Ben Affleck Reports from the Congo

February 12th, 2009

Oh, brother.

I mean, props to Ben Affleck. It's a good article and he's using his celebrity to focus attention on a big problem. But as a symbol of what's happening in journalism today, this is just calamitous.

Sean Penn (and props to you for your Iraq trips), what hath you wrought?

The Last Sentence

February 6th, 2009

Now the last sentence — describing with magical fluency and eerie exactitude what it is like for a human being to pass from life to death — will never be written.

Guantanamo: Ordered Closed!

January 22nd, 2009

Oh, what a powerful, physical, uplifting sense of relief.

January 22nd, 2009

I just bookmarked I'm thinking that what I get from the website might actually be interesting, relevant, useful and true. That's the first time I've even thought to visit the White House web site, much less decide to read it regularly. Amazing.

Watching Obama Deliver His Inaugural Speech

January 20th, 2009

I've always been inspired by the idea of journalism as offering a polished mirror to society.

But if society is all messed up, what good does a mirror do? Where is the evidence that if people see that society is messed up, they will fix it?

I've always been inspired by the idea that journalism facilitates democratic conversation.

But if the conversation is harsh and fractious and divisive, isn't it more likely that journalism is going to fuel more of that kind of conversation, instead of setting a new tone?

Where will the impetus come for setting new standards for useful, tempered, civil conversation?

Then I see Obama today delivering his beautiful inaugural speech and I think: "This is where the impetus comes from. One guy doing it right."

The Media, Chauncey Mabe and Me

March 8th, 2008

ROCHESTER, MN — The response to my recent Burleigh Lecture on Media Ethics at Marquette University has ranged from a few high-fiving e-mails to milder ”liked your lecture” notes from friends who are still puzzled by my obsession with Buddhism and journalism.

The lecture elicited one outright pan — a Wile E. Coyote-style application of a verbal frying pan to my brain pan, from a journalist named Chauncey Mabe of the Florida Sun-Sentinel. The piece raised so many good points that I commend it to you: Preacher McGill, The New York Times, and Language Abuse.

I wrote the author in reply:

Dear Chauncey,

Your grouchy hatchet-job on my lecture raises so many of the points that concern me about journalism today, that I thought I’d hazard a response.

It was ripping good fun to read your piece, Chauncey. What a delight to see a stuffy pedant get his due! Thank goodness for writers like you, who don’t give an inch to puffed-up preachers and clueless ivory-tower blowhards.

But wait, that was ME you were writing about!

~ Sigh. ~

Well, I suppose it could all be true, and I’d be the last one to know about it.

But if it turns out the picture is cockeyed, Chauncey, then the difference between what’s real, and what journalism presents as real, comes into sharp relief.

Most people I’ve met in thirty years as a journalist, especially those who are written about often, think the job’s done well about half the time, and botched the other half.

A lot of people think journalism misses the mark a lot more often

As a journalist, I try to take these complaints seriously, to ask where the problem lies. Is there something inherent in writing, that it can’t describe reality accurately? Plato thought so.

Or is there something in the journalistic attitude that also gets in the way?

One of my persistent questions is why so many journalists choose to work with a wrecking ball, while having easy access to far finer and more exacting language tools.

Where’s the lasting joy, or the useful civic sharing, in building ”Preacher Pete [fill in the name]" pinatas and then bashing them to bits? Haven’t we — hasn’t journalism — moved beyond banking on the thrill of blood-battles and public hangings to build reader interest?

I know it’s an old story — another problem you had with my lecture.

But if the same moral puzzles keep arising in journalism, shouldn’t we keep trying to puzzle them out?

When you argue that I didn’t provide enough good examples, I agree. My lecture covered a lot of ground — perhaps too much. Plus, presenting compelling examples is a major challenge for anyone dipping their toes into post-Orwell propaganda analysis.

Leaders in this field, such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen, base their theories on neurological laboratory studies showing how the brain responds unconsciously to individual words and phrases. Describing compelling examples in a way that non-scientists can understand is a major challenge. I hope to make some progress there.

In response to your other points:

1. McGill is holding journalistic accountability to an unreasonable standard: perfection. Not really. The ABC News poll linked above found that only 14% of the public trusts the news media ”a great deal.” There’s a lot of room for improvement between that and ”perfection.”

2. What if a writer is anti-establishmentarian? Then he could not be unconsciously supporting the status quo through the deeper structural parts of his writing. Actually, by definition, he could unconsciously be supporting anything, without being conscious of it.

