|August 14, 2006
A Syllabus for a Moral Journalism
The McGill Report
-- Since I began in journalism in 1977 the profession has sharply dropped
in public standing, inexorably squandering the cultural authority it
earned during the Civil Rights, Vietnam War, and Watergate eras.
Slowly journalism has transformed from the mighty "press" into a meek
appendage of the "mass media," often using what power it has retained
merely to reinforce political paralysis, poisoned public discourse, and
America's weakened image abroad. And it has been a cheerleader of the
obsessive consumerism that causes so many personal and public health
crises, economic imbalances, and global environmental threats.
Angry at how professional journalism handed itself over to government
and corporate power, citizens are taking matters into their own hands.
This summer a bumper crop of new "citizen journalism" ventures are
sprouting, sometimes with the help of professional journalists who are
sympathetic to the mission and eager to lend their skills.
Here in Minnesota The Twin
Cities Daily Planet, launched in May, combines professional editors
with citizen reporters covering neighborhood, community, and ethnic issues
in Minnesota. The Center for
Independent Media, a new not-for-profit out of Washington, is also now
recruiting citizen bloggers to build a statewide network to cover daily
Minnesota news in a wire-service fashion.
On a national scale, the proliferation of citizen journalism
web sites has been underway for several years. These are mostly
efforts to create traditional newsroom-style journalism that is powered by
citizen journalists working in the new medium of blogs. This summer, a new
interest in harnessing the power of distributed networks to journalism is
taking hold as theorist-practitioners like
Jeff Jarvis and
Jay Rosen move their new projects into the action phase.
Yet I see places where, unless some corrections are made early,
journalism's new edifice will soon crack along familiar stress lines.
What journalists need to think about seriously right now is language
itself -- its essential nature, its cultural meanings, and most
importantly, its social uses and modes of action.
Language after all is the very medium of journalism, the substance that
journalists sculpt and shape into journalism's many forms. That many if
not most working journalists never spend a single hour seriously studying
the manipulation of language by power -- for example in its forms as
rhetoric and propaganda or public relations -- is a stunning, troubling
A profound knowledge of tools and materials is
necessary at the highest level of every profession, sometimes as a matter
of life and death. Sunday drivers don't need to know a carburetor from a
crankshaft; but a NASCAR driver's life could hang on such knowledge.
Journalism, some days, drives society. It is a
straightforward matter of public safety that journalists thoroughly master
a knowledge of the social and political uses and abuses of language,
before they take the wheel.
Most journalists have above-average facility in
vernacular English. The problem is that they mistake this single skill --
often with prickly arrogance and defensiveness -- for true expertise in
the use of language to move masses of people to think and act in certain
ways. They are usually completely ignorant of this field of study, despite
the fact that it defines precisely what they do.
When journalists don't fully understand how power shapes language to
serve its own ends, they inevitably become pawns to those who do. Power
then takes the wheel of society, and drives it where it will.
A closer metaphor than race-car driving to journalism is agriculture.
Journalists produce the words and images we massively consume. The mass
media is a greater producer of this diet than journalism, but journalism
is that slice of the mass media that claims to produce the critical
narrative and informational calories that citizens must absorb to keep
democracy in robust health.
Our soul food as citizens is language itself. But
how many journalists learn a thing about the cultural seeds of language,
how language grows or is thwarted in different political and cultural
climates, or indeed how language can be altered by propaganda or admixed
with sweet-tasting poisons?
Is it not possible that mass media-produced
language, including the language used by the "news media," has itself
become just another of the mild poisons massively consumed by global
What is journalism's moral responsibility in such a situation?
As we reach an exciting new threshold in journalism's development, these
basic questions are not yet being asked. Blueprints for new
language-processing factories are being sketched that dwarf all that have
The tiny fraction of these new processing facilities
that succeed will dwarf in global reach the largest of the dead-tree
These new networked news enterprises involving both
citizens and professional journalists will become the e-Bays, Amazons, and
Googles of journalism. (Google itself may become the new
Google of journalism.)
Any rocket scientist will tell you that tiny
alterations in original conditions strongly influence outcome. Making such
adjustments in today's new journalism ventures could mean that down the
line they'd have a better chance at fulfilling their progressive aims,
instead of morphing into the paralyzed, caustic, harmful and meaningless
journalism they hoped to replace.
