Journalism Ethics And Audience Discernment

What’s a citizen to believe? With all the buzz about “false” and “fake” news, foreign influence in elections, intelligence leakers, inflammatory talk shows and social media manipulators how can we know the truth of anything that’s being reported? We can’t. Given any situation that’s reported, we weren’t present to see for ourselves what happened.

The news is almost always a second-hand account. And even if we had witnessed an event, our perception of it would differ from that of other observers. Because we’re emotional beings living in constructed personal realities, information sharing will always be subjective. Consistent with the purpose of this blog, my primary intent is to appreciate, in this case, journalism. I’ll also recommend five aids to discernment as antidotes to deception.

First, I want to acknowledge journalism trade organizations and corporations that have formulated codes of ethics, including the journalists who adhere to them. I tip my hat to all who are practicing socially responsible journalism.

Although one can earn a degree in journalism, it’s not required in order to be a journalist. It’s a “field,” not a profession where one must have a license to practice. Anyone, even a nine-year-old or a sociopath can claim to be a journalist and publish material. What makes one a “professional” is employment by a company in the news business. And one of the benefits of the professional label is that it accords the journalist respectability because their employers adhere to and enforce a code of ethics. In many companies, across all media, violation of the code can be grounds for dismissal.

In decades past, self-regulation through these codes combined with policies of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) created an atmosphere of public trust. We could generally be confident that we were not being deceived or manipulated. Today, however, largely because deregulation opened the gates to anyone with a microphone or computer who wants to report the news, that trust is being eroded.

This is particularly due to certain tabloid, radio, television and internet entities that, despite claims to the contrary, have consistently demonstrated bias and deceptive practices. Even these can profess a code of ethics, but there’s a huge discrepancy when it comes to motivation and intent. It’s the difference between promoting an ideology and, in contrast, reporting information that’s true and accurate while preserving, protecting and strengthening the bond of trust between American journalism and the American people.

Our best protection against entities that would confuse, weaken or threaten this relationship through false news, misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and so on is the individual’s capacity to discern truth from falsehood. Wikipedia defines “discernment” as—

The ability to obtain sharp perceptions or to judge well… It involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities. Considered as a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgment; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.

*The first aid to discernment is to observe the media provider’s motivation and intention. Is it to persuade, influence, arouse audiences or attract advertisers? Do they blur the lines between news and entertainment or news and opinion to maximize audience share? Are they a pack of hounds pursuing a quarry or ideologues seeking power or converts? Do they exaggerate or hype a story in order to support a social, economic or political agenda? Are they trying to become the moral arbiters of society? Or are they honest brokers of truth? Do they strive to provide relevant, useful evidence-based facts in context to inform, promote understanding and empower citizens to make appropriate—healthy and wise—adjustments to change?

My litmus with respect to motivation and intent is “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves…A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit…by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:15-20). In the vernacular: If it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

The second aid to discernment is to trust your gut. We can’t entirely trust the mind when it comes to discernment because of the tendency to rationalize or spin information to suit our point of view. Studies show that it’s the unconscious, nonverbal cues like body language, that tell us if we can trust what someone is saying. A study by psychologist Albert Mehrabian found that, with respect to credibility and trust, words contributed 7% of the message, tone of voice 38% and body language 55%. Intuition or gut impressions are important.

Can we trust a reporter or presenter when their manner is boisterous? I notice that when an anchorperson, reporter or interviewer is a showboat or makes the story about him or herself, the needle on my trust meter goes way down. It goes down even further when the presenter is aggressive, antagonistic, blaming or boiling over with determination—especially when he intimates that his opinion is the only correct one.

The third aid to discernment has to do with the world-view of a company or reporter. Or both. Their view of the world and human beings is revealed in the pattern of the content they choose to present. It reflects their mentality and values. When we’re watching a newscast, we’re largely standing in the presence of the news director’s consciousness, which represents the corporation’s values. They show us what they deem important and present it in ways consistent with their perception of the audience.

On the one hand I knew a news director who at times used language that betrayed his perception of the audience as being stupid, gullible or ignorant. In another situation at a different station, the news director assigned a reporter to exclusively cover “good news in the city.”

If the preponderance of a company’s news stories is consistently negative, it may indicate that those in control of the operation either have a negative worldview or believe that tragedy and mayhem are what their audience wants to see or hear. Balance requires giving substantial time to the alternative—stories that encourage, inspire or empower.

A common example of imbalance is when a local television newscast consistently and predominantly covers vehicular accidents, fires, abuses, crime, and corruption. Because these are out-of-the-ordinary events they are newsworthy, but the reason for reporting them is not just to say what happened, it’s also to increase awareness of tragic events so viewers and city planners can take preventative measures. Also, positive events and inspirational stories need to be told because they paint a more complete and balanced picture of the humanity.

The corporation that’s reported to have adopted a policy of maternity leave for both parents and equal pay for women demonstrates that it’s possible, perhaps even more profitable, for a powerful institution to value its employees as much as profit. The story about a church that collects and delivers tons of food and clothing to countries where people are starving encourages us to contribute our time and energy to support them or similar initiatives. It lifts our spirit when we learn that a commercial fisherman released 30 tons of Mackerel in order to save dolphins trapped in his net.