3. McGill doesn’t make any corrective suggestions. In fact, the entire Burleigh lecture is explicitly organized around two interrelated suggestions, that A) citizens increase their awareness of how the mass media affects their minds and bodies, and that B) journalists more carefully check their ethical intentions before expressing their inner thoughts as public speech.

One last point, Chauncey, if I may. When I say that you present me to your readers as a ”pinata,” I’m basing that on the various epithets you used to describe me — ”lackey,” ”preacher,” ”Billy Sunday,” ”St. Augustine,” etc. You even slammed me for reading Plato, Orwell, Barth and Steven Pinker.

Gosh, what’s next? Are you going to pelt me with food during recess?

Why is an intellectual like you bashing people for reading books?

Actually, my friend (and I am not using that word rhetorically), I respect your playful and affecting way with words. And I admire your belief in the good that journalism can do in society — not as a perfect instrument of communication, but as one that keeps failing but keeps trying.

So, I hope we keep talking.

All the best, as always,


Copyright @ 2008 The McGill Report


Lady Justice, Wickedness, and Hillary’s Tears

January 10th, 2008

ROCHESTER, MN — As the New Year rolls in like an inexorable tide, I
have watched the elections, done some reading and made a resolution as
a journalist, a citizen, and a guy.

It’s a resolution about, um, morality.

It’s about how to determine what’s right from what’s wrong,
wholesome from unwholesome, especially in the making and consuming of
the media.

My resolution is about how to tell the difference between good and
evil in the media, which flattens the bumpy richness of life into
a single, thin, fluorescent or inky dimension.

I’m excited but nervous to be writing this.

Because on the one hand,
I’m energized to be speaking openly about morality and journalism. That
breaks an ancient taboo of my own profession, which is always an exciting day’s work.

On the other hand, there are dangers to talking about morality in journalism,
the high-walled kingdom of neutral "objectivity."

Robertson or Chopra?

It’s easy for readers to spot that single word "morality,"
and immediately decide one has succumbed to
rightwing scolds a la Pat Robertson, or to New Age fuzzyheads a la
Deepak Chopra. (The latter being much the greater likelihood for me,
Buddhist as I am.)

But it’s just this pigeonholing of anyone who talks about morals that fuels my drive to find the roots of the problem. Because surely it is dangerous not just for the media but for society.

If the people who create the mass media and the millions of other
who consume it, don’t have a language to talk with each other about
what’s right and wrong, what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy to consume,
what kind of a mass media and journalism are we going to have?

At the very least, by simple logic, we will have a confused mass media
and journalism. And at worst we’ll have a wicked one, chaos always
being exploitable by the intelligent but depraved. 

Simple Question

At the library I found three trusted guides through these tricky
waters — "communitarian" philosophers who explain why topics like
morals, character and virtue are so little discussed in modern society
at large. Not just in journalism and the media, but everywhere.

My guides were Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor who wrote ”Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy;” Jonathan Durham Peters, a
professor of media history at the University of Iowa and the author of ”Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition;” and the
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who wrote a brief but inspiring
essay called ”Spiritual Thinking.”

All three of these writers ask vivid questions to kick-start moral
thinking. One question they all ask in one form or another is:

How come Lady Justice wears a blindfold?

And hey, is that really such a good idea?

The Blindfold Theory

We trust that Lady Justice is compassionate and wise. She’s a role model for us all.

So as we choose which paths to follow in the year ahead, or make any other ethical decision, should we put on blindfolds too?

Is willful blindness the best way to make ethical, wise choices? Is it smart to block from our consciousness all those telling little winks and tics that we constantly receive from the life around us and by which, in reality, we navigate our daily rounds?

Hillary Clinton just won the New Hampshire primary based on a microsecond of tearing up, plus a tiny subtle hitch in her voice that apparently persuaded a few thousand women to switch their votes to her at the last minute.

Lady Justice would have missed it all.

The blindfold theory holds that on the societal scale, the rational process of balancing costs and benefits works better than seeking wisdom from within one’s supposedly subjective conscience and soul.

Does that reasoning pass the common sense test?

I’ve got a big pile of poker chips placed on this question, because as a journalist I’ve worn a mighty moral blindfold for 30 years. It goes by the name of ”objectivity,” the idea that journalists serve the public best by writing about issues as neutral bystanders, rigorously detached from what they observe. Without taking sides, we journalists are supposed to gather facts and deliver them to the public to ”let the readers decide.”

