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Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Citizen Code

In an age where engagement is all the rage, should journalism ethics be more in line with what the public demands?

By Mónica Guzmán

"You don’t want to make any promises, Mr. Kane, you don’t want to keep.”

Thus begins the most uncomfortable scene for any journalist in the classic 1941 film “Citizen Kane.” Charles Foster Kane, the fictional millionaire newspaper publisher based on William Randolph Hearst, has just handwritten a “Declaration of Principles” he’ll run under the front page nameplate of his daily newspaper. His motive:

“I’ve got to make the New York Inquirer as important to New York as the gas in that light.”

“Citizen Kane” doesn’t fool around, and the foreshadowing couldn’t be clearer. Kane will become a power-hungry despot. His high-minded code of ethics, with its promise to “tell all the news honestly” and be a “tireless champion” of readers’ rights, will never be much of a code at all. It’ll be a power play. Just one more brilliant step toward gaining the trust and influence he wants to maneuver the public as he sees fit.

Switch to reality and fast-forward 70 years, and journalists are going through an ethical identity crisis. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is under its first serious review in 18 years. The Online News Association is drafting an ethics guide with a distinctly opensource flavor. And the Poynter Institute is challenging some long-held ethical cornerstones with three updated guidelines in its book, “The New Ethics of Journalism.”

I’ve been involved a bit in all three projects, and it’s a trip. Though two of them are updates of previous ethical principles — Poynter developed its original set of guidelines in the 1990s — each has presented the opportunity to start over.

That prompts a counterfactual exercise: If we’d never had any ethics codes before, what should one for today’s journalism look like?

I’m an optimist, sometimes naively so, but I had to start us off with that gloomy look at Kane’s Declaration of Principles. Whatever today’s ideal code of ethics is, it can’t be that. It can’t be a unilateral set of promises. Not exclusively. That’s because the relationship between journalists and the public has shifted. It’s not just about building accountability from one to the other, but about crafting a power-sharing partnership that elevates both. That changes everything.

PUBLIC GOOD

Members of the public are as capable as journalists of publishing their stories, thoughts and opinions, giving them a powerful voice in how journalism serves them best. We can’t understand the new landscape of ethics without acknowledging that power and why it’s good.

Now more than ever, journalism ethics grow in response to the public. They come from the streets, not “planet journalism.” Tom Rosenstiel, director of the American Press Institute and co-editor of “The New Ethics of Journalism,” made that point elegantly at an ethics symposium co-hosted by Poynter in fall 2012.

We saw a striking example of that in January when Grantland published — then apologized for — a story about an eccentric sports inventor named Dr. V. At first the story was well-received, making the rounds on social media as one of those long-form pieces that captivate.

A couple of days later, the backlash began, as a trickle of social media objections became a flood Grantland could not ignore. Dr. V., who had killed herself before the story was published, had changed gender during the course of her life. Despite several reads and checks from otherwise thoughtful Grantland editors, they missed how insensitively the story handled that part of her identity.

Would Grantland have written such a candid, transparent apology if the reaction, spurred by instant communication tools, had been any less sweeping and decisive? It took a public armed with the voices of the transgender community to alert Grantland to its oversights and inspire both it and other journalists to do some needed soul-searching about how they cover a widely under-covered community. That’s public power doing the public good.

STATING PRINCIPLES

So the public has more power to guide journalism ethics. How, then, are journalists’ ethical principles best stated?

Probably in a way that lets the public in.

I live in Seattle, home of Amazon.com. In the course of organizing a local event, a friend of mine who works for Amazon shared a tenet of the company culture that stuck with me: Employ mechanisms, not intentions.

Journalism codes of ethics have never been much about mechanisms. They express commitments, promises, assurances. They give people principles to which to hold them accountable. That has its benefits. But it’s worth asking: At a time of greater partnership with the public, how can expressed ethical principles invite productive participation from that public?

ONE IDEA: THEY CAN GET PERSONAL. Go to any staff-written story on Re/code, the tech news organization launched this year by longtime Wall Street Journal reporters Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, and you’ll see, right at the top next to each author’s picture, a button labeled “Ethics.”

That button takes you to an ethics statement detailing the commitments not of the organization, but of each writer.

Swisher’s statement is striking for its tone and its candor. Like many successful entrepreneurial journalists, she’s got a mind for content and for business, and she juggles considerations on all sides of her news organization.

She doesn’t leave it to readers to guess how. She doesn’t shy away from describing her touchiest ethical situation: her longtime marriage to a Google executive. And at every step, she invites readers to scrutinize her. Not on her adherence to vague, assumed journalistic principles detached from who she is and what she does, but to the specific areas she tells readers are where their concerns should lie.

“I am well aware of the controversies surrounding ethics online now swirling about, some of which have resulted in giving readers some pause about the quality and honesty of some in the blogosphere,” Swisher writes in her statement.

She continues: “Such wariness is always a good thing for everyone and I encourage readers to ask tough questions and demand more of those providing them information of all kinds. I know that I am asking for a large measure of trust from readers of the site, and I pledge to do everything I can to be deserving of that trust.”

Universal ethics codes are great. They give journalists and the public a sense about where the consensus lies. But they’re too ethereal, too distant for the public to apply usefully to your journalism, or hers, or his. And just like localizing a national story gives local readers a better grip on a distant issue, so too does personalizing general ethical principles give your public a more useful way to judge your reporting. Not as a cloud of promises, but as a partner-to-partner contract that, at a time when individual journalists speak with clearer voices than ever, invites and enables direct scrutiny.

THE EASY BIAS

The most dangerous bias in journalism isn’t about politics or ideology. It isn’t about appealing to emotion more than facts or even valuing clicks over impact.

The most dangerous bias is journalism is toward doing what’s easy.

Today’s ethics codes and conversations need a big boost of one thing over everything else: courage.

Courage to let the public in. Courage to make promises into contracts. Courage to specify our ethics enough to lead people straight to the potential problems and pitfalls.

Our recent codes of ethics have not been the power plays of Charles Foster Kane’s “Declaration of Principles.” They’ve kept us together, caring and striving for ideals we value, even when we stray.

But neither have our codes been the specific, two-way public contracts they could be, and a newly empowered public demands they become.

SPJ, ONA and Poynter are just a few of the organizations looking to draw up guidelines for journalism ethics. But that’s all those can really be: guidelines.

Next, we need to figure out how each of us adapts those guidelines into a partnership with the public.

The next generation of journalism ethics begins there.

Mónica Guzmán is a columnist for The Seattle Times and GeekWire. She wrote the chapter “Community as an End” in the Poynter book “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century,” is a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee and has contributed to ONA’s ethics guide, under development. Reach her at moniguzman@gmail.com or on Twitter: @moniguzman.

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