Ethics, journalism and junk media

I worked with Stephen Ward a lifetime ago, at The Canadian Press news service in Halifax. A philosopher by education, he took journalism seriously, and went on to a career of thinking, writing about, and graduate-level teaching in the field. He has now set up a site focused on media ethics, and I’m pleased that F&O is able, with his permission and at no charge*, to publish an excerpt of one of his pieces in our Expert Witness series, by specialists in their fields.

Journalism is not a profession and it eludes definition — not least because of the hard-fought right to freedom of expression, and a justified fear of regulation. But for at least the latter part of the 20th Century, I believe there was a consensus of its role in Western countries, and of the standards expected of journalists at quality outlets. There was also a shared audience, so that when someone referred to something in “the paper,” others in their community would know what they were talking about. Since the news media business model has largely collapsed, media has become at once a free-for-all (in which which everything from click-bait ad/spam sites to journalist-owned independents like F&O can start up and attempt to survive) and also a mirage — as mainstream media platforms are increasingly concentrated amongst fewer and fewer corporate owners of multiple outlets, each presenting a mere facade of choice. 

A highly-educated and successful business person once said to me with sincere incredulity, when I referred to the ethics of advertisers calling the shots about what news stories are presented to citizens: “There are ethics in journalism?” Well, yes. There are. Or at least there should be, and there would be if more consumers of journalism were more discerning.

Ethics matter today, arguably, more than ever;  it’s good to see some thoughtful people pushing the issue to the forefront. “Most of the principles were developed over the past century, originating in the construction of professional, objective ethics for mass commercial newspapers in the late 19th century,” writes Ward on his site, Media Morals. “Our media ecology is a chaotic landscape evolving at a furious pace.  Professional journalists share the journalistic sphere with tweeters, bloggers, citizen journalists, and social media users.”

— Deborah Jones

Stephen Ward

An excerpt of Ward’s piece, Who is a journalist? What is journalism:

The ‘democratization’ of media – technology that allows citizens to engage in journalism and publication of many kinds – blurs the identity of journalists and the idea of what constitutes journalism.

In the previous century, journalists were a clearly defined group. For the most part, they were professionals who wrote for major mainstream newspapers and broadcasters. The public had no great difficulty in identifying members of the “press.”

Today, citizens without journalistic training and who do not work for mainstream media calls themselves journalists, or write in ways that fall under the general description of a journalists as someone who regularly writes on public issues for a public or audience.

It is not always clear whether the term “journalist” begins or ends. If someone does what appears to be journalism, but refuses the label ‘journalist’ is he or she a journalist? If comedian Jon Stewart refuses to call himself a journalist, but magazines refer to him as an influential journalist (or refers to him as someone who does engage in journalism) is Stewart a journalist?

Is a person expressing their opinions on their Facebook site a journalist? … click here to read Who is a journalist? What is journalism:


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