Reflections on the history of ethics at Poynter

From its earliest years as a school for journalists, The Poynter Institute concerned itself with the practice and teaching of news media ethics. As happened within others fields of study – such as bio-medical ethics – Poynter’s work on ethics was inspired by a national scandal. In 1980, the Washington Post published a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize and returned it when the story turned out to be a hoax.

It could be argued that that event gave birth to modern media ethics, and Poynter knew it needed to jump into the fray. Poynter taught reporting, writing and editing; news leadership and media management; and visual journalism in all its forms. Responsible practice in all these areas required attention to standards, values, critical thinking and ethics.

With the help of a national advisory board of journalists and scholars, Poynter found its stride. For most of the 1980s and '90s, Poynter held conferences and weeklong seminars on the craft of ethical decision-making. From Aristotle to Carol Gilligan, traditional forms of moral reasoning were studied, discussed and applied. Case studies came in by the dozens. There was the photograph of the drowned boy, lying on the shore while his parents agonized over the body. Should a newspaper publish the picture in order to warn families to be careful near the water? Should the body be cropped, focusing only on the parents’ grief? Was that a cruel invasion or a purposeful capturing of human loss?

Bob Steele, an experienced broadcast journalist, working on his doctorate in media ethics, began working with Poynter in the 1980s. I was teaching writing as a process. Bob and I decided to work together on the idea that ethical decision-making could be thought of as a process as well – especially on deadline. Journalists belong to a practical tribe, one a little skeptical of intellectual abstractions. They would often think from their gut. If they ever moved from the gut to the head, it was too often in reference to a rigid set of codes of behavior. These were important, but they were tools and not rules. Something both more practical and thoughtful was required.

The result was a set of questions – each one embodying an ethical idea – that could be asked even on deadline: What is the journalistic purpose of publishing this? What good will it do? What are the possible consequences of publication? Might it do some harm? If so, is there a way to minimize harm? Are there standards and practices that might guide this decision? What are my alternatives: Should I publish this image big on the front page, or small inside the paper? How would I act if this story were about me or a family member? Whom should I consult to help me make this decision?

As time went on into the new millennium, it was often The Poynter Institute that was consulted by editors and news directors trying to make good decisions. Poynter faculty responded to urgent calls for advice from newsrooms across the country and eventually around the world. When Poynter created its website in 1999 under the direction of Bill Mitchell, many of the earliest essays and blog posts involved how journalists might solve ethical dilemmas. The influence of the site grew dramatically in response to the catastrophes of Sept. 11, 2001. The news from the terrorist attacks on America felt unprecedented. What was our duty in such circumstances? Could journalists even think about being “objective” in their coverage? Poynter’s influence in ethical decision-making continued to grow.

Along the way, I sparked a debate that tried to frame journalistic ethics in a more pro-active way. More and more, ethical standards were invoked from journalistic malpractice, such as plagiarism or fabrication. It did not take a course in ethics to argue, “Don’t do that!” But, more and more, ethics became defined as the things that a journalist SHOULD NOT DO. Ethics seemed not like a compass, but a nag. I described this as “red-light ethics” and argued that it was only half the story. Ethics should be about the things that journalists OUGHT TO DO. Be courageous. Be resourceful, even in the face of shrinking resources. Speak truth to power. The ethos of journalism after all was to make things public in the interests of self-government.

Under the leadership of teachers such as Keith Woods, Aly Colon, Al Tompkins, Kenny Irby, Butch Ward, Karen Dunlap and Kelly McBride, Poynter became one of the go-to places, not just for journalists, but for all the stakeholders concerned about responsible behavior in public life. Over the years, those teachers have helped Poynter keep up-to-date in the face of tumultuous changes in news media, technology, economics, and politics. When Poynter began teaching ethics in the early 1980s, Twitter and Facebook were science fiction. Newspapers were money-printing monopolies. Walter Cronkite spoke the truth and a nation listened. In the subsequent decades, countless efforts have been undertaken to decertify the news media. In 2017, in spite of a growing army of fact-checkers, anyone who dislikes how they are portrayed can yell “Fake News.”

In such challenging times, Poynter re-asserts its commitment to the learning and teaching of ethics. There was never a throng of journalists waiting at our front door, checkbooks in hand, to pay for this training. It doesn’t matter. The practice of the craft, detached from its mission and purpose, means nothing. Craft in the service of mission means everything.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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