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Working to develop ethical fitness

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It’s the perfect storm as Covid-19, questions of police brutality and subsequent violent protestor response mix into an already seething atmosphere of political unease. Each of these issues alone could deeply stress scholastic journalism’s ethical framework.

Together, these and many other questions and incidents, will provide scholastic media students with challenges as they strive to become ethically fit as they bring national issues into local perspective.

Mark’s presentation dealt with legal rights and rules when covering protests. Ethical questions are more like whether students should report the incident. How report it? What if….

Information in this blog is created for a presentation to scholastic teachers, advisers and students Aug. 5 through remote connection to an AEJMC workshop. Please feel free to use it. Links are stories illustrating or about the ethical issue.

Law is “will;” ethics is “should.”

Ethical decisions likely will have varying possible solutions, with few rights or wrongs. Ethical thinking is often about the process as much as the decision.

Each decision, each step, builds students’ abilities to sort through the stormy spots of the ongoing storm that is journalism.

Some dilemmas now or this summer include:
Will you run/present political ads? Will you run national political ads? Ads for local candidates? Ads on issues like the one in the link?

One was about Georgia Senator Perdue and elongating his opponent’s nose in an ad. Are there limits on political ads? How is your decision influenced by your Code of Ethics guidelines? Your obligation to publish the truth?

• How far should student media go to expose falsity? And this story? What is your responsibility to give stories perspective and context for better understanding, say of the pandemic? What are some of the angles you could explore locally – or nationally – so students and others avoid hoaxes perpetuated through social media? What is your ethical role, is there something in your mission statement about “civic clarity?”

• Context of information gathered/received from sources; and from sources themselves; do they have some kind of non-pubic interest in the topic? What kind of localization could you make of a story like this? What would a source have to gain from shared information?

• Is objectivity the gold standard for news journalism? What does it mean overall; what does it mean in the school setting? Should a photographer also be a “cheerleader,” supporting the team while performing news functions from the sidelines? And this.

Reporting Senator Joe McCarthy said he had lists of Communists who were government employees was objectivity at its worst. He had lists; he used them to destroy people.

Sources for, targets of and readers of news attack the “objectivity” of reporters all the time. Isn’t it time to revisit the principle and then the execution of the concept? Time to modify, to drop and start over? What is objectivity?

Is it time to discuss whether advocacy journalism is a viable alternative to today’s objectivity-based journalism?

With today’s level of trust in the media, do we have any choice but to consider some kind of reportorial re-evaluation?

• Using language of authority, from police to elections; from medicine to the economy; from global issues to environmental issues? Can reporters be objective in talking about criminal charges, who are terrorists and why, and this.

When is a “terrorist” a hero? When is causing death a murder and when is it not? Do the use of value-laden terms destroy objectivity? When do reporters need to use a simple word? Perpetrators? Is objectivity our goal or is accuracy, context and understanding? The process of reaching our goal.

How should student media handle the language of education, economy and politics? How far should we go to help our audiences understand the content and context of words others use?

• How do you determine whose information to cite? Do you have a process to do that? Who on the staff will have final say on publishing questionable materials? How do you define questionable? This and this and this and this.

The White House reported rubber bullets and tear gas were not used in clearing a path for President Donald Trump to shoot the Bible image. Protestors, on the receiving end of those items, say they were peaceful and, yes, had those weapons used on them. Who do you believe and why? Is it ever good to give the “bad guys” a platform to spew their filth? Example: Westboro Baptist Church members.

Is every decision an ethical action?

How do we handle the journalistic information from The Federalist? Is reporting those points giving their viewpoint unintended credibility?

Do journalists have an obligation beyond saying “they said” and the “others responded?” Who decides which sources get used? Should journalists inform their audiences about why they did what they did? Are your decisions consistent across the board? Should they be?

Do students practice journalism or apply its principles?

• How do you define “responsible?” What is “Responsible Journalism” and who sets the meaning?

Everyone says journalists have to be responsible. No one seems to agree what that means:

• responsibility to mother school?
• responsibility to the truth?
• responsibility for putting what we quote from sources into context so audiences understand the value of what they are told?
• responsibility to the moral obligation to see their reporting causes no harm?
• responsibility that no one is harmed?

Should journalists allow Takedown Demands about previously published information? If yes, why? If no, why? What is the media’s role(s) in a democratic society?

• What ethical planning might student journalists have to make for visual reporting standards when reporting on BLM and protests, police reform and more? For example, should there be new guidelines for identifying protestors, or other participants, at events? No names for protestors?

• Are you able to plan a challenge to prior review and restraint? Even if your students cannot win an open fight over prior review having any educational value, can they host forums to educate others?

Can review and restraint alter the truth and accuracy of information? Do voters receive accurate, factual, complete and coherent information upon which to make intelligent, informed decisions? What does censorship teach students about what they learn about civic engagement, petition and duty?

• Will student staffs, and how will they, verify information from social media? Will they verify if they use information from social sites (text, video, stills, art and audio, etc)? Verification is essential to make sense of viewpoints. Communities depend on verification, credibility and transparency for accurate and complete information.

Should there be new standards for ethics and social media? Can legacy standards be adapted to social media. Are we talking ethics for using tools or ethics for the discipline and process of using the tools?

• Should viewpoint coverage be clearly labeled? Some studies say some audiences cannot tell the differences. Whose responsibility is it to know how to tell the difference? Do media have a moral obligation to help the media know truth from lies, to train them in hope they will vote and act in society’s best interests?

• Journalists Bill Kovachs and Tom Rosenstiel say journalistic roles are changing the face of journalism. Does that affect ethics? How? And this and this.

Based on these questions some last guiding thoughts toward becoming ethically fit:

• From journalist Bill Mitchell’s article, Journalism’s Moral Responsibility: 3 questions, how can student journalists carry out and respond:

  1. Do news organizations help citizens and communities, including political leaders, identify and respond to the most significant threats to well-being?
  2. Do news organizations pursue a well-grounded definition of what constitutes substantive coverage?
  3. Do news organizations take responsibility for how their work is pursued and how it is received?

• Consider the use of “futures wheels” to build alternative thinking skills. Follow a link to find out how and why to use them, by their creator, Jerome C. Glenn, 1972.

• Mitchell’s three approaches, plus information gathered in other ways, could lead to forums, training and partnerships with community members who could assist in the fight against prior review, even if forced to follow it.

• Consider linking the four guiding principles for student media:
•. mission
• editorial policy
• ethical guidelines
• application process

By linking, you can apply a consistency to what you do, how you do it ethically, what you do to adhere to legal standards that showcase the medium’s mlssion.

After all, have you really seen student media with “inform and entertain” as their sole mission?

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