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


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