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Ward’s Words: DIY vs. depersonalized journalism ethics

Media ethicist Stephen J.A. Ward takes stock of the two most common ways of rewriting ethic codes—DIY ethics and a depersonalized approach—and finds them both wanting.  By Stephen J.A. Ward The creation of a global and open media ecology that is online and offline,  as well as professional and amateur, has undermined a prior professional…

Media ethicist Stephen J.A. Ward takes stock of the two most common ways of rewriting ethic codes—DIY ethics and a depersonalized approach—and finds them both wanting. 

By Stephen J.A. Ward

The creation of a global and open media ecology that is online and offline,  as well as professional and amateur, has undermined a prior professional consensus on the content of journalism ethics. There is scarcely a principle or concept that is not up for debate, from who is a journalist to whether reporters should be objective.

Yet, increasing numbers of journalists believe there is a need for guiding values as we sail journalism’s roiling sea.

The result is a plethora of code writing and rewriting projects from the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) to the U.S.-based Online News Association (ONA). All of these projects, at some point, face difficult questions: in an age of plural forms of journalism, is writing a common code possible? Can journalism ethics be re-integrated?

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There are two approaches in tension: a depersonalized and a personalized approach.

Depersonalized Ethics

The depersonalized approach is familiar because it was the model for pre-digital journalism ethics for over a century. Codes are de-personal and content-rich. They are de-personal, or platform-neutral, because the codes promote principles for all responsible journalists. It avoids naming kinds of journalism or kinds of journalists.

The codes are content-rich because they articulate many principles and norms. For this approach, content is king, and extensive agreement on common principles is essential.

For example, look at the SPJ code. After the preamble, the code places numerous norms under its four principles of seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable. No types of journalism are named.

The committee, of which I am a member, is revising its code and has decided to maintain the depersonalized approach despite considerable debate.

Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethics

Others have embraced a different approach: personalization, which means that it is up to each journalist or each form of journalism to create their own guidelines.

Personalization asks us not to think of a code as a content-based document with many principles. Instead, think of a code as a process for those who wish to write their own codes. The code is a tool-kit. It adopts only a few common principles, such as truth-telling and accuracy. Then the code provides advice, such as questions to consider for writing guidelines.

There is no rich body of principles for all journalists, although there is a common process for code writing.

This approach has been called DIY ethics. Ethics, swamped by plurality and fragmentation, finds a lifeboat in personalized ethics.

Take, for example, the ONA’s current attempt to develop guidelines for members. The ONA decided that, in an era of multiple forms of journalism and a lack of ethical consensus, it would be futile to try to create a code with agreement on many principles. The ONA site encourages its members to “build your own ethics” using the tools provided by the code. The ONA is “curating a toolkit to help news outlets, as well as individual bloggers/journalists, create guidelines that respond to their own concepts of journalism.”

The toolkit starts with a small set of common principles such as tell the truth, don’t plagiarize and correct your errors. Then, journalists make a choice between traditional objective journalism, where your personal opinion is kept under wraps, and transparency journalism, meaning it’s fine to write from a certain political or social point of view as long as you’re upfront about it.

Then, the toolkit provides guidance on constructing guidelines for about 40 areas of practice where journalists might disagree, such as removing items from online archives, use of anonymous sources and verification of social media sources.

For each area, the toolkit provides a web page that cites various points of view and advises journalists to ask important questions. An international group from news outlets, academia and social networks wrote the pages, and I was one of them.

End of ethics?

For some, the DIY approach is a positive, inclusive and democratic approach, suited to a plural media world. For others, it is an abandonment of journalism ethics, an ill-timed concession to ethical subjectivism. Journalism ethics needs to the stand behind principles and not retreat to a process that, like a smorgasbord, allows everyone to choose what values they like.

I do not think personalized ethics is some dire threat to journalism ethics. It is an understandable response to changes in journalism. But it is not enough to meet those changes, and it can be misunderstood in several ways.

First, it can be misunderstood as a relativism where any rule is valid if some journalist affirms it.

Second, journalists do need to come together and agree on a rich set of principles. Personalization may neglect this aim.

Third, personalization can fail to understand the basis of journalism ethics. The basis is not the aims or values of individual journalists or platforms but the duties that journalists as a whole owe to their public. As the ethics of a social institution, a part of journalism ethics should always include a practice-wide set of common principles for democratic journalism. The ethical self-regulation of journalists does not mean that each journalist regulates him- or herself according to his or her own values only. It means that journalists as a group follow public principles.

Fourth, and finally, a personalized approach can forget that, in doing ethics, we need more than toolkits and questions to consider. We need commitments to actual principles and skill in applying this content to decisions.

The depersonalized approach is also far from perfect, especially in today’s media environment. Depersonalization can encourage an intolerant attitude toward new forms of journalism or neglect its unique problems.

Integrated ethics

My view is that it is a false dilemma to say we must choose between a depersonalized approach and a personalized approach. Any adequate code in the future will have to combine both approaches in a creative and mind-stretching exercise.

I call for an integrated approach that seeks a unity in difference— a newly formulated set of common values that carries across the different forms of journalism.

To forge a consensus, we must reinterpret existing principles and invent new ones. We must formulate principles in a manner that allows for variation in interpretation and application.

What would an integrated code look like? It would consist of four levels:

Level 1: Depersonalized, general principles expressing what every responsible journalist should affirm insofar as they serve the publics of self-governing democracies.

Level 2: More specific norms that fall under the principles, like the SPJ code, only there is no ban on mentioning forms of journalism or formulating rules for new practices.

Level 3: Case studies and examples of how the norms of Levels 1 and 2 are applied in daily journalism, such as how to minimize harm, without a focus on new media issues.

Level 4: A set of guidelines and protocols for new media practices and platforms. This level would be a work in progress, evolving as we improve our ethical thinking in this area.

This code should be a living document online. It should be constantly improved upon in light of public discussion on issues and trends.

Unlike the personalization approach, the code would be rich in content, from the principles on Levels 1 and 2, to the applications and leading-edge discussions on Levels 3 and 4. Unlike the depersonalized approach, it would do more than state abstract principles for all. It would weave fundamental principles into a multi-leveled code.

Does this new type of journalism ethics strike you as complex and difficult—perhaps too difficult? I can only reply: journalism ethics today just is complicated. There is no going back to simpler times, if such times ever existed.

Stephen J. A. Ward writes the media ethics column Ward’s Words. Ward is the director of Media Morals, a website that explores journalism ethics in a global media world.




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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.