In Praise of Journalism (Media Not So Much)

By now we’ve all seen this tweet.

trump-tweet-news-media-is-enemy

For those just tuning in, here is Reince Priebus defending the tweet on Sunday. And here is James Fallows in the Atlantic explaining that lies matter because when the government habitually lies, ‘With Such a People You can Do As You Please.’

I imagine we are all tiring of attacks on the media, tiring of talk of fake news, tiring of jokes about alternative facts.  But what are we for?

I’m for journalism.  I’m for journalism because it is a profession that has ethical values at its core.  We stand up for journalism when it adheres to those professional values.  I am committed to paying attention to news organizations that sustain a serious commitment to the professional values of journalism.  “Media” refers to the means, not the content or the ethical commitments.  “News” is just information, trustworthy or not.  I want trustworthy, accurate, truthful, unbiased news.  Hence, I’m for journalism.  In the future, I’m resolved to talk about journalism and journalists when I’m talking about how I come to know the news.  I’ll steer away from the term media, and if I use that term I’ll try to make clear that I’m talking about claims and assertions that do not come from those that honor the professional values of journalism.

There is a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics.  It has four core commitments, and it has a good deal to say about what each asks of journalists:

  • Seek Truth and Report It
  • Minimize Harm
  • Act Independently
  • Be Accountable and Transparent

Along the same lines, The Ethical Journalism Network has five principles of ethical journalism: truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability.

Some of the news organizations that Trump’s tweet calls out has a stated commitment to journalistic ethics.  You can read them yourself:

The New York Times has a Standards and Ethics Statement framed around three core principles:  Fairness, Integrity and Truth.  “Without fear or favor” is a touchstone phrase the NYTimes has used as its ethical anchor since the paper’s founding.  It also has a 57 page handbook of Ethical Journalism that guides all of its work.

CNN’s parent TimeWarner has a statement of journalistic integrity.  It includes this statement on “comprehensive journalism.”

Comprehensive Journalism.  Our network news brands are leaders in practicing, promoting and defending the highest principles of journalistic integrity.

Much of popular journalism today comes with a political or ideological slant: it aims to win people to a point of view, not necessarily to an understanding of the facts. CNN does not try to appeal to a specific point of view or political constituency. To the contrary, the reporters, producers, editors and writers at CNN aim for comprehensive journalism. In their news coverage, they strive to present the whole story, fairly and completely, so that readers and viewers may come to their own conclusions. And in their presentation of opinion and analysis, they strive to represent a range of viewpoints.

Comprehensive journalism also means that we do not let our financial interests determine the topics we cover. Our reporters, producers, writers and editors cover issues that are newsworthy and of interest to our readers and viewers, not because an issue may be of interest to advertisers.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) maintains a website on which you can find the statements of journalistic ethics of most major newspapers.  For example, here is the statements from the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.  I found this statement from The Wall Street Journal to be especially thin on commitment to the core values of journalism.

For news, I trust organizations that have and uphold journalistic ethics.

ASNE doesn’t include the major broadcast networks.  I searched the websites for NBCNews, ABC News and CBS News for statements of their commitments to the professional values of journalism.  Finding nothing, I have written each asking whether they have such a statement.  I’m disappointed.

There are other prominent news organizations not called out in the Trump tweet, most notably Fox News.  Here is the Fox Nation Statement of Purpose.  I know of no other statement of a code of ethics for Fox News.  Notice that the words truth and accountability are nowhere to be found.  And it reads like a political program, not a commitment to journalistic ethics.

The Fox Nation was created for people who believe in the United States of America and its ideals, as expressed in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a community that believes in the American Dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One that believes being an American is an honor, as well as a great responsibility – and a wonderful adventure.

This is a place for people who believe we live in a great country, a welcoming refuge for legal immigrants who want to contribute their talents and abilities to make our way of life even greater. We believe we should enjoy the company and support of each other, delighting in the creativity, ingenuity, and work ethic of one and all, while observing the rules of civility and mutual respect and, most importantly, strengthening our diverse society by striving for unity.
The Fox Nation is committed to the core principles of tolerance, open debate, civil discourse, and fair and balanced coverage of the news. It is for those opposed to intolerance, excessive government control of our lives, and attempts to monopolize opinion or suppress freedom of thought, expression, and worship.

We invite all Americans who share these values to join us here at Fox Nation.
Addendum.  Worth reading is Bret Stephens’ Daniel Pearl Lecture at UCLA, Don’t Dismiss President Trump’s Attacks on the Media as Mere Stupidity.  Stephens stands up for intellectual integrity, but because he is a journalist working for Time Magazine, celebrating a courageous journalist,  I wish he had said more about journalism.  James Fallows gives Stephens a shout-out in his piece while noting that he and Stephens agree about little else.  (Fallows also has links to quite a number of other splendid pieces on why truth-telling and journalism matter.)
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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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