Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Whole "New" Ethics

Calli Whaley

Ethics sounds like a deep, vague word. Upon hearing such a word, minds drift into considering the ethical life decisions debated by philosophers and scholars. In journalism, it's a bit simpler.

Rough Draft

In the 1990s, Poynter released a draft of journalism principles. This list included three things, of which were to: seek truth and report it as fully as possible, act independently, and minimize harm.

Under "Seek truth and report it as fully as possible," Poynter includes guidelines suggesting that a journalist informs themselves continuously so to help later inform others, be honest, fair, and courageous in the journalistic process, give voice to the voiceless, and to hold the powerful accountable. Sounds pretty good, right? Just wait.

Next was to "Act independently," which said to guard the role of free press, seek out and disseminate other perspectives without any influence by powerful people, remain free of associations and activities that could compromise ones integrity or credibility, and to recognize that good ethical decisions require one's own responsibility.

Lastly was to "Minimize harm," which elaborated to say that a journalist should be compassionate for those affected by their actions, treat sources, subjects, and colleagues as humans that deserve respect, recognize that getting and reporting information could potentially cause harm or discomfort, but to balance the negatives by finding alternatives that maximize truth telling.

Those guidelines sound complicated and hard to follow, and that's largely why they've since been updated.

First Revision

Those guidelines, though they seemed straightforward, were revised for the 21st century. From the 1990s until now, technology has changed drastically, and that directly affects journalism. And, as journalism changes, the principles do too.

While changes were made, the number one guideline didn't budge. To reiterate, it says "Seek truth and report it as fully as possible." What Poynter changed were some of the specifics. They stressed more the importance of accuracy and its necessity in truth. In addition to giving voice to the voiceless, they also included documenting the unseen. With changes in technology leading to handheld recording devices, it is substantially easier to document things and we're given views that many people can't see. It is important to show them those things.

"Act independently" was lumped under "Be transparent." In transparency, Poynter stressed showing how the reporting was actually done and acknowledging any mistakes. Transparency requires independence in that a journalist must share their own reporting and own up to any of their own mistakes.

"Minimize harm" became "Engage community as an end, rather than as a means." Under this revision, it is stressed to make an effort to understand the needs of the community, which would in turn minimize any harm. In the 90s version, minimizing harm was all about treating people with respect, which in essence is only a part of what is necessary to the overarching importance of engaging a community.

Continued Revision

In just the 20 years between Poynter's first and second drafts of journalism principles, advantages in technology have been a driving force. That force isn't ceasing.

Journalism has been, and is still, playing catch-up to the ever-dynamic world of technology. In the 90s, cellphones were accurately compared to bricks that could only make phone calls. Today, cellphones are handheld computers that take high quality video and pictures. We needed separate devices 20 years ago to do what we can today on one.

Journalists are trying to figure out how to get and give the news effectively on these devices in addition to all of the original mediums.

What changes are next? We'll see. And journalists will try to adjust.

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