Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Bringing Ethics Into The 21st Century

Eli Shively

Every industry experiences periods and stages of change. You don't see Ford cranking out Model Ts anymore, nor can you find a Blockbuster Video or a big-box record store just walking down the street. The journalism industry is no exception. Just how we base the content we produce off of the ethical codes we ascribe to as journalists, we must also bring these codes into the modern age as the way we produce and communicate content evolves.

This cartoon details the way content has evolved with the times.
Out with the old

In the 1990's, back when print, television and radio still ruled the media landscape and the digital age was still a distant fantasy, Poynter drafted a set a of three ethical principles all journalists should base their work on: Seek truth, act independently, and minimize harm. For the times, these principles worked perfectly, however in the decades that followed, it became clear a few of them were in need of some updating.

Independence is undoubtedly something journalists have prided themselves on for a long time. The media is supposed to act as its own governing body, separate from all else, unbiased and fueled by information. In the digital age, however, this becomes harder to prioritize — anyone with any point of view can create any sort of information-based content, and who's to say it's not valuable just because they have a stance? The Young Turks, despite their obvious left-wing leanings, are currently churning out some of the most honest and hard-hitting political content on the web.

Minimizing harm is the other principle that has become outdated. Of course journalists still have an obligation not to hurt anyone or anything, but this obligation is very small in terms of what journalists owe the people they bring information to. Broadening this particular principle to include the other duties journalists must pay attention to when assessing their audience is the best way to modernize it.

In with the new

In the age of free information, journalism needs to be held to a higher ethical standard than just anything you find floating around the Web — this is why "independence" can no longer suffice as a major ethical benchmark. Transparency is much more appropriate to ask of today's journalists, in an age where plagiarism, false information, and clickbait run rampant. How did you do your research? Where did you go? Who did you talk to? These are questions the public needs answered in order to trust a piece of journalism these days.

Back when the journalistic conversation only flowed one way, minimizing harm was the biggest responsibility the media needed to attend to. Now, in addition to making sure news is gathered in a non-harmful manner, journalists have a number of obligations to the people they serve and those affected by what they cover. In this day and age, the importance of the individual has been elevated, making the demands of the audience impossible to ignore. Journalists don't need to just be careful in gathering information, they need to make sure that what they report is truly beneficial to everyone involved. This is why engaging community is a principle more suited to today's times. 

The ever-valuable principle of truth

Just as all industries change over time, they also each have a few key concepts that remain integral to what they produce, no matter what. For the journalist, the most essential element of one's work is truth — which is why seeking truth is the only ethical principle that doesn't need a makeover. If you're disregarding or even stretching the truth in any way, you're not doing your job as a journalist. That's something that will never change.

Truth is actually in high demand these days, as it turns out. Websites like and give the public the hard political fact-checking they crave, and networks like Fox News and MSNBC receive a lot of ridicule from just about everyone for the strictly partisan content they produce. It doesn't take a long, hard look at today's media landscape to see just how important seeking truth still is.

Looking ahead

We have no idea where journalism will be in another 20 years, just as those who drafted the initial three ethical pillars of the industry that same time ago had no idea they would need to be changed so drastically so soon. However, in our ever-evolving, constantly upward-reaching society, one thing is certain: We in the media need to be willing to roll with the changes.

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