Sandel, Peters, Taylor

I’ve wrestled with journalism’s objectivity problem before. After a fair amount of soul-searching, a few years ago I finally was able to describe (as many others have before me) the ethical shortcuts and rationalizations that journalists make in objectivity’s name.

But until I read my three philosopher-guides, I’d never before felt that I understood the true roots of the problem. So how could I ever have hoped to resolve it?

The three authors are Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor who wrote ”Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics;” Jonathan Durham Peters, a professor of media history at the University of Iowa and the author of ”Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition;” and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who wrote a brief essay called ”Spiritual Thinking.”

For all three writers, the mighty blindfold is called liberal political theory, which is not just a theory of course but the bedrock faith of modern western society. These authors especially deplore the strain of liberalism that has dominated in the past half-century, which they say has removed individuals as moral decision-makers from public affairs.

Depressed Newsrooms

”According to this liberalism,” Sandel writes, ”government should be neutral as to conceptions of the good life. Government should not affirm, through its policies or laws, any particular conception of the good life; instead it should provide a neutral framework of rights within which people can choose their own values and ends.”

By defining individual moral action in society as a choice between ready-made options, which Sandel calls the ”procedural republic,” instead of developing the character of individuals to make subtle, case-by-case decisions, Sandel says society loses in the end.

”A political agenda lacking substantive moral discourse is one symptom of the public philosophy of the procedural republic,” he writes. It has also ”coincided with a growing sense of disempowerment. Despite the expansion of rights in recent decades, Americans find to their frustration that they are losing control of the forces that govern their lives.”

That sounds like the depressed atmosphere of mainstream newsrooms today.

Disempowerment in newsrooms today takes many forms, all the way from mass layoffs at newspapers that are downsizing, to the frustration of reporters who are assigned to cover celebrity scandals while skipping important civic issues.

Meanwhile, there is neither any substantive moral discourse in newsrooms about these trends, nor any suitable framework to have one. (Only fired and refugee mainstream journalists on the Internet can try that!)

”Satanic” Arguments

John Durham Peters’ critique of liberalism is more radical than Sandel’s, especially on the right to free speech and the lengths to which he believes the media exploit it.

”There is something satanic about many liberal arguments in favor of free expression,” Peters writes. ”Defenders of free speech often like to plumb the depths of the underworld. They tread where angels do not dare and reemerge escorting scruffy, marginal, or outlaw figures, many of whom spend their time planting slaps in the face of the public.”

In a talk at McGill University last year, Peters placed a red laser dot on liberalism in plainer English: ”Liberalism undermines itself by pretending to be above the battle, by pretending to be neutral. Lots of liberals say it’s only a set of procedures and rules. But I would suggest that liberalism is one of the players. It’s not a referee. And that liberalism needs to recognize that it too has a vision. And that even in claiming neutrality it thereby forfeits a kind of neutrality, because by always trying to seek the higher ground it ends up pushing people out of an ethical position.”

Looking back, I have never seen more moral hypocrisy than in mainstream newsrooms, such as at The New York Times where I worked as a reporter from 1979 to 1989, and as a bureau chief for Bloomberg News in its Tokyo, London and Hong Kong newsrooms in the 1990s. Of course, I count myself as one of the hypocrites.

Absolutism Corrupts Absolutely?

On the one hand, reporters and editors in all these newsrooms were deeply committed to ferreting out the truth, and sometimes showed great courage in doing so. This behavior alone demonstrates journalists’ deeply personal and moral involvement in society.

Yet at the same time, whenever moral questions arose upon the publication of our hard-won factual narratives, our first impulse was always to exempt ourselves from any further dialog by citing ”objectivity.”

Our job was simply to gather and put out the information we dug up, we told our miffed complainants, and that was the end of our involvement.

The accuracy of the facts that we published, and not any further discussion about the moral shadings raised by the timing or manner of their publication, was the highest moral principle we felt beholden too. ”You’ve got a problem with what we published, talk to our lawyers,” we’d say to anyone who raised questions.

Free speech absolutism was the alpha and the omega of our moral thinking. That was expedient, but was it right?

Reflecting on my newsroom experience in the light of Sandel and Peters, I think that by insisting on such moral disengagement, we journalists hurt society in several ways.

