Bob Steele advises journalists around the country on ethics issues. He’s a catalyst for good ethical decisions, working behind and beside journalists to help them make the best ethical choices. He teaches several ethics and values programs each year as the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values, and he’s a full-time faculty member at his undergraduate alma mater, DePauw University. He’s the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism (and a Scholar-in-Residence at DePauw’s Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics) for the next five years, and as a professor, he’ll teach courses in journalism ethics as well as “Leadership and Responsibility.” That’s a heap-ing plate of journalistic goodness, and he’s willing to share his thoughts with Quill.
How did you come to teach about ethics?
I was an econ major at DePauw because there was no journalism. Partly for business, partly because it was analytical. I wanted to be in newspapers and be an ink-stained wretch for my life. After I graduated from DePauw, I enlisted, went to the Army and went to Syracuse. By then, I was interested in documentaries and, instead of newspapers, did broadcast. Always, though, since I was a young kid, my doodling was about “why.” “How” did people make decisions? Those issues led me to my Ph.D. work, focusing on the why and how, which lead me to teaching journalism ethics.
What is your job at Poynter like?
I’ve taught seminars and workshops for over 100 different news organizations at a time, taking phone calls and e-mails with questions about confidential sources, interactions of business and journalism. … I play the Poynter rabbi role: be there to ask questions and guide journalists to good ethical decisions. … You can come up with a small answer, but each answer inevitably leads to more questions.
I’ve been fortunate to find a career that helps me find both journalism and questions that challenge me. I see myself as a catalyst in many ways, helping make ethical decisions from behind and beside. Ethics should be focused on excellence and not all the sins. Yes, we should learn, but we should champion quality work.
What are some examples of great, ethical journalism?
One example is Washington Post reporter Dana Priest revealing major problems at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center], in mistreatment of military vets. That takes not just skill, but ethics and balancing competing values. Also, the Oregonian, publishing compelling and meaningful stories on a woman [writing her story] as her life ended. It gave her a platform to talk about ending her own life. The editors asked me at the front end to talk about ethical issues and to raise awareness of pressure points. “Lovelle Svart: Living to the End” — they did a terrific job on that. They brought excellent journalism with ethical decision-making.
What are some of the biggest ethical dilemmas facing journalism today?
There are many significant ethical questions related to the financial strife in journalism. How do journalists and news organizations provide accurate, fair, comprehensive journalism in the face of major cuts in resources, major changes in priority and the loss of many skilled, knowledgeable journalists? There is a profound connection between journalism ethics and journalism excellence. That connection is at risk in this era. That’s one macro issue with many micro issues involved.
What are some of those micro issues?
The issue of sourcing remains a challenging matter. We still usually give confidentiality too often and too quickly, which diminishes accuracy and authenticity of stories. For example, The New York Times misused anonymous sources online in reporting Caroline Kennedy’s withdrawal from the Senate race.
What’s the harm in anonymous voices online?
News sources are unwisely bringing the voices of anonymous citizens to Web sites in ways that can and do cause considerable harm. You can look at any Web site in the country and see comments that are mean-spirited and poison-tipped. These comment sections are too often mosh pits for hatred, rumor and profound distraction from the story.
How do you separate between controlling the mean-spirited comments and censoring?
There is tension. There is a value between having communication between members of the community, but to turn it into a free-for-all, where voices are open and often mean-spirited, is often counter-productive to civic dialogue.
What should editors do?
Quality control for those who run the organization. Anonymous commenting has become a huge problem for editors. Some see comments as a way to increase eyeballs for the site, and some see it as civic dialogue. The process is terribly flawed. You can’t just open the park and have people come in wearing hoods and masks and shooting poison arrows. It discourages civic dialogue. It’s a question of whether news organizations should allow individuals to spurt venom in these forums. Newspapers, for a long time, had meaningful ways to create checks and balances. We should not abandon legitimate ways of gate-keeping even as we move further down the digital road.
What are some other ethical dilemmas that face journalists in the digital age?
Social networking sites are all big threats these days. The fight for survival has caused news organizations to throw away important journalistic and ethical values. Facebook can be a good reporting tool, and a method of distribution, but we have to be very careful about authenticity. It can harm an individual when you use it wrong. We’re sorting through these problems in real time. As far as using information posted on a Facebook or MySpace profile, ethically, we can say that those people have posted that information in a public arena, so it’s fair game. But in many cases they’re young people who may not consider the ramifications of posting pictures of them drinking at a party.
What advice do you have for journalists today?
I don’t think we can adopt a “let the buyer beware” method for ethics. That’s not what ethics is about. Ethics is about time-honored questions, such as “How do you know that?” “Are you sure that’s true?” “What does that information mean?” “Can we verify that info through another source?” Just because the Internet culture is one that values speed and openness doesn’t mean we should abandon these questions.