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.
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.
I’m not a seasoned blogger, but here goes! The new media and ethics panel is off to a great start. Some tidbits from Katy Culver…
Potholes. Yes, potholes. Katy Culver noted a citizen tip that potholes were not being filled led to a full-on investigative story showing disadvantaged urban areas had obnoxiously infrequent road repairs compared to the more affluent neighborhoods. It kicked off similar investigations across the nation. More of a response to some earlier conference discussion, but an interesting point nonetheless.
Affairs. A colleague of Culver’s once said “I could go home and tell my wife I’m having an affair and be as transparent as possible, but I’m still having an affair.” Which is to say, while “transparency” is thrown around as an ideal in online communication, accuracy and ethics need to be up there too.
Culver believes ethics is a process; that journalists should follow a set of determined rational steps, not just “gut check” their actions. I’d like to hear more from the panel (or blog readers) on this idea; is it possible to lay out specific rational ethical processes across new media?
This sentiment that technology is the bad guy has not just been the dominant one today at the conference, but is widespread at actual newspapers as well (at least, in my limited experience). I’ve heard editors and reporters occasionally lamenting the good old days before the Internet and cell phones, and while I sympathize a little, still shudder to think how I’d get by in such a world. (And I’m not even a member of this current, millennial, constantly twittering and texting generation.)
Is the reluctance of newspapers to embrace and exploit the latest technologies particularly bad, or is it on a par with other industries slow to adapt to change? Is this mostly negative view of it also usual across careers, or do newspaper folks (and journalists in general) particularly despise new technology and its ill-wrought effects?
I’m excited to be a part of today’s UW-Madison J-school inaugural ethics conference, providing live coverage with social media. I’ll be blogging the conference’s final session, “New Media, Ethics and Democratic Journalism,” and there’s quite a panel lined up.
With new social media tools popping up everyday, and user communities growing exponentially (Twitter’s unique users doubled in March, for example), it’s a jungle out there for communicators. Are there ethics inherent to new media, or are stuffy newspaper-reading professors just forcing old journalism ethics to apply to this new media jungle? I’ll argue there are ethics to be followed, and I think those ethics are determined – no, demanded – by the new media user community – of which those stuffy professors are a part! That’s the simultaneouly cool and difficult thing about new media – most everyone can participate. So how can ethics be imposed on such a diverse population? I’ll be interested to see what the panel has to say.
I’ll also be tweeting @bresciaann for Sessions 3 and 4, so check out the #uwethics Twitter feed and join the discussion!