February 28, 2008
Journalists define ethics almost exclusively in First Amendment terms, and self-defensively shut down conversations that range any further, especially into public speech ethics and morals.
That rigid "First Amendment-only" response
is deeply problematic in a society where millions of ordinary citizens
how to become journalists on the Internet, and in a larger
world where billions of people have different values and ideas about
There are also ancient teachings
about moral or "right
speech," and new scientific insights into how language works in the brain to shape belief and action, that only
a relaxed, humble, and non-defensive journalism can absorb with benefit.
Moreover, and most practically, journalism's ethical dilemma has down-to-earth implications for the survival of journalism in purely economic terms.
I'd like to end my talk today with
a few observations about the interrelation of ethics and economics
in the global media, through a brief look at U.S. newspapers.
Yet virtually none of the obituaries-cum-analyses
of the ailing U.S. newspaper industry today account for the global
components of the U.S. newspaper industry's problems.
To take one example, competition for today’s major metropolitan daily newspapers comes not just from the other newspapers in a given market, from TV shows or from video games that young people play instead of reading the news.
Today, major U.S. newspapers also compete with the daily newspapers of foreign countries, which are read on the Internet every morning by the immigrant populations living in American cities.
So why aren’t more major daily newspapers courting immigrants as a major plank of their survival plans?
Over the past several years, I've asked many newspaper editors and publishers, including the then-publisher of the embattled Chicago Sun-Times, just this question.
Their answers always boil down to this: "Immigrants don't want us and they don't need us. They don't share our readers' interests, they don't live in the same neighborhoods, and they don’t even speak the same language as our readers."
of answering a global phenomenon with a global solution, or even a
globally-themed discussion, this defensive, head-in-the-sand posture
The critical question to ask here
is an ethical one: "If the journalism of a major metropolitan
daily newspaper isn’t for all the citizens who live in that city, who
is its journalism for? More to the point, who is journalism for?"
More precisely, journalists typically answer the question too quickly, without checking the answer against reality, before defensively ending the conversation.
The quick answer, of course, is "journalism is for all citizens."
That's the automatic response provided
by First Amendment-only journalism ethics, which defines the purpose
of journalism as providing the citizens of democracy with the information
they need to be free and self-governing.
But the actual reality is, for the past half century journalism has not been for everyone in society but rather for people who can afford it -- for the people who live in the prime zip codes, who can buy the stuff in the ads, who make up the "favorable demographics," and who speak fluent English.
That last one might sound like
a stretch. Obviously, English-language papers are for people who read
English, right? But in fact, publishers
like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst once built fortunes
selling newspapers to immigrants who spoke little or no English, but
desperately to learn.
By contrast, in recent
decades journalism has sliced up our communities into favored and
disfavored demographics, catering to the former and shunning the latter.
In journalism, we've rationalized this shift away from the notion that journalism is for all citizens with a raft of euphemisms. We’ve called it "smart marketing," "writing for our demographics," and most of all, "knowing our audience."
When in fact, we've practiced the journalistic equivalent of bank red-lining. We’ve funneled the precious information lifeblood of democracy to certain favored groups and neighborhoods, just as redlining banks do with loans.
study by media researchers
in the U.S., England, Denmark and Finland shows how the news in America
has become a commodity of the upper-class.
In the U.S., the difference between
the two groups was 40 percentage points compared to 14, 13, and zero
points difference in Britain, Finland and Denmark, respectively.
Of all our national institutions, journalism is surely among the best suited – by virtue of its proud history, its skills of realistic social observation and description, by its favored place in the U.S. constitution, and by its key role in democracy – to begin to see the world clearly and whole again, by seeing and serving all citizens.
By describing our communities as interrelated wholes, we would help keep its parts working together, as opposed to flying apart.
We need a full, relaxed and open ethical discussion to reach agreement on this or any other goal.
Will journalists -- citizens and
professionals -- lead this global ethical conversation?