Three Problems

First, we abdicate our leadership role in society as clear, honest, reliable communicators. We limit the valuable contributions that we could make to society as exemplary communicators, by clinging to a hypocrisy that is visible for all to see.

Second, we contribute to journalism’s decline by degrading the public trust that is journalism’s principal foundation.

Third, and worst of all, by our moral obtuseness we fail to create a public space that facilitates robust and open discussion about what constitutes the good life — the best forms of government, the best values and models of human behavior.

A multicultural and global society especially needs such a free and open forum to progress peacefully. If journalism doesn’t create one, what social institution will?

These questions apply to citizen journalists — the millions of bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers and other ordinary folks who are reporting the world around them on the Internet — as much and even more so than to trained journalists.

Because like it or not the institutions of journalism, and with them the traditional journalistic values they once protected, are crumbling. That turns the ethical imperative for creating useful journalism over to the people who account for the vast majority of hours that actually are spent today in society looking around, and then recording and commenting on what’s seen, the essential journalistic enterprise.

So what’s the answer?

Neighbors and Strangers

My philosopher-guides guides offer three variations on a civic-minded theme.

Michael Sandel counsels a revival of republican public philosophy that stresses the formation of individual moral character, much along the lines that Thomas Jefferson endorsed in his agrarian vision of democracy.

John Durham Peters advocates drawing on religious traditions that are in sync with each other and with secular solidarity. ”One of the central principles of the law in Judaism is kindness to the stranger, and one of the central principles of Christianity is love of the neighbor,” he says. ”In some way, [those] are more powerful foundations for thinking about society than liberalism if you want a society with both solidarity and freedom in it.”

Charles Taylor, in his brief but enlightening essay, advocates a communitarian project similar to Sandel’s and Peters’. Yet he cautions that any future peaceful world will require a burdensome body of laws and rules to maintain order.

”We will in many ways be living lives under even greater discipline than today,” Taylor says. ”More than ever we are going to need trail-blazers who will open or retrieve forgotten modes of prayer, meditation, friendship, solidarity and compassionate action.”

My Resolution

Personally, I doubt that any such trail-blazers will be wearing blindfolds.

My New Year’s resolution is to work as a journalist, to act as a citizen, and to live as a human being without a blindfold.

Instead, I’ll try to simply use my God-given head and heart and eyes.

What I’ve Learned Teaching Citizen Journalism

November 2nd, 2007

ROCHESTER, MN — Three years ago, I started teaching basic journalism skills to citizens in community education classes in Minneapolis.

Since then I’ve taught about a hundred ordinary folks — school teachers, government workers, not-for-profit types, retired people, students and many others — the basics of journalistic story structure, ethics and practices.

I taught at the Resource Center of the Americas, a Latino cultural center in Minneapolis, until it closed last August, and now am teaching for the Minneapolis Public Schools Community Education department.

My students take the class for many reasons. Some want to do journalism on the Internet to cover a favorite issue such as health care, human rights, or immigration reform.

Some want to learn skills to use writing not-for-profit newsletters, corporate reports or press releases. And some are simply curious to discover how journalism works, because they’ve been consuming the news media for years without understanding it. 

New Views

The class meets once a week for three hours over six-weeks, writing and rewriting articles between classes, reading and commenting on each other’s work during class. I invite working mainstream reporters and editors to many classes, to describe to citizens their daily jobs, their attitudes towards their work, and to answer whatever questions the students have. 

The class has changed my view of my role as a journalist, of journalism’s role in a democracy, and of the promises and pitfalls of the many forms of citizen journalism that are a part of the news media today.

Here are the seven main lessons I’ve learned from my citizen-students, so far:

1.   Citizens are an untapped source of expertise and positive civic energy that journalists can help unlock. Every one of my citizen journalism students has had years of personal experience in some important civic issue. They are aching to share that knowledge but have been hampered by A) Their cynicism about journalists and journalism, B) A lack of reporting and writing skills, and C) An incipient sense, like a vague but possibly potent memory, of journalism’s role as a foundation stone of democracy. The best possible teachers of these skills and attitudes of democracy are journalists. But journalists and their employers need to rethink their purpose and role in society for that to happen. We need to start thinking about journalists taking weeks, months and even years away from their newsroom jobs, to go into classrooms and auditoriums and public meeting halls to teach and to remind citizens — and to remind themselves — about how to read and write journalism critically and intelligently, and about journalism’s critical role in a democracy. Projects involving journalists fanning out into society in teaching roles would  renew trust between journalists and citizens, and show the way towards new business models for journalism, too.

