Tom Kent

U.S. news media are going through a severe stress test. News companies are struggling financially, and deeply trusted by few. Sometimes journalists seem unsure of their own principles.

At the same time, rarely has there been as much discussion of journalistic ethics. Whether it’s critics saying the media have none, or defenders portraying journalists as models of professionalism, the meaning of ethical journalism has become a constant focus of public attention.

Uncomfortable as it is to be under the microscope, journalists should be proud to join the debate and defend ethical reporting.

The layoffs in January of more than 2,000 journalists working for large national news companies were only one sign of the financial crisis in the industry. Smaller newspapers and websites, critical to keeping local officials and businesses publicly accountable, are also struggling to survive.

All this is happening against the background of relentless accusations by the Trump administration that most mainstream media are purveyors of fake news. Republicans are angrier at the media than are Democrats, but Trump’s party has no monopoly on skepticism toward the press.

Overall, according to the Pew Research Center, only one in five Americans has a lot of trust in national news organizations. Two-thirds think the press favors one side in covering political and social issues.

The best response of journalists is to continue to work every day to be ethical and credible. We should reject baseless criticism, but be open to becoming more open and inclusive. Unless we’re content to live in a bubble with readers who share our views, we should build strong bridges to readers of different backgrounds and points of view. Audiences find media much more credible when they can see themselves and their concerns in it.

Kyle Pope, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, called on the press this winter to secure its future “by becoming immersed in the world, not staying apart from it; by imagining alternative ways to develop a picture of a community; by seeking to understand and, painful though it might be, adjusting our perspective.”

One way to gain more perspectives is through more diversity in hiring, something U.S. outlets have struggled with even as they make some progress.

Another is to ask readers for more input on stories (“Help Us Cover The News,” says The New York Times), and to demystify what happens in our newsrooms. (I’d like to see news companies routinely invite diverse groups of readers into their news planning meetings, and ask them what we think about the stories under discussion.)

Some newspapers are also winning positive attention in their communities by creating “good news” sections – not happy-talk fluff, but real reporting about how people have made their communities better. Such stories can range from straightforward coverage of happy events – not everything has to have a grim side – to extensive solutions journalism projects that help organize communities to tackle problems and then join in the celebration when problems are solved.

U.S. journalists have also been growing more interested in industry-wide efforts to increase media quality. One is The Trust Project, which establishes transparency standards that news outlets can adopt to raise their credibility. A 2018 startup, NewsGuard, directly judges more than 2,000 news and information sites, rating them on factors like the truth of their content and how they separate news from opinion.

As for mission, some journalists continue to question whether objective, balanced reporting – long a fundamental value of U.S. journalism – can or even should exist. Certainly there’s a place for opinion journalism, and even “objective” news organizations can be more transparent about their writers and sources. But when journalists publicly despair about whether it’s even possible to write a story that’s fair to all sides, it can lead even more readers to believe that press cannot be trusted.

Ethical, effective journalism costs money. It means sending reporters into the field instead of reading Twitter back at the office. It means investing in copy editors and fact-checkers to make sure we indeed aren’t spreading misinformation.

It means carefully assessing new technology, like robot-written news stories, to make sure it doesn’t cut corners on perspective and accuracy. It means saying no to content that blurs news and advertising.

Some believe that as news media raise their quality and ethics, there’ll be a payoff not only for society, but for news companies’ bottom lines. Ev Williams, a co-founder of Twitter and CEO of Medium, argues that if media start competing for audience dollars instead of advertising dollars, they’ll find plenty of people actually willing to pay for news that is true, ethical and intelligently produced.

Williams notes that although the world is full of free music and television, people readily pay premiums for the music and TV they really want. Why not pay similarly for news?

What a nice outcome it would be if news ethics saved the news.

Main photo: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)


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