When we see Israelis and Palestinians collaborating together successfully our belief that peace is possible is enhanced. The San Francisco woman who turned decommissioned city buses into shower stations for the homeless provided an example of what one person can do to make an enormous contribution to social well-being. And the story of a young Goodwill volunteer who turned over to her manager an envelop containing $10,500. that she found renews our faith in humanity—that people can and will do the right thing.

These kinds of stories show the best in us to the rest of us, build trust in our neighbors and confidence in our leaders. In many instances they provide models that can be replicated. Socially responsible journalism functions to educate and empower, not just inform or entertain. Otherwise, the public gets a one-sided, incomplete picture of humanity and society, one that results in passivity and feelings of helplessness, fear, worry and depression.

*The fourth aid to discernment is to listen to our conscience. Philosopher Immanuel Kant, who wrote extensively about ethics and ethical decision-making, considered the human conscience as the ultimate source for informing us of right and wrong. Practically, his “categorical imperative” advised that we “Act on that maxim which you will to become a universal law.” “Categorical” mean unconditional. So the Kantian test in the context of a news presentation asks the question: Would I want the whole world to feel what I’m feeling as a result of this presentation of the news?

*The fifth aid to discernment is to consider the consequences.

Similarly, English philosopher John Stuart Mills proposed the Principle of Utility, recommending that we “Seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” In our context this applies equally to journalists and their viewers and readers to determine what’s right or wrong by considering what news or information would yield the best consequences for the welfare of the society. In Mills’ terms, “The morally right alternative produces the greatest balance of good over evil.”

Expressed in personal terms, what in me does a particular news program or reporter encourage? Bonding or fragmentation? Caring or indifference? Tolerance or intolerance? Love or fear? Conflict or collaboration? Action or passivity? Our role as citizen requires that we act in the best interest of both ourselves and society, and responsible journalists help us to do that.

We have to remember, as journalists, that we may be observers but we are not totally disinterested observers. We are not social engineers, but each one of us has a stake in the health of this democracy. Democracy and the social contract that makes it work are held together by a delicate web of trust, and all of us in journalism hold edges of the web. We are not just amused bystanders, watching the idiots screw it up.

Robert MacNeil (Of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report on PBS)

While I’m not proposing a change in anyone else’s media diet, my hope is that these aids to discernment will serve as a nudge to observe the media with eyes wide open, so we’re not duped by “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” What we ingest through the media can diminish or enhance our world-view and life experience. It’s a choice we can—and do—make every day.

Journalism is one of the more important arts of democracy, and its ultimate purpose is not to make news, or reputations, or headlines, but simply to make democracy work.

Davis (Buzz) Merritt (Editor and Co-Founder of Public Journalism)

About This Image

Title: Student On The Grass With A Computer

File #: DC 2182

Location: Ohio State University

*Special thanks to my colleague, Dr. Clifford Christians, Emeritus Research Professor of Media Studies and Journalism at the University of Illinois. These “aids to discernment” were extrapolated from the Second Edition (1986) of his textbook Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning. That book is no longer available, but the Ninth Edition (link provide in the title) is an excellent examination of ethics in the modern world.

(I invite you to visit my revised Portfolio Site: David L Smith Photography)


A Selected List of Codes Of Ethics In Journalism

There are hundreds of national and international media organizations that have codes of ethics, all of them too detailed to be presented here. I encourage you to review at least one. Their values and articulation gives us hope.

National Public Radio “Our journalism is as accurate, fair and complete as possible. Our journalists conduct their work with honesty and respect, and they strive to be both independent and impartial in their efforts. Our methods are transparent and we will be accountable for all we do.” Principles include: Accuracy / Fairness / Completeness / Honesty / Independence / Impartiality / Transparency / Accountability / Respect

Poynter Publishing The Poynter Institute is a school for journalists that also practices journalism. The guidelines describe the values, standards, and practices they pursue.  Their core values include accuracy, independence, interdependence, fairness, transparency, professional responsibility, and helpfulness.

Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) RTDNA is the world’s largest professional organization devoted exclusively to electronic journalism. RTDNA members include local and network news executives, news directors, producers, reporters, photographers, editors, multimedia journalists and digital news professionals in broadcasting, cable, and digital media, as well as journalism educators and students.

American Society of News Editors (ASNE) The ASNE “focuses on leadership development and journalism-related issues. It promotes fair, principled journalism, defends and protects First Amendment rights, and fights for freedom of information and open government among its members. It’s principles include: Responsibility / Freedom of the Press / Independence / Truth and Accuracy / Impartiality / Fair Play.

Associated Press Media Editors Their principles are a model against which news and editorial staff members can measure their performance. “They have been formulated in the belief that news media and the people who produce news content should adhere to the highest standards of ethical and professional conduct.” They include: Responsibility / Accuracy / Integrity / Independence.

Gannett Newspaper Division “We are committed to seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way / Serving the public interest / Exercising fair play / Maintaining independence / Being accountable / Acting with integrity. Editors have a responsibility to communicate these Principles to newsroom staff members and to the public.”

Society Of Professional Journalists “Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity. The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.” Seek Truth and Report It / Minimize Harm / Act Independently / Be Accountable and Transparent.

Journalism Codes of Ethics From Around the World A listing of U.S. and International Ethics Codes

This site provides a clickable list of organizations that publish their codes of ethics. 


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