five revolutions are the invention of ethics with the seventeenth century periodic press, the fourth estate “public” ethics of the newspapers of the eighteenth century Enlightenment public sphere, the liberal ethic of the early nineteenth century and the ethics of professional objectivity in the mass commercial press of late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, the media revolution calls for a mixed journalism ethics.
2 I borrow the phrase, “layered journalism,” from a lecture given in my ethics class by Prof. Lewis Friedland of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Spring 2009.
3 I take these principles from the influential code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists in the United States (www.spj.org). I could have chosen, as examples, other principles in other codes, such as advancing social solidarity, being a catalyst for civic engagement, and so on.
4 Increasingly, there are attempts to systematically discuss and codify the practices of online media, through the creation of associations such as the Media Bloggers Association (www.mediabloggers.org/) and the Online News Association (http://journalists.org/Default.asp?) and the development of codes of ethics on sites such as www. cyberjournalist. net/news/000215.php. Some recent discussions argue that there can be an ethics for “tweeting” by applying to Twitter such existing journalism standards as fairness, balance and accuracy. See for example, David Brewer’s discussion at www.mediahelpingmedia.org/content/view/401/1/ (accessed June 23, 2010). This view is too conservative. The construction will result in a mixed journalism ethics substantially different from existing journalism ethics. The construction will change (and perhaps eliminate) some basic principles, and call for new norms of practice.
5 The idea of citizen assemblies has been used in Canada, the Netherlands, and other countries to explore questions about politics, forms of government, and so forth. For example, the province of British Columbia created a citizen assembly to consider new election systems, such as systems based on proportional representation. On assemblies, see www.auburn.edu/academic/liberal_arts/poli_sci/journal_public_deliberation/citizensassembly/pandemic.htm (accessed June 23, 2010).
6 For more information on the case, go to the WNC’s website, www.wanewscouncil.org (accessed June 23, 2010).
7 Claude Adams, pers. comm., February 2003.
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