2.   There is no substitute for a strong, independent, institutional journalism. My students are experts in many fields — mental health, immigration, aging, urban planning, human rights, animal rights, sports, local culture, recycling, water and air pollution, organic food, the legal system on Indian reservations, alternative medicine, and the Minnesota electoral system, to name just a few. But even under the rosiest scenario — with citizens becoming skilled online journalists in all of these areas — the result would be a journalism of special interests, and not of inclusive public interest. Most importantly, such a journalism would not constitute the strong counterweight to government and corporate power that only an organized and healthy professional journalism can provide.

3. Citizens can help journalists reconnect to the wellsprings of their craft. It happened to me. Like many journalists these days, I’m a refugee from mainstream newsrooms, where I worked hard and happily for many years. Until, one day, the relationship just didn’t work any more. Something about too many assignments that served corporate and not civic interests. I haven’t made much money teaching citizen journalism, but I’ve found citizens who care about journalism like they care about clean air and water. It’s energizing.

4.   Journalists need to learn citizenship skills, as much as citizens need to learn journalism. Time and again, I have been shocked in my class to witness the gap that’s grown up between ordinary citizens and journalists. Even highly-educated citizens tend to be ignorant of the simplest facts about how journalism is created. Many students are surprised to learn, for example, that every word in a newspaper is not fact-checked before it’s published. On the other hand, journalists who visit my class, and I myself, sometimes display an apparently ingrained, patronizing aloofness to the students, especially when we’re called on our aloofness. We journalists tend to be super-sensitive when we’re the ones being asked questions. Ordinary citizens know that at least some doctors are relaxed, approachable people. But based on my experience these past three years, few citizens have learned that lesson about journalists.

5.   A good citizen journalism class, like a great newspaper, allows for all types of expression — artistic, poetic, literary, photographic, musical, comical and fun. Because it’s created by human beings, journalism is a diverse and highly personal form of expression. Only by fully embracing that does journalism offer the complete picture of society that it should. I don’t tell students what stories to write, and they repay me by singing their hearts out in every possible way. One of my favorite stories in class was by a Guatemalan immigrant who described buying bottles of "crema" — a fermented sweet-and-sour concoction that tastes wonderful on strawberries — whenever she needed to connect with home. (She brought actual crema and strawberries to class after we read her story and begged for a sample.) Another student wrote about a scrawny feline named Buffer, the pet cat in a home of human castaways, in a way that put the problem of homelessness in a tragicomic new light.

6.   Citizens create vital community consciousness through the discipline of writing journalistically. A magical thing happens in the class, every time. Over six weeks, students in the class write one story (or rewrite one) between classes, then share it with the entire class for feedback. This creates a bond of solidarity among the students. A sense of gratitude builds towards each person in class who shares their personal insights and experiences, often at some risk to personal pride. The insistence on telling the absolute truth that journalism requires, often forces students to reveal personal knowledge beyond what they had ever dared to publicly share. One of my students, a retired business consultant, wrote an article decribing his inner struggle at becoming a peace activist, while his son was serving in the Army in Iraq. His story created a sense of solidarity in the room that was mystically strong. This is perhaps a microcosm of how journalism could ideally work in society, creating community day by day. "My view of journalism has changed," one student emailed me after the course. "At its best, it serves like an amazing expansion of our personal experience, bringing truth into our consciousness." Bingo.

7.   I’m the one who needs to change. I began as a journalist in the heyday of Woodward-and-Bernstein in newspapers, and of John McPhee in magazines. So I often get nostalgic for spacious, context-rich narratives when I read the new citizen journalism appearing on the Net. "Giant Puffball Found in Clifton," read a recent headline from the hyperlocal website, Baristanet. Where is the "Why should I care?" paragraph in the story? Not to mention readers’ calorie-free comments like one after the mushroom story: "Shrooms rule." When I settle down, though, I realize the error of my conservative reactions. Change is welcome, adapting smartly is the challenge, and Baristanet itself is a fantastic model. For mixed among its whimsical squibs on cute witches and record-shattering dosas are items reporting on urban trends, crimes, public protests, and so on. Baristanet is doing just what journalism should do. It reports on its community with ethical attention, it has fun, and it follows in word and spirit democracy’s ultimate dictum: Citizens rule.

