Anxiety was in the air at a seminar last May sponsored by New Directions for News. The new media worry that the old media aren’t taking them seriously. One of new media’s biggest concerns is that the old media don’t think the newcomers care about ethics or journalism’s traditional values. The new media seemed awfully defensive about this, sometimes apologetic, sometimes irritated. They worry that their credibility is not appreciated by the well-established media, media that have spent years getting comfortably credible and now are only too happy to make a point of their longtime reliability, using it as a tool to compete against the upstarts. Or perhaps it’s worse: Maybe the old media just don’t care. That – to be considered insignificant – would irritate the new media even more. So it was good that we could talk. More than half of the 50 or so journalists attending were “new” or “alternative” journalists. There also were some academics, plus a handful of information consumers (a.k.a. ordinary people). The event was sponsored by the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the McCormick Tribune Foundation, the Online News Association and Stanford University’s Knight Fellows. The title was a bit unwieldy, as things tend to be in an academic setting: “Enduring Values? Examining Journalism’s Foundation, Checking for Erosion.” This weekend-long discussion, appropriately, was in Palo Alto, Calif., the heart of the once-lusty, now-fragile Internet economy e-boom. The first-things-first issue thus hung in the air like the scent of sun-baked eucalyptus: First, online journalism has to get on a sound fiscal footing. Then comes ethics. Or maybe not. And that was the real question. Can fiscal fitness and judicious journalism develop simultaneously? Does the first, in fact, depend on the second? Do financial rewards follow from a reputation for responsibility, rather than the other way around? Yes, I would say, from an old journalism, old journalist’s perspective. I also would say the new media’s concern about the establishment’s failure to take them seriously is overwrought. Of course we take them seriously. One should always be serious about the next generation. These people will one day have our jobs, or the new-generation equivalent of those jobs. We should hope that they also will have our values. It appears they agree – at least in basic terms. Before the weekend started, participants were asked to define “the most important journalism value.” The answers were not attributed, but they included: “Perspective. Professional journalists ought to be better-qualified and better able to help their customers cope with the world around them than anyone else. This means practicing journalism with a sense of place and context, a sense of customers, and an unwavering commitment to use that perspective to be accurate, informative and compelling.” Another most-important value: “Credibility. There are more sources of news and information these days than there are Starbucks. But being a source that is trusted and believed is a rarity. News organizations need to maintain their credibility and their soul even as they change their approach to meet the demands of a new means of information delivery.” So how does a start-up media company, with good intentions and a commitment to responsibility, let everyone know that it’s sincere? How does it show it has values (journalistic) as well as value (marketwise)? It’s not easy. The Web’s greatest strength is also its weakness: There is less filtering on the Internet, a lack of editing interference. Anyone can be a reporter. There is more opportunity to hear “about human beings,” as one participant put it. Less spin, less processing by corporate and government spokespersons. On the other hand, there absolutely needs to be some assurance of reliability on the Web. There also tends to be more advocacy in this new journalism, particularly among those media that think of themselves as “alternative” as opposed to “mainstream.” Fairness, the advocates of this approach argue, does not always serve truth. In this new world of total media immersion, control is moving to the users of news and away from the providers. The danger is that all of this unfettered choice contributes to a sort of social sectarianism, the forming of the citizenry into isolated blocs instead of participants in the broader community of self-governance. “The crucial value of new communications technologies and those who control them is that they be committed to serving democracy, rather than themselves,” said one participant. “Without this commitment to foster social glue, they will push society to fragmentation and the erosion of the nature of citizenship.” So the media, new and old, recognize the threats as well as the opportunities. Being ethical, while a courageous choice, is not such a difficult thing. It’s a way of thinking, of making judgments; it’s a framework for everything a journalist does. And it is a personal thing. Once you embrace it, it comes as second nature to follow it. As one participant astutely pointed out, “values have got to come from the reporter.” The stories are changing, the means of delivery are changing, but the values aren’t.
Fred Brown is capital bureau chief and political editor for The Denver Post. He is co-chairman of SPJ’s Ethics committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.