Journalism ethics are rooted in humanity, not technology

This month marks the eight year anniversary of “Regret the Error,” which means I’ve been reporting on and writing about ethical issues in journalism for close to a decade.

That anniversary and this week’s Poynter symposium on journalism ethics in the digital age led me to step back and think about the principles that underpin ethical behavior in the profession, and how journalism ethics can and should evolve.

Rather than focusing on the usual concepts of accuracy, transparency and accountability, I found myself thinking more about humility, honesty, fairness, empathy and vulnerability.

Professional ethics are most effective when they flow from human values, emotions and, of course, action. It’s a perhaps obvious point, but one that is easily lost or overlooked at a time when new technologies recurve bows for sale have sparked change and disruption in journalism.

This understanding helps us distinguish between principles and practices, as Tom Rosenstiel and Kelly McBride noted toward the end of this week’s ethics symposium.

Technology has an increasingly important impact on our practices. But our principles must be technology agnostic.

I’ve attended my share of events about ethics, and, setting aside my obvious bias toward Poynter, this week’s forum struck me as notable and effective for a few reasons.

One is that we discussed topics that almost never emerge at events of this nature: Gilad Lotan of SocialFlow talked about algorithms and ethics. danah boyd of Microsoft talked about the use of fear in the media and its impact on the publicDan Gillmor of Arizona State University talked about the ethical implications of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter emerging as major players in the distribution and dissemination of news and information.

These are important issues and not the usual fare.

Encoding humanity

But the thing that was most satisfying, and for me most important, is that the event was full of moments where human concerns and values rose to the forefront of the discussion. It’s easy to get bogged down in practices and miss the principles that matter. Or to focus on principles that are too wedded to a given technology or profession.

I’m guilty of this. Accuracy is not an inherently human value. Corrections are not an ethical principle. For me they flow from honesty, humility and vulnerability. Those are principles. Accuracy and corrections are practices.

It’s important to encode a core element of humanity in the work we do, and how we do it.

Our goal as journalists isn’t just to inform the public, but in fact to connect with them through stories, shared experiences, and the important developments in our world. In order to enable that, we must act with humanity and with the values and emotions that inspire human connection.

That is the cornerstone of ethics for me.

Early on in this week’s summit, Rosenstiel reminded the group that ultimately the public determines what journalism succeeds. They dictate our success and failure by offering or denying attention and support. Here are a couple of attempts to paraphrase what he said:

Advice: Stop living on Planet Journalism and start behaving like a human being.

I attempted to address the human aspect during my panel by using a word that rarely shows up in discussions about journalism: vulnerability.

To admit your errors is to show vulnerability. To show vulnerability is to enable yourself to be really seen. Our flaws are what connect us, not perfection. It’s true for humans, and that’s why it’s true for journalists and news organizations.

Other people echoed human-centered themes in their comments and presentations:

Empathy is a wonderfully human word and characteristic. Not surprisingly, it’s also core to storytelling and ethical storytelling.

At the end of the day, Rosenstiel and McBride encouraged participants to suggest the ethics and values that should inform a new draft of Poynter’s Guiding Principles for Journalism.

That led to perhaps my favorite tweet of the day:

Human values and connection all wrapped together in one tweet.

During that final session, I drafted a few guiding principles that came to mind.

Ethical journalism means being:

  • Responsive to feedback and new developments.
  • Transparent about our relationships and limitations.
  • Accountable for our mistakes and decisions.
  • Open about our processes and sources.
  • Committed to seeking truth through facts and credible information.

My original post with these principles included a disclaimer, “I want to emphasize that the above are not perfect. In fact, I feel as though they don’t address one really important point: the need for journalists to behave with empathy and common sense. But I don’t have a good formulation for that now.”

I struggled with articulating the most human of all the above principles.

Sometimes, it’s the things that seem most natural that are the hardest to express.

Related: Compassion is not journalism’s downfall, it’s journalism’s salvation

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • David Craig

    Craig, thanks for a terrific post. I’ve argued for the importance of human qualities, especially compassion, in some writing I’ve done on journalism ethics and I agree that kind of thinking ought to be reflected in the revised guiding principles.

    I had one thought on your draft of principles. I was thinking your empathy idea might be expressed in terms of compassion – something like “Compassionate toward those we cover” or “Compassionate toward those whose stories we tell.” But I also think somewhere in the guidelines it’s important to mention the idea of critical/independent judgment because that is part of the distinct way that journalists serve society. Tying it back to your point about human values, I think it relates to the value of courage. So perhaps an additional point would be something like “Courageous to ask hard questions.” Maybe this is implied in your statement “Committed to seeking truth,” but I think it is important enough to merit its own point.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or anyone else’s. As a heavy user of the guiding principles with journalism ethics students, I’m thrilled to see this discussion.

  • John Hamer

    Great summary of the symposium, Craig. Sorry I couldn’t be there. Just for the record, almost everything you write about is exactly what the Washington News Council has been encouraging for the past 14 years. Our “TAO of Journalism – Transparent, Accountable and Open” concept is, I’m pleased to see, at the center of your guiding principles (3 out of 5 ain’t bad). For those who want to practice what you preach, see Hey, it might help!

  • Anonymous

    A child was killed recently because reporters prefer to entertain the public with the first draft of history than to educate voters with a second draft.
    The child’s name was Tamryn Klapheke and she died from malnutrition and dehydration. Probably the only reason why her death became newsworthy was the chemical burns on her body that came from lying on a mattress that was soaked with urine. Tamryn’s mother has been arrested for child abuse and some newspapers are doing a feeding frenzy on the ethical standards of the mother and the system that failed to prevent the tragedy.
    But Tamryn’s death is typical of many other shocking stories. And every investigation seems to reveal that there were too many children per social workers for adequate supervision and/or too much turnover of social workers to ensure an adequate supply of competent personnel. Both conditions are applicable to the Child Protective Services in the state of Texas.
    So who is responsible. Governor Perry and the state legislature? No, they shouldn’t be blamed for inadequate funding of their program for protecting vulnerable children. Polititcians must support both tax cuts and more subsidies for the most powerful special interest groups or they will be replaced by smarter politicians. Children are too weak of a special interest group to deserve a tax increase. This is why every one of the fifty states had had will have a senseless killing of a child because the state did an incompetent job of monitoring a mother who was accused of child abuse and was being monitored by the state so the children could be protected.
    As for voters, one man, one vote is a wonderful principle and a lousy incentive for becoming an informed voter. Particularly when the news media is only interested in a program for protecting children when there is a dead body that can lede and bleed on a newspaper’s front page. In my informal surveys of friends and drinking acquaintances, I have never met anyone who knew anything about or state’s programs for endangered children before a disaster happened with the subsequent feeding frenzy. And I assume the voters of Texas are just as ignorant as the voters of Nebraska. So we the people won’t be able to protect vulnerable children by voting for their interest until reporters start communicating like a teacher instead of an entertainer.
    It would be easy and very profitable or the news media to communicate better by publishing an annual one week review of events and conditions. This second draft of history would work like the report cards that teachers and parents use for rewarding and punishing their students. And I think that voters would enjoy using a report card for rewarding and punishing politicians, There would be enough space in the one week democracy for dummies course for metrics on every major function of our government. Then voters could protect monitoring the metrics for the number of social workers per child and the turnover rate of social workers. This is the kind of information that the news media is either not providing or is doing so in a manner that makes the information forgotten as white noise.
    But my proposal will never be acceptable to pompous frauds in the news media..They prefer to write fantasy articles about ethics while ignoring their failure to care about dead chilldren. .