A syllabus for a new
journalism -- a journalism more conscious of its broad impacts on
individual and social health -- would cover four main topics:
1. The study of journalism as rhetoric.
It would surprise most journalists to
know that even as they impart to readers
the informational content of their
articles they are also, usually
unconsciously, trying to persuade their
readers of several key points. These
include persuading readers of their own
credibility as journalists, and of the
authority of the people they quote; and
to persuade readers also of the
essential correctness of their moral
premises, world view, and authorial
points-of-view. These specific points
are important to grasp, but equally
important in studying journalism as
rhetoric is simply to demonstrate to
journalists the multi-layered intentions
embedded in all speech.
2. Examining "free speech" versus "right speech."
This step in the syllabus sensitizes
journalists to the wide range of public
speech which, although allowed by law,
is inadvisable from the standpoint of
individual or societal good. Since it
has historically been threatened by
government censorship, journalism has
tended to refrain from lengthy
consideration of instances where free
speech is best curtailed for the overall
good. Yet absolutely unchecked public
speech engenders its own set of public
health threats, and is now doing just
that across the globe. It thus behooves
journalism to ask whether the media's
abuse of free-speech protections is one
reason why journalism itself, instead of
helping solve society's problems, so
often simply fuels them.
3. The perfect correlation of local and global causes and
effects. This is a universal
fact, ignorance of which is the root of
much human suffering. Ironically, the
opportunity to embrace this truth arises
precisely at dire historical moments
such as the present one, when the
effects of ignorance of the perfect
local-global correlation becomes
apparent as local and global disease.
The illumination of these stress points
in the natural environment, the economy,
local cultures, and in the human person
is journalism's paramount responsibility
at such an epochal moment.
4. The problems of the individual and of society, which
are journalism's natural subjects,
connect in the experience of human
suffering. As a result, human
suffering, individual and social, is
journalism's essential subject. Journalism
like medicine, the law, or the helping
professions in this respect. Yet what
really know about human suffering?
How much have they studied it, and
equally important, how thoroughly have
they considered the role of journalistic
practice in the overall scheme of human
suffering -- its possible role in
causing and continuing human suffering,
and as well in contributing to
individual and social healing? What
guidelines has journalism established
for ethical practice in this particular
regard? Journalists see and deal with
human suffering all day long; they
actively seek it out; they absorb it
and re-present it to vast audiences
repackaged as straight news, analysis,
feature stories, long and short
narratives, and many other forms. Yet
what is really happening in this
transaction? What moral calculus is
involved, what trade-off of rights and
obligations occurs -- or should occur
between journalists and the suffering
people from whose pain the journalist
fashions stories? At what point does
the re-presentation of suffering become
entertainment? Such questions only begin
to open this subject, which leads to
deepest question that journalism can
ask of itself: What is journalism's
Is it merely to inform? Or is it in some
way, also, to heal? Many journalists
would say: "My purpose as an individual
journalist is merely to inform. I hope
that society uses the information to
heal itself, but whether it does so
out of my hands." When did journalists
become so timid? When did they accept
passive a role for themselves and their
profession? Do they apply that same
standard of passivity when they
themselves as individuals fall sick?
Do they merely read up on their illness
dismiss their own recovery as a matter
"out of their hands?" If journalists
forthrightly engage in healing
themselves when facing illness, why
would they not do the same for their
families, friends, neighborhoods,
cities, nations, and global society?
The syllabus for a new journalism can be
summarized in four statements.
First, the study of journalism
as rhetoric awakens journalists'
consciousness to the wider historical,
linguistic, and social depths of their
Second, weighing free speech against right
speech reveals the continuum -- the
unitary and undivided nature -- of the
personal and the political, of the self
Third, local-global thinking reveals the
unbroken continuum of "here" and "there"
in a similar manner;
Fourth, keeping human suffering foremost
unites the heart and the mind and
clarifies the need to form an explicit
and positive moral intention behind
every communicative act.
Plainly stated, journalists and citizen
journalists shouldn't fix their
progressive dreams to the latest miracle
of communications technology. They should
consult their heart, before they activate
The key is intention. Returning to the
agriculture metaphor, the key for
journalists is to learn how to cultivate a
positive intention behind their
communication, from which seeds of
intention will grow language that does not
injure, aggravate or destroy, but rather
that sustains, helps and heals.
Journalism's professional ethical code of
"objectivity" contradicts itself, because
it asks journalists to create positive
moral outcomes while acting in a morally
Yet only positive moral intentions,
followed by positive and skilled moral
actions, can create positive moral
Journalism as a healing art is an
explicitly moral journalism.
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Copyright @ 2006 The McGill