In the summer of 1985, while I was writing my own book on journalism ethics, I had a brief conversation at Columbia University with sociologist Herbert Gans. “How do you avoid sounding sanctimonious?” he wanted to know. A good question.
My answer then, and the solution adopted by the editors of “What’s Fair?” is to include a critical mass of confessional material in the treatment. When I teach ethics to journalism undergraduates, I regale them with tales of my own misdeeds and angst as a practicing journalist. This convinces them that both I and the problems of which I speak are authentic. A just person, theologian Donald W. Shriver, Jr. reminds us as he quotes the 15th Psalm in the closing chapter of “What’s Fair,” is one who “swears to his own hurt.”
And so the opening section of this volume is devoted to confession. Former Editor of The Boston Globe Tom Winship recalls how his admiration of John F. Kennedy clouded his news judgment and made him run a premature headline “Kennedy Wins” in the newspaper when the victory in fact was very much in doubt. Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw recounts his humbling discovery that he had used more unnamed sources in the past than he wanted to remember. Walter Anderson, President and Publisher of Parade Magazine, agonizes over his unintentional hurt of an innocent source when he was a young reporter.
Robert Giles is the new Curator of the Nieman Foundation and Robert W. Snyder, now with Rutgers University, was the Editor of the Freedom Forum’s Media Studies Journal when these 25 chapters first appeared in 1998. This diverse collection of articles would make a fine introduction to media ethics for undergraduates in journalism if only because of its eclecticism.
Some linkages between the different perspectives are provided in an historical section. Sociologist Michael Schudson shows how the development of what professionalism journalism has become was the outcome of a business model that sought to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. But he wonders if the outcome in this country is really better than in Europe, where narrower, party-oriented journalism still prevails. And his colleague at the University of California, San Diego, Daniel Hallin, a professor in the Department of Communications, worries that the confluence of historical factors that led to the birth of professionalism in what he calls the “high-modernist era” was a fluke that is already being undermined by new technologies and postmodern political currents.
These fellows are optimists compared to Jim Squires, who throws up his hands at the mere idea of fairness. His experience at the Chicago Tribune convinced him that the system has already been too corrupted by the profit motive to be capable of ideals at all. “It is already midnight in the garden,” Squires declares poetically, “and far too late to worry about fairness.”
If I were using this book in the classroom, I would make it a starting point for discussion of two issues, one intellectual and one commercial. The former is fairly easy to deal with. We need to examine where the post-modern trend is taking us.
Several of the authors refer to this intellectual current that, at least in some of its forms, refutes the Western ideas that brought the Enlightenment, modern science, and the First Amendment. Reality, the postmodernists say, is socially constructed and the holders of power, including the owners of the media, use it to create realities that benefit them at the expense of the powerless.
Because, as journalists, we like to root for the underdog, critical theory has its attractions. But in negating the possibility of objectivity, social constructivism moots the issue of fairness. If truth is whatever works for you, there is no need for journalism. This trend is worth watching because a fair amount of scholarship in schools of journalism and mass communication now follows the social constructivist model. While I have not seen it infect the news-editorial craft courses, teaching our young to be spin doctors has become an accepted goal for journalism education.
The commercial challenge to fairness is more interesting. As technology takes away the natural monopolies enjoyed by the few who buy ink by the barrel, is it possible to find a business model that will reward fairness and trust? Former editor and publisher Mark Trahant, in one of three chapters looking at the 50-year-old work of the Hutchins Commission, doesn’t see why market pressures can’t “be an incentive for innovation, self-examination and a challenge to be better than we are now.” The trick is figuring out how.
Social scientists and biologists alike have begun to believe that moral values are a product of evolution. Trust means predictable behavior. As such, it has economic value, and social entities—from insect swarms to nations—that manage to capture it are more likely to survive, prosper and reproduce themselves. But the payout time is too long for media accountants, who look instead for fast rewards like the gain from slicing a few millimeters off the edge of a page to save newsprint.
And, yet, trust itself could be the source of a natural monopoly attractive to a rational profit seeker. None of us has the time or patience to rely on multiple suppliers of any good, from haircuts to banking services. When we find one that satisfies us, we stop paying attention to the rest. Couldn’t it be the same for information providers? If everyone is so concerned about fairness, it must have economic value, and there ought to be a way to capture that value in some kind of a media product whose owners will do well and do good at the same time.
One step in that direction would be a more formal professionalism with systems of peer review designed to publicly identify specific unfair practices. It is important to keep traditional journalism separate in the public mind from the corrupting influences of both postmodernism and the money-changers. Swearing to our own hurt in a visible way would be a good place to start.
Philip Meyer, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, is a professor of and Knight Chair in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His current project is a fourth edition of “Precision Journalism,” first published in 1973.