Kelly McBride didn’t start her journalism career thinking she wanted to be an ethicist. But that’s exactly where she landed, as the ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute. She worked as a reporter after graduating from the University of Missouri in 1988, and earning a master’s in theology from Gonzaga University, and has covered police, religion, sexuality and clergy sex abuse issues as a reporter for The Spokesman-Review in eastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle. Having left the Northwest, she finds herself in the relative flatness of St. Petersburg, Fla., where Poynter is located. Now she’s a frequent source for media ethics articles. And, as you’ll read, it started with her needing a source for a media ethics story of her own.
How did you get interested in journalism?
When I was in elementary school and high school there was a lot of entertainment around journalism — Mary Tyler More, for example — that got me enamored. And I wanted to be a photographer in high school. But I had trouble in the darkroom and rolling the film around the spool. So I took to language.
And how about journalism ethics in particular?
That opportunity was handed to me by Bob Steele (of Poynter). He and I first crossed paths in 2000. I was working on a story that happened as a faux pas in my newspaper. And in the course of working on that story, I stumbled on this great media ethicist named Bob Steele. I called him on his cell phone, and we really hit it off in that conversation. He invited me to be in the first class of ethics fellows at Poynter. I suppose there are people who do this who go to school to be a media ethicist. But for me it was working and forming a partnership with Bob and immersing myself in the daily problems of journalism.
Can you give some background on Poynter’s Sense-Making Project?
We start with the premise that the professional world in journalism will continue shrinking, or at best will level off. So what you have essentially is the foundation of democracy shrinking, and that foundation is the people who create new verifiable facts. And the fourth estate has traditionally provided that foundation.
We’re focusing on several areas. First, the fifth estate — the people who take up acts of journalism but are not in professional newsrooms. The second area is looking at citizens themselves and what skills they need, and looking at people in the news literacy movement. The third area is entrepreneurship and the transformation of the professional media. The professional media will need to transform to adapt to these new realities. This is about bringing what we know into a conversation with anyone who will listen.
You wrote on Poynter.org about recent plagiarism issues involving Gerald Posner and Zachery Kouwe. Is the “warp speed of the Web” excuse a cop-out? Not to make excuses, but is there any legitimacy to the claim that with faster news processes comes greater likelihood for reporters and editors not to double-check copy?
Yes, it’s a cop-out. But the ability to cut and paste makes it a much quicker and easier act. That said, I look at a lot of cases of plagiarism and they are all the same. And those who do it use the same excuse all the time. Yet 90 percent of the journalism world manages to get by without acts of plagiarism.
I tend to think that there’s a sense of hubris attached to the plagiarist. The other quality, I think, is of incompetence. That the plagiarist just can’t do the work, and they need to plagiarize. Note-taking methods are a skill that you’re absolutely required to develop. And in some cases it arises from a complete lack of understanding about what plagiarism is. Among professionals, there are no excuses.
Currently there’s discussion about updating journalism codes of ethics — SPJ’s included — to account for newer digital considerations. What do you think both sides of the debate (pro and con) should consider?
I think it’s really hard to have those conversations these days, because many of the traditional organizations that have upheld these codes are now fighting for survival. And at the same time, organizations that are thriving, like the Huffington Post or Talking Points Memo, are operating under a completely different construct. If you read SPJ’s Code of Ethics, there is a large distinction and firewall between editorial and business. I think that’s a luxury that we used to have. We need to come up with a way for business and editorial to collaborate more that won’t undermine the values we’ve always upheld. But I think it’s wrong to say we need to come up with new values.
I’m curious of your background in northern Idaho, and those small communities possibly with “good ol boy” mentalities and local organizations such as the Aryan Nations (a white supremacy group). What happens when they permeate into local law enforcement and perhaps local media? What can an eager, young, ethical reporter do to combat what he or she sees as abuses or unethical behavior by editors or management, especially in a small-town setting?
I get questions like this all the time. First, as to my personal experience, I think the power structure, including the people who were editing the local newspaper, were very well intentioned, and nobody even dreamed of tolerating the Aryan Nations. Even the biggest good ol’ boy in the sheriff’s department despised the Aryan Nations. They were terrorists, even before the rest of the country knew what terrorism was.
I think you have to ask a lot of questions of your supervisors. If you start out asking “Why, are you all racists?” you’re probably not going to do well. But it’s better to ask, “Well, why are we covering the story this way?” I’m more concerned when it comes to journalism in small forums about the pressure to maintain a status quo for the most powerful economic interest in a community than I am about any cultural traditions. For instance, when we were coving the Aryan Nations, there was a lot to cover about the group applying to get permits to hold marches. And one of the pressures on us was to just ignore them and not give them any attention. And the editors and news directors took that criticism to heart. Rather than not covering, we said “How do we cover this in a way that doesn’t sensationalize and glorify these idiots?”
How does someone become an “ethicist” in media? Does it help do have the religious training that you received?
I think what my theology degree did was give me an opportunity to look at moral systems and say “How does a system influence an individual?” I covered religion, and crime and the Aryan Nations. Then I covered the moral systems that allowed Catholic priests to abuse children over decades. Then I came to Poynter and used the same skills to look at newsroom systems. For example, I looked at how newsrooms cover sexual assault. As newsrooms fight for survival, taking that systems approach to decision making is absolutely crucial.
If you can pinpoint one area of journalism ethics that is most troubling at the moment or perhaps overlooked by professionals, what is it?
The first thing that comes to mind is that if you do a survey of professional newsrooms and all the work that is done, there is still an awful lot of repetition and fluff. There’s a lot of stuff that is so superficial in its sourcing and reporting because of cutbacks that it’s worthless. I’m talking about reformulating press releases and just printing them in the paper, or duplicating work that other professional newsrooms are doing. But the challenge is not going to be just in getting rid of
the old way, but in finding a new way of doing
it. For example, with city council reporting. The challenge is going to be to identify the top dozen or so issues that the council is dealing with and covering them in a contextual way (not just iterating what happened at the meeting).
Do you think some of the more stalwart aspects of journalism training at the collegiate level — ethics, fact checking, fairness — are in danger of taking a backseat to tools in this digital convergence age?
No, I think the range at which ethics training once happened in the academy is still there. Part of the problem, especially when talking about undergraduates, is that people are still formulating their own moral systems. It’s very hard to teach process to someone before they’re in the profession (full-time). So I think the profession has had more influence on ethical decision making than the academy. Technology actually gives us an opportunity to talk about the nuances of ethical training, because they’re living through a revolution, and they’re seeing that the new things bring new challenges.
Is there such a thing as true objectivity in reporting? For example, some people might say that gay journalists shouldn’t cover gay marriage issues because they wouldn’t be objective. But doesn’t that assume that all gay people have the same opinion on the issue, which isn’t true?
Well and the opposite side, too; it assumes all heterosexual married people are against it. We all have an experience that informs our understanding of certain issues. Objectivity is probably the wrong word, because that’s a misnomer. And we’ve misled people to think that’s what we’re striving for, when in fact what we really want is impartiality and fairness.