Thank you for making the third annual Conference from the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison a success. We will be posting video of this year’s sessions this week. They will be available to download here and via iTunes U.
Archive video from the Second Annual Ethics Conference is now available via iTunes U. You may click the link below to automatically open iTunes and access video from all the sessions.
As a first-semester journalism student, I began the semester virtually unplugged as far as the industry goes. Sans Twitter or blog and friending only my real friends on Facebook left me relatively in the dark when it comes to the lighting speed of information in our media-saturated world. Too cheap to pay for cable, I was even without the benefit of a CNN crawler spouting the latest headlines from around the world.
That didn’t last long, Professor Katy Culver scared me (and a few other students, I’m sure) onto the blog and microblogosphere by insisting that to be truly a part of the industry we had to get involved with the ever expanding social media revolution. As Sue Robinson, assistant professor at the SJMC, said in today’s session “Whatever happened to verification in journalism?” journalists who aren’t online are excluded from the conversation.
But why the emphasis on the quick dissemination of sometimes less-than-reliable information? In today’s online world, the emphasis sometimes rests solely on being the first to break the story, and not on getting it right.
This being said, an interesting concept came out of this issue: the role of Twitter in modern journalism. Are “tweets” journalism? Panelist Scott Cohn says no, tweeting does not fit his definition of careful reporting based on an editorial process. Phil Rosenthal says yes,when he uses twitter to promote a complete story, that’s journalism.
Robinson provides a bit more complicated answer. A survey of Madison residents reveals about three quarters believe tweeting by journalists is indeed journalism. Perhaps this statistic should end the conversation. If the audience is holding us accountable for these 140 character microblogs, we should live up to that expectation.
The emphasis in news media has always been on reporting information as quickly as possible, but with everyone carrying Blackberries and iPhones, this takes on a new meaning. Instead of taking the time to thoroughly research and verify sources, journalists often post whatever information they have at the time, sometimes accurate, sometimes less-than. But as Robinson pointed out, this is not how the audience understands the medium.
Basic media literacy education would quiet some of this debate, helping audiences to know they must take these microblogs with a grain of salt. Robinson says the audience has as much of an ethical obligation as journalists to understand the information they consume. But that’s in a perfect-world scenario. For now, she posed the idea of using the audience as a major ethical touchstone instead of sticking to traditional old-media-style values. This would mean taking more time to consider the source of your information, and how it’s likely to be perceived in a largely media-illiterate public.
Is Twitter interesting? Yes. It’s fast, it’s a forum for discussion, and as Alfred Hermida said in a comment to the live blog, “It’s my morning newspaper.” It’s a quick space to see what’s interesting, what’s new, and what everyone’s talking about.
But is it journalism? It appears that issue has yet to be resolved. I’ll certainly be more critical of what I tweet and retweet, though I’m certainly grateful to be part of the conversation.
If credibility is the end goal of the modern investigative newsroom, transparency is the means. That’s the consensus of the “Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom” panel, which discussed a recent report on emerging ethical conflicts that are challenging investigative organizations.
Robert Gutsche Jr of the new Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, said his forming group has been turning to other nonprofits, including the Wisconsin Center and the Center for Public Integrity to set its own standards for openness. “We want to be sure that information our reporting, our fact-checking and our donations are accessible to the public,” Gutsche says. “If this is what we are demanding from public officials, institutions, and the general public, then we should ask the same of ourselves.”
Maintaining ethical practices is further complicated as non-profit news centers collaborate with other news organizations with differing agendas and standards.
“Networks bring challenges,” says Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Ethics at the Networks need to have as much transparency in funding and spending as possible. It all comes down to credibility. If you can’t be transparent about your donors, say why.”
Transparency alone won’t guarantee solid ethical practices. Audience participants questioned how all the talk about transparency translates into action.
Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison Stephen Ward cautions that transparency is not a substitute for good journalism, but merely a means by which an organization helps achieve ethical practices.
Another hot topic for non-profits is the baggage that comes along with donor money. Non-profit journalism organizations rely heavily on foundations and private donors—many of whom have some sort of agenda that is inherently different from that of the news organization.
Founder of the Center for Public Integrity Charles Lewis noted in his session this morning that only 5 of 30 non-profit journalism centers he studied gave details of their operating budgets. The non-profit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism lists its major donors and funding sources on its website. Executive Director Andy Hall said the Center recently decided not to accept money from anonymous sources or political parties.
Media consultant Carol Toussaint pointed out that while non-profit investigative news centers are generally new to the business, funders are not. She advised journalists that foundations will continue to look critically at their recipients’ successes, including how well they diversify their funding to become more self-sufficient.
-Jacob Kushner, Reporter, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Charles Lewis, founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, addressed the ethics of non-profit journalism in the first session of the conference.
He said the nonprofit model of investigative reporting has gained a great following due to the crisis in traditional journalism. Many professional journalists have turned entrepreneurs, creating their own non-profit news centers out of necessity, but the ethical concerns associated with this relatively new reporting model differ from traditional for-profit reporting.
Much of Lewis’ address centered on the need for greater transparency, especially with it comes to publicizing major donors. He says most organizations he follows do disclose the source of their donations on their websites, but he believes more nonprofit centers should follow suit.
