Everybody knows something is broken with the news media today, but few can pinpoint the essential flaw. To remark in virtually any social setting about infotainment, information overload, or the failure of even first-rate journalism to engage our civic or political life, is inevitably to induce a round of hearty affirmations, followed by one or two conjectures meekly offered as to the reasons why. Within a short time, an awkward silence falls and baffled shrugs and head shakes end the talk.
Along these lines, a little while ago I taught a graduate-level class called ''The Role of the Media in Public Affairs,'' at a prominent Minnesota university. On a couple of occasions, after giving lectures from a journalist's point of view on the challenges of public affairs reporting, many adult students took my remarks as a cue to vent their longstanding gripes not only against the media but against everything they saw as wrong in today's politico-media system, including presidential mendacity, the lazy electorate, liberal media bias, conservative media bias, rigged electoral systems, how special interests have hijacked government, and plenty else. In other words, the news media is now regarded and actively used as an all-purpose whipping boy for every manner of civic complaint. But why? Granted, journalism has messed up a lot in recent years. But one could easily argue that a great many other public institutions -- e.g., our education system, the civil service, or any of the three branches of the federal government -- have failed equally badly.
An unusually deep and poignant sense of betrayal, I think, is why the news media comes under such bitter attack. There is something singularly honorable, necessary, and even, many societies historically have proclaimed, sacred inherent in the role of messenger, the ''in-between'' role of the person who promises to faithfully render in words and images exactly what he has experienced and seen. The role of the messenger is simply not to be trifled with as, for at least that brief period when the messenger alone bears the message, he carries with him the full weight and grandeur and responsibility of the sovereign. For this brief period of time, the journalist indeed is the sovereign incarnate, a symbol for all of society, carrying its deepest secrets, its most vital memories and plans.
For a journalist to inject into that precious message any kind of bias -- taint of personal ambition, grudge, ideology or special interest -- is thus to thoroughly betray not just himself or his institution but the sovereign, the entire state and every person within it. ''Don't kill the messenger,'' goes the journalist's eternal plaint. But it is entirely understandable why a citizen would want to kill a journalist reckless enough to pollute, even unintentionally through lack of skill not evil purpose, the chalice carrying the clear water of truth that a public needs in constant replenishment.
We are now well entered into the realm of ethics, and the conjecture that comes closest to explaining the news media's failure to fruitfully engage society is an ethical one. Reporters, editors, and publishers, this theory goes, have failed to honor journalism's ethical responsibility to serve the public, as opposed to special interests, including its own. In the newsroom, reporters and editors are said to have failed to meet the rigorous requirements of ''objectivity,'' the reigning journalistic ethical code of the past century. Publishers of news media, likewise, are said to have abandoned their old commitment to offering news as a public service, increasingly choosing instead to transform their news networks into global digital aqueducts delivering lucrative celebrity interviews, trend mongering, divisive punditry, and lust-gland stimulating ''lifestyle'' features and consumer guides.
It would be hard to disagree with this analysis, as far as it goes. No doubt, reporters frequently use the objective ''he said, she said'' template to concoct narratives of conflict that grossly distort the truth of complex issues. No doubt, the objective ''actuality'' of articles is often used as a shield against just and rightful claims of the unbalance, bias, and outright malice of certain journalists and their publishers. And the list could go on. No one disputes at this point how egregiously misused and abused the ideal of ''objectivity'' is.
And yet to stay fixated on the contradictions and faults of journalism's objective code, is to avoid taking a crucial step beyond, which is to note how the entirety of that code, both in its general approach and its particulars, fails to address society's long-term and universal, as opposed to short-term and local, needs from journalism. Journalism's ethical code as it's developed over the past century is a pragmatic system oriented towards preventing and resolving local and short-term disputes between the press and the public over such matters as personal and professional reputation, privacy issues, and the legal rights of sources versus those of reporters and their employers.
Despite the many problems with objectivity that have arisen in recent years, it is relatively rarely noted that on the whole, it has proved a very durable and practicable system for solving disputes between the media and the public in local and short-term settings. In the past hundred years, only a tiny handful of court cases have been successfully prosecuted against newspapers on freedom of speech, privacy, and other rights issues pitting citizen against journalist. And on the whole, citizen complaints against the media have not centered around public displeasure with the outcome of this handful of cases. To the contrary, the public has been accepting or strongly approving of outcomes that have affirmed the rights of the press in such landmark press cases as Near vs. Minnesota, the New York Times vs. Sullivan, and New York Times vs. The United States.
What is happening today is a chorus of complaints not about how well or poorly journalism is addressing local and short-term matters between itself and its public, but its universal and long-term responsibilities to society as a whole. It is not that the ''objective'' ethical code is not being adequately followed that explains why the news media today shifts so confusingly from blatant conservative punditry to pointed liberal counter-attacks, to brief items about bombings in Iraq, to long tabloid exposes on celebrity pedophiles or husbands mysteriously gone missing. It is, rather, that there is nothing in the objective ethical code that really addresses how journalism should even approach such issues. Because the larger, universal and moral questions of what to report -- as opposed to the local, procedural, and short-term questions of how to report -- are just not addressed in journalism's present ethical code. Objectivity, as such authors as Robert Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have pointed out, is a matter of method and not of aim. It tells a reporter how to go about his business in order to be fair, yes, but also, not coincidentally, in such a way as to avoid complaints and lawsuits.
