CAMP 2014: 21st century ethics for 21st century journalism

Story by 2014 Fellow Melissa Ludtke

As the industrial model of conveying news via print and broadcast shares its space now with digital media, so do the 20th century’s benchmarks of newsroom ethics need to adjust to new ways of assessing the profession’s guiding principles. It doesn’t work to “simply apply the old rules to the new environment,” said Kelly McBride, who is vice president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute and led the session entitled “New Journalism Ethics” at JAWS CAMP. McBride is also co-editor of “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.”

No licensing board sets standards for journalists to adhere to, unlike many professions. Instead, its ethics grow “from the bottom,” and thus have evolved in that way, too, McBride observed. Consumers of news then have those ethics as guiding principles that undergird the delivery of their news. With fairness and accuracy at the center of journalism’s mission, the standards — core values — that grew out of the common 20th century practice involved truth-telling, independence (from advertisers) and the minimization of harm.

In digital media, McBride said, transparency is replacing independence. “Transparency is a lot more important in this media environment,” she said, given that “the instant reaction to each piece of information is doubt.” Similarly, social media and digital communication lead to “audiences deciding what journalism values they need to act in a democracy,” and journalists “need to respond,” she contends. Community engagement, spurred by ubiquitous digital connectedness, is an essential component of journalism today, as online and actual communities form around information.

Several factors have driven these changes and changed our ethics, according to McBride. These include the speed at which journalists work (“Speed clearly affects our ethics,” McBride said); the potency of fear as “click bait” in an attention economy (“using fear to convert people to click”); and the volume (the huge amount “we are creating and consumers are consuming,” says McBride.)

“Community tells us that truth, transparency and community engagement is what matters to them,” McBride said. “And we have to pay attention. We have to describe how this works and how this informs our ethical choices.”