I attended a terrific conference on journalistic ethics yesterday at St. Thomas University, where I teach. The 2004 Whalen Symposium on Media Ethics was called "When Ethics Collide: Reconciling Professional Calling with Personal Conviction."
I was especially motivated to attend because a big chunk of today's journalism crisis, I believe, is caused by reporters discovering that the professional code of objectivity just isn't working for them anymore.
Ethic of Objectivity
Dan and Margie spoke passionately for maintaining objectivity as a journalistic ideal, so that journalists scrupulously maintain their indepedence from sources.
Both Dan and Margie used the debate over oil drilling in Alaska's ANWAR wilderness refuge as an example. It's critical, they said, for journalists to maintain intellectual distance from the two main parties in the debate, namely the oil interests that favor drilling on the one hand, and environmentalists who favor keeping the wilderness pristine, on the other.
Yet the ethic of objectivity includes more than the notion of intellectual independence. It also defines what is coverable, and what is not coverable, by journalists.
Specifically, it says that only those things that objectively exist in society are fair game for coverage. This leaves out at least two major areas where sound and socially useful ideas may be found.
Hearts and Minds
First, ideas with potential use to our society may exist in other societies than our own. And second, good ideas may exist in the hearts and minds of individual people, as opposed to existing in society.
Good ideas may even exist in the heart and mind of the journalist who is writing a story. In fact, given the expertise that many reporters develop, one might reasonably anticipate that many great reporters have many great ideas.
Ironically, though, the code of objectivity pretty much prohibits them from bringing their knowledge directly into a story, especially in the first person. Rather, they must use various indirect methods, such as finding sources whose ideas are similar to theirs and to quote them, or to lead them in interviews toward their views.
As I listened to Dan and Margie speak, I realized that the question I have with objectivity in the ANWAR case is: "What if the best answer to the ANWAR dilemma simply isn't to be found in the arguments of the two main sides?"
Maybe the solution resides in, say, Japan?
I floated this idea with Margie, at dinner after the symposium.
I asked her what if, hypothetically, she had found while covering the ANWAR debate that in her opinion it was environmental thinking in Japan that offered the best hope of finding a good compromise solution in Alaska?
I knew a little about the case of Japan, as I studied Japanese environmental policy in Tokyo as a Fulbright scholar in 1990.
In Japan, as a result of centuries of Japanese cultural traditions, environmental issues are approached in a whole different way than they are in the United States. And while Japan is no environmental angel (e.g., its international rainforest logging and Pacific driftnet fishing), they have developed over the centuries a highly effective way to balance the needs of nature with the needs of a population of 124 million in a space the size of California.
Main Story vs. Sidebar
Margie thought a moment and then said, "My editors would listen, but they would say 'Do it as a sidebar.' I'd get to write about it, but only that way."
A couple other journalists at the table thought that framing the Japanese approach in a sidebar would give the public as much information as they needed.
But I'm just not sure.
To me, the assumption of my hypothetical was that the writer had become passionate as a citizen and as a journalist, that the best way to solve the ANWAR problem was to bring in the outside view in detail from Japan.
Would the reporter, given her expertly-grounded belief that the Japanese answer was the key to the ANWAR dilemma, feel satisified with writing it up as a sidebar?
Data Without Direction
Or might she feel that writing it as a sidebar was to signal to readers precisely what she most wanted to avoid -- namely that the Japanese perspective was marginal and not central?
The biggest argument that the news media today is not in fact broken but rather is giving people all the information they need in society, is that if you just turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper, or read the Internet you can get virtually any perspective you want explained in great detail.
Yet, isn't it true that while today's news media seems omnipresent, it also seems somehow totally impotent? What's the reason for that?
How come the media provides tsunamis of information covering every conceivable point 0f view, yet with no coverage so deep or so convincing that the public feels truly moved enough to take the strong action needed to improve policies in many fields?
The media is giving data without direction, it would seem.
What to Do?
The answer to the paradox of the omnipresent impotence of the media may have more to do with how the media presents information, than with whether it presents information.
Main story versus sidebar story is very much one of those how questions.
The answer to this decision does not just convey information, it also signals the writer's and the publication's beliefs about primacy and subordinacy, i.e. whether they think the ideas in the story are serious or unserious, central or marginal, of critical importance or whether they fall in the category of being safely ignored.
Placement of a story as a sidebar, I would argue, puts these words in flashing neon letters over the piece: "This story can be safely ignored."
So I return to my original question: if a journalist by virtue of years of experience and expertise comes to hold strong views that could be helpful to society, yet is unable to share those views fully because of the ethical code of objectivity, what should be done?
I'm still pondering that one. Maybe I'll ask my St. Thomas colleagues if they have a topic picked for the Whalen Symposium next year.