February 28, 2008

Sometimes, Journalism Stops Free Speech

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin – The central theme of this talk has been how journalism's weak ethics tradition hampers its ability to adapt and evolve in today's globally interdependent world. 

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 are exploring how to become journalists on the Internet, and in a larger world where billions of people have different values and ideas about free speech.

Free speech is a transcendent principle. But if like any moral principle it's accorded monopoly status, how can constructive conversation occur?

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.

Global Trends

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.

From their crumbling cost structures, shifting readerships and demographics to the changing news-reading habits of their customers, American newspapers increasingly are at the mercy of global trends.

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.

Survival Plans

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."

Instead of answering a global phenomenon with a global solution, or even a globally-themed discussion, this defensive, head-in-the-sand posture is struck.

Reality Check

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?"

But journalism has a hard time discussing, much less answering that question.

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.

Favored Demographics

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 wanted desperately to learn.

Immigrants once bought daily newspapers for their English language columns, their advice for assimilating immigrants, and for immigrant and mainstream news. 

By contrast, in recent decades journalism has sliced up our communities into favored and disfavored demographics, catering to the former and shunning the latter. 

Information Redlining

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.  

A recent 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.

Using a standard news-knowledge test given in all four countries, the study showed an enormous difference separating well-to-do, educated Americans versus  lesser-educated citizens, as compared to the three European countries.

Seeing Whole

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.

How can journalism describe the world accurately, as an interrelated whole, if we define our own communities as demographic slivers? By describing them as slivered, we help make them so.

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?

When will we do this, and how?

Thank you.

Copyright @ 2008 The McGill Report

Part One of this talk: The True Promise of Citizen Journalism
Part Two: My Language Crimes at The New York Times
Part Three: The Buddha, the Dharma and the Media