Journalism: Exploring the Moral Depths

November 13th, 2006

In the fall of 2006, I participated in an academic colloquium on journalism whose other participants, mostly academics and scholars, took it as a given that journalism stands within a 2,500-year-old moral tradition that starts with Plato and continues through the world’s great religions (the Judeo-Christian ones anyway), and philosophical traditions from the Enlightenment to the present.

That approach honors a profession that, strangely, hardly ever looks at itself that way. In more than 20 years spent as a reporter, editor, and bureau chief in newsrooms in the U.S. and abroad, I don’t recall having had even a single conversation about the morality of journalism.

This made me curious to explore why, and the following blog posts are the result:

1. Why is Journalism Morally Shallow?

2. What is Journalism?

3. Why Do Journalists Sometimes Strut Like Experts?

4. Is Jon Stewart a Journalist?

5. A Journalist Chats with a Professor

6. ADD & Aspergers

7. Healing Love

8. Thinking About Journalism as Teaching

9. Thinking About Language as Spiritual Food

10. A Plea to the White House Press Corps

11. Journalism, the Individual Conscience, and Social Aims

12. Why Journalists Should Meditate

13. A Journalism of Morally Skillful Speech

Why is Journalism Morally Shallow?

October 27th, 2006

A recent three-day colloquium on journalism ethics at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul was entitled: "Who is a Journalist?" As the various academics and journalists in attendance debated this question, I found myself, a practicing journalist of 30 years, marvelling at a certain great divide in the  assumptions held by these two groups — scholars of journalism ethics on one side, journalists on the other. The interesting thing was, the journalism scholars viewed the practice of journalism as a moral act, very similar to religion or philosophy or to writing serious literature.

To the journalists, meanwhile, such an outlook was virtually shocking. They  were trained to see the world in morally neutral terms, as a tenet of their profession.


Over a period of three days, I worked with professors who had thought and written deeply on issues ranging from whether journalism could be re-imagined as a caring profession, with similarities to professions like nursing or social work; to the moral stance of journalists who report stories of great consequence (e.g., genocides) that nevertheless are ignored by the mainstream media; to the moral puzzles involved in journalists reporting on "virtual" events in cyberspace as opposed to "real" ones in the real world.

Truly, these are really rich and deep moral questions that intimately involve journalism, which keeps you might say mankind’s daily diary of social breakdown and disease. And yet, my exposure to these explorers of journalism’s moral and ethical depths was matched by a simultaneous realization, that at least in my experience, working journalists have not had the slightest exposure to these questions. Nor, generally speaking, do journalists generally show the slightest interest in them. Quite the opposite, in fact. There is almost a reflex reaction by journalists against academics, not necessarily personally, but rather to the theories that academics build and propose. Journalists make a point of hating theories and glamorizing facts. It’s a really unfortunate trait that weakens the profession.

In ten years as a reporter at The New York Times, and five as a bureau chief at Bloomberg News, I don’t recall a single newsroom conversation or meeting I ever attended that was called for the purpose of making a careful application of moral principles to a specific story.

Sure, we journalists have ethics codes, and we make quick reference to one or another item on the list when a problematic story comes up. But usually, that’s the extent of the process — a cursory scan of a very small list, then choosing one item from the list to wield thereafter not as a light to guide deeper moral inquiry, but rather as a shield against the complaints and fiery emails and threats of lawsuit that may follow publication.

Nearly always, the so-called ethical discussion is limited to the small circle of people who are directly involved in the story — e.g., those quoted or interviewed as sources for the article, the reporter, and those whose work or reputations might be affected by the story. The wider ripples of journalistic work into society at large or on constitutive groups such as, say, children or women or immigrants, are considered beyond the practical, or indeed the properly moral, ambit of a journalist’s daily work.

Morality in newsrooms is a very practical business, tailored to maintain deadlines and reputations and the rolling of the presses day and night. It’s a business at the end of the day, and ethics must serve the business as everything in a business must. As one of the colloquium’s journalism scholars with summed it up, with a casualness suggesting he was uttering a cliche in his circles: ”Ethics codes are post-hoc morality.” Bingo.

Is a blogger a journalist? Is John Stewart or Stephen Colbert a journalist? How about the neighbor lady who attends every meeting of the local school board and then sends detailed reports of those meetings to all her friends? Or the retired airline stewardess (true story) who took up Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a special interest and now writes a blog that even experts consider authoritative?