A recent three-day colloquium on journalism ethics at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul was entitled: "Who is a Journalist?" As the various academics and journalists in attendance debated this question, I found myself, a practicing journalist of 30 years, marvelling at a certain great divide in the assumptions held by these two groups -- scholars of journalism ethics on one side, journalists on the other. The interesting thing was, the journalism scholars viewed the practice of journalism as a moral act, very similar to religion or philosophy or to writing serious literature.
To the journalists, meanwhile, such an outlook was virtually shocking. They were trained to see the world in morally neutral terms, as a tenet of their profession.
Over a period of three days, I worked with professors who had thought and written deeply on issues ranging from whether journalism could be re-imagined as a caring profession, with similarities to professions like nursing or social work; to the moral stance of journalists who report stories of great consequence (e.g., genocides) that nevertheless are ignored by the mainstream media; to the moral puzzles involved in journalists reporting on "virtual" events in cyberspace as opposed to "real" ones in the real world.
Truly, these are really rich and deep moral questions that intimately involve journalism, which keeps you might say mankind's daily diary of social breakdown and disease. And yet, my exposure to these explorers of journalism's moral and ethical depths was matched by a simultaneous realization, that at least in my experience, working journalists have not had the slightest exposure to these questions. Nor, generally speaking, do journalists generally show the slightest interest in them. Quite the opposite, in fact. There is almost a reflex reaction by journalists against academics, not necessarily personally, but rather to the theories that academics build and propose. Journalists make a point of hating theories and glamorizing facts. It's a really unfortunate trait that weakens the profession.
In ten years as a reporter at The New York Times, and five as a bureau chief at Bloomberg News, I don't recall a single newsroom conversation or meeting I ever attended that was called for the purpose of making a careful application of moral principles to a specific story.
Sure, we journalists have ethics codes, and we make quick reference to one or another item on the list when a problematic story comes up. But usually, that's the extent of the process -- a cursory scan of a very small list, then choosing one item from the list to wield thereafter not as a light to guide deeper moral inquiry, but rather as a shield against the complaints and fiery emails and threats of lawsuit that may follow publication.
Nearly always, the so-called ethical discussion is limited to the small circle of people who are directly involved in the story -- e.g., those quoted or interviewed as sources for the article, the reporter, and those whose work or reputations might be affected by the story. The wider ripples of journalistic work into society at large or on constitutive groups such as, say, children or women or immigrants, are considered beyond the practical, or indeed the properly moral, ambit of a journalist's daily work.
Morality in newsrooms is a very practical business, tailored to maintain deadlines and reputations and the rolling of the presses day and night. It's a business at the end of the day, and ethics must serve the business as everything in a business must. As one of the colloquium's journalism scholars with summed it up, with a casualness suggesting he was uttering a cliche in his circles: ''Ethics codes are post-hoc morality.'' Bingo.
Is a blogger a journalist? Is John Stewart or Stephen Colbert a journalist? How about the neighbor lady who attends every meeting of the local school board and then sends detailed reports of those meetings to all her friends? Or the retired airline stewardess (true story) who took up Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a special interest and now writes a blog that even experts consider authoritative?