Journalism's ethical code is silent on the question of ultimate aim. On journalism's role and purpose in society, it is silent. But what journalism's ultimate role in society should be, is precisely what citizens today are crying out for journalists to forthrightly and explicitly state. Why don't we?
In one critical sense, journalism ''ethics'' has been a misnomer as it has been discussed and practiced over the past century. Because ethics is about finding ways to act morally among one's fellow humans, i.e., to do good or at least to avoid doing harm. But journalism's ethical code is addressed not towards shaping individual moral behaviors, but rather practical professional ones. If it is really an ethics it is a truly strange and anomalous one among all human ethical systems. Because nowhere in journalism's ethical tenets does one find language devoted to exploring or instructing on such matters as ''What is good?'', ''What is moral?'', ''What defines positive moral action?'', and ''How are individual and collective good to be reconciled?''
That today's global news media system is entirely absent such a foundational and grounding moral framework, has got to be counted among the greatest gaps in human development and the most urgent needs of mankind. One could put it this way, that the news media today has an ethics (of a kind) to follow, but no true morals informing that ethical guide to behavior. There is no direction or tradition of right action versus wrong action, in which journalism's ethics are planted, and from which individual actions organically grow. True, reporters and editors do their work believing in various theoretical axioms that connect their daily work to the larger public good. They believe, for example, that an informed public is necessary in a democracy. They believe that their job is to inform the public, and that once a public is informed they will automatically use that information to pressure politics and governments in order to produce the best possible public policy.
But these assumptions are faulty on two grounds. First, it's easy to prove that although these axioms may ardently be believed by working journalists, they are utterly unverified in reality. There is no evidence, for example, that a majority of the public is well-informed on even the most rudimentary of vital public issues of this day or any other day, whether these issues be economic, social, cultural, military, educational, or any other. To the contrary, most of the public is ignorant on the key points of all these major issues, all the time. Even when a portion of the public becomes well-informed on a specific public issue it is equally easy to prove that taking the next step -- that is engaging well-informed positions meaningfully so as to influence policy-making -- is by no means automatic, straightforward, or easy. To the contrary, many citizens deeply inform themselves fully on matters such as the war in Iraq, yet have no idea how to take the next step towards influencing policy on the war. Even once they are so motivated, the path to true engagement is littered with obstacles ranging from the lack of civic groups providing a practical route for engagement, to the presence of well-funded lobby groups dedicated to fighting citizen action.
There is a second, even more serious fault in journalism's working theory about how individual journalist's work connects to the wider public good. Namely, it does not instruct or advise journalists at the level of individual conscience, i.e. the individual's inherent or learned sense of right and wrong. In this sense, it can be said that journalistic ethics do not even assume that individual journalists have a conscience. Groundbreaking research and philosophical work by the journalism scholars James Glaser and Theodore Ettema has laid this out in clear terms, based on extensive interviews with prizewinning investigative journalists at newspapers. What they found was that time after time, whether exposing scandals in prison systems or public schools, in city halls or state legislatures, journalists felt deeply constrained at the amount of leeway they had to exercise their individual moral conscience at virtually any stage in the journalistic process, from choosing what story to write, to reporting the story, to the form in which they wrote it. At each of these stages they felt they had to subordinate the use of individual conscience to such forces as newsroom traditions, “objective” ethics, the whims of editors, and, above all, the law. No matter what they discovered was happening out there in the world, these top investigative reporters said, they were hamstrung from reporting it and getting it published unless they could prove to their editors that there somewhere there was a law or written regulation that prohibited or censured such activity. One reporter, writing about prison rape, had an especially hard time not only getting her story into print but getting the time she needed to research the story. That was because her editors thought that the poor track record at prosecuting this crime proved society's basic disinterest in the problem, and thus laid a weak foundation for investigative journalism. Therefore they were reluctant to spend any reporting time, much less printed space, on the topic.
How many of the horrible, evil, destructive things that are happening in the world today are, strictly speaking, not illegal? What good is a journalism that cannot step up to expose such evils fearlessly and utterly, with the full force behind them not only of an individual courageous journalist, but also of a journalistic tradition that grounds, supports and guides the use of the individual human conscience? Think of all the courageous citizens in this world who put their lives on the line every day on the basis of their individual conscience because the law -- such an ass -- has not yet caught up to such urgent matters as banning land mines, genocide, polluting rivers, honor killings, genital mutilation, female infanticide, or racist policies. Is journalism forever going to be as limited as the law in fighting these evils?
What good can journalism really do in the world, if journalists feel constrained by the very ethics of their craft, to restrain the use of their individual conscience? How can we reasonably expect journalists to act and to write their stories using their strong, positive, active conscience to distinguish right from wrong, when there is nothing in journalism's tradition of practice or system of ethics that remotely addresses the human conscience and its positive moral use? Under the circumstances, isn't it reasonable to speculate that in the absence of such guidelines to the use of conscience in journalism, that the news media is inevitably doomed to do harm in the world? If not through actual evil intent (although there would fully be room for that), then simply by unskilled action, a kind of reckless use of words in printed and verbal form that would harm, say as a person untrained in maintaining a proper diet could die from eating only ice cream?