Though nonprofit investigative reporters must rely on donations from individuals or organizations, Lewis says they should be skeptical of potential donors to ensure they maintain absolutely neutrality.
“A lot of donors have not so great agendas and come of them are cagey about that and it won’t be revealed initially,” Lewis said. He said he encourages organizations to set strict standards regarding who they accept money from, staying away from corporations, labor unions and political organizations. Additionally, he said he is also wary of anonymous gifts, and would push organizations not to accept money if they don’t know the source.
In a realm where many are wary of donors’ influence over the quality of reporting, he said the most important thing is to demonstrate your organization’s commitment to neutrality. He emphasized that, just as in for-profit journalism, projects should emanate from within the organization.
“You should first come up with projects important to you, then try to find funding,” he said. This model may help organizations maintain maximum neutrality and stay faithful to traditional ethical standards.
Though Lewis admitted the ideal donor may not exist, he said he is confident in the non-profit realm’s ability to find a balance between funding their operations and staying faithful to their ideals.
“You’re not trying to please the public,” he said. “Evenutally you’ll be seen as serious and not pandering to certain interests.” He said once an organization builds their credibility, well-meaning donors will quickly follow.
A question from the audience has sparked talk about new media providing people with more and more narrow outlets for their interests, preventing them from seeing anything written from a different point of view. Prof. Shah contends that, in fact, it’s not as pervasive a problem as we may think, and there’s a great variety of people who visit any particular site, no matter how specific.
Moderator Sue Robinson, also a professor at UW-Madison, asks if there may be an ethical responsibility on the part of newspapers and news sites to prevent this furthering segmentation, citing the Capital Times’ specifically sports and arts oriented sites. The panelists consensus seems to be there’s no stopping that, people are going to get what they want somehow, so we might as well give it to them. Readers are readers, and we shouldn’t worry about what else they might be seeing. Is that right? Do you think we should do what we can to expose readers to a wide variety of topics and viewpoints, or is that simply not our jobs?
Katy Culver takes it one step further and asks that we ensure a broad readership, and equal access to all. Dhavan Shah quickly countered that, in his view, new media are more democratic than the old. What do you think? Do websites and twitter provide a greater degree of accessibility for the audience, or are we missing out on the (not insignificant) part of the population that stays off line.
Journalist or commenter? Where does a young journalist fit in on social media sites and comments sections?
More than a reader, but not quite a professional journalist just yet:
One of the questions going on inside my heading during the conference about user comments and ethics codes for news organizations is where do young journalists fit in on the web. I’m talking about student reporters, who are still in school and perhaps working at a student paper or interning locally, or young graduates still looking for a job and not yet a part of a media organization. Should we carry ourselves as journalists on the web? Should we refrain from online discussion boards … comment anonymously? or comment with our real names?
Should we debate on blogs or add comments to articles if we are journalists ourselves? Peter Kafka has shown us how Twitter can be great for tracking the development of a story, but should we use the medium to voice our own views? Should we engage in the social media movement as just places for tips, or should we respond actively? I’m trying to write my own code of ethics and am wondering what other journalists and young reporters think.
There’s such a big paper trail on the web, and I think it’s important to explore where young journalists fit in, especially if they’re looking to get into the professional news business that demands journalists understand and make use of the social media community.
The panelists now have posed the issue of online comments.
What do people think of online commenters? Should news organizations offer online registration to comment? Should you have to name yourself to comment? Do anonymous commenters really add to the discussion? Should comments be moderated?
Dhavan Shah, UW-Madison professor, brings things full circle to Katy Culver’s initial statement by posing the question, what can we do to see technology as more of a beneficial influence?
A suggestion of a national media literacy training program for children is met with approval by the panel. Just as civic mindedness should be a desired goal, so should media-mindedness, allowing citizens to understand and utilize the media to their fullest potential.
What do you think? Would training our citizens in media literacy help solve some of the industry’s problems? Certainly there would be a greater understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, of what actually constitutes bias and what goes into a story, but I’m not sure that would translate to a greater embrace of the media in its many forms. Greater sympathy for the field, maybe (and that would be great), but that’s not the same thing.
Does online journalism need an ethics handbook?, poses Jeff Mayers of Wispolitics.com. ”I don’t think so, I dont think it’s all that different,” he says, referring to traditional journalism. Instead of using staff to moderate comments on the politics-based website, Mayers said the website decided to create a separate site to give the bloggers their own forum to respond and debate.
Beyond collective debate, Dhavan Shah says collaborative reporting by community members is a promising tool. ”New media has given citizens more tools to be collaborative,” he says. “We should welcome this, instead of viewing it as a threat.”
Community efforts, however, raise ethical concerns. With the freedom citizen have to comment, there’s a question whether there is a code of ethics they should adhere to while engaging in online news. Should attacking journalists, editors or other commenters be off limit? Some audience members have expressed the harshness of some online commenters. I think now because there is more of a chorus of voices out there, the nutcases will just be one voice out of many. Shah says “media literacy” teaching could be a strategy to improve the quality of online commenting.