29th August 2016
By Tom Law

Journalism is Back: How Ethical News Strengthens Communication Values in Public Life

The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered: Democratic Culture, Professional Codes, Digital Future, Editors: Jeffrey C. Alexander, Elisabeth Butler Breese, Maria Luengo (Cambridge University Press, 2016)

Aidan White

The first attempts to articulate the rights and responsibilities of journalists which underpin modern ethical journalism were made more than 160 years ago. In two hard-hitting articles in February 1852 the Editor of The Times of London John Thaddeus Delane routed government critics of his newspaper by articulating a complete philosophy and body of principle for the guidance of journalism.

Delane called for journalism to be independent of government and for it to be guided by the cardinal principle of truth-telling. “The duty of the journalist,” he wrote, “is the same as that of the historian – to seek out the truth, above all things, and to present to his readers the truth as he can attain it.”

This vision of the Fourth Estate has shaped a culture of independent journalism that is recognised around the world. It has survived generations of technological and economic change; world wars and fearsome propaganda; and relentless violence against dissident reporters and publishers which continues to this day.
And despite many predictions of its demise, journalism has a great future. Ethical codes and professional standards are as relevant as ever according to a new book which underscores how the core values of journalism can survive and prosper in our digital and interconnected world.

Only eight years ago some media scholars were predicting the end of journalism in the wake of a new era of communications in which a multitude of voices have replaced the elite professionalism of editors and news media.

The arrival of “citizen journalism,” a diverse blogosphere and opinionated social networks have indeed provided the background to a profound crisis inside journalism. Technology and convulsions in the media market have weakened traditional journalism, particularly in print. Newsrooms have contracted as circulations have collapsed, advertising revenue has been plundered by new global players and an Internet culture of free access to news and information has taken root.

Over the past decade a mountain of scholarship has been focused on this crisis. There has been a profusion of studies, detailed research, eminent panel discussions and windy conferences, all of them throwing up various theories and conclusions about the nature of the crisis and its evolution.

But as Jeffrey Alexander points out in the introduction to this collection of essays we are all none the wiser. The problem he says is a lack of clarity and consensus in the ebb and flow of academic thinking and rethinking of journalism and its future. In fact, the plethora of scholarship on the turbulent change overtaking news media “prevents observers from being able to get any sure sense of the crisis of journalism today.”

In an attempt to clear the air Alexander and his fellow editors, Elisabeth Butler Breese and Maria Luengo, have assembled a distinguished panel of contributors who provide critical analysis of the nervous breakdown that overwhelmed much of journalism and news media in the early days of the digital revolution and offer useful insights into the changed realities facing news media and their impact on the future of ethical communications.

They trace how anxiety over change inside media has been replaced with a growing sense that far from being antithetical to journalistic standards, changing technologies have a positive impact; reshaping the journalistic space, allowing new players to have their say and, at the same time, reinforcing the strength of traditional professional standards in the new era.

These are academic works, but accessible to everyone and should be essential reading for journalists and others concerned about the future of pluralism and responsible communications in the digital age. They illustrate more than anything how the process of evolution of journalism is still in progress; that the revolution is unfinished, and that the values of ethical journalism – a framework of core standards based upon respect for accuracy, impartiality, humanity and transparency – have a key role to play in shaping our future information landscape.

The essays comment on how journalism confronts the impact and challenges of digital communications; public broadcasting in the new era; the rush to publish and immediacy in the news; the emergence of diverse new communities of journalism; the growth and integration of blogging and citizen journalism in our new media landscape; and although innovation in the news may be a shock to the system, it does not undermine enduring commitments to a culture of media ethics.

This collective thinking also touches upon another reality. For most journalists, this crisis is not just one concerned with the defence of professionalism, it is also about how to earn a living. The technology-driven decline in the journalism business, particularly newspapers, has been well documented in the United States and the United Kingdom and although some Western countries and regions have not yet seen dramatic falls – Germany and the Nordic countries, for example – but the signs everywhere are that the direction of travel for traditional media in all countries is downwards.

The good news is that journalism should survive, although not in the same way as it was organised and structured in the last century, but how it will survive is an open question.

Democracy which depends upon people’s access to useful and reliable intelligence about the world around them can only be sustained by a continued flow of fact-based, trustworthy and relevant analysis and opinion. Ethical journalism, in whatever form it comes, is a necessary ingredient in the recipe for open democracy but who will pay for it in future?
This book does not challenge the conventional wisdom that the crisis of journalism has its roots in technological change and the economic restructuring of the media business, but it does challenge the bleak outlook of many observers on the future of journalism and will cheer the hearts of many inside newsrooms.

Just as importantly, by highlighting the cultural values of journalism and how they shape the quality of our democracy it illustrates how journalism, even in these difficult days, can be an inspiration for free expression and more responsible communications in the wider civil and public sphere.