Ethics in the era of journalists as “essentially anyone with a cell phone”

Saul Kutinicki

In the flurry of controversy surrounding media coverage and one professor’s attempt to bar journalists from entering the protest space of student athletes at the University of Missouri last week, the question of ethics in journalism couldn’t be more important. Regardless of how these events will continue to unfold and what sort of central issues emerge out of a confrontation, which appears to have been recorded on a cell phone, there are certain aspects worth highlighting. I consider these recent episodes in light of some remarks by IU Bloomington journalism Professor Jim Kelly at the first Future of Professional Ethics workshop organized by the Poynter Center.

Journalism, which is now a part of The Media School at IUB, has traditionally provided a liberal arts education that creates a path for students to enter a variety of journalistic professions. There is no professional licensure required to be a journalist. Instead, Kelly claims, the professionalism of journalists has historically rested squarely in their own standards of practices and code of ethics. As Kelley indicates, the current job market for journalism professionals has been more focused on hiring graduates with skills in public relations and advertising rather than service-type fields, such as investigative journalism, political commentary, and consumer rights reporting. Along with these changing expectations, there have also been changes in the way news is written, recorded, and distributed. Online platforms forego most editorial processes, and more news sources are being driven primarily by diversified forms of PR work than by a mission to provide informational and local reporting. While newsprint has always been driven by advertising revenue, the notions of professionalism within journalism have traditionally helped to maintain the integrity of journalistic education and practice.

The changing media-scape, identified by Kelly, raises concerns about how journalism can continue to be framed as serving a public good. He emphasizes how changes in the media landscape should make the issue of professionalism and ethics central to an education in journalism. He explains how journalism is becoming less recognizable as a distinct profession in the midst of increased online circulation of news, documentary, and photography reportage.

To illustrate the issue, consider the photographer, Tim Tai, who appears in a video circulating this week from the Missouri protests. Tai attempts to approach the protest site, insisting that he is “doing his job” and that barring him from taking photographs is a direct violation of a “free press.”

Countless comments now and in coming weeks will echo the Tai’s sentiments and many will invoke the principles of “free speech.” Yet the question remains, what are the ethical concerns at the heart of such principles as free speech? And what are the ethical stakes of a protest initiated and led by black students and student athletes, who have expressed a desire to limit certain forms of media coverage that they may deem harmful to their cause? Beyond these specific questions, we might also ask: How many amateur “journalists” (essentially anyone with a cell phone) will uphold the ethical practices or raise the ethical challenges that have traditionally been the purview of the professional journalists? Such questions get at some of the overarching concerns that the Poynter Center and the Future Professional Ethics workshops will continue to grapple with in the following year.

November 17, 2015

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Ken Pimple

About Ken Pimple

I've been involved in the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics before its actual creation. I am coordinating the international conversation on the future of practical and professional ethics for APPE, and organizing five workshops that will be held at Indiana University in Bloomington in academic year 2014-15.

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