The Ethical Obligations
of News Consumers
Wendy N. Wyatt
Much of the literature on journalism ethics considers journalists’ duties in light of their responsibilities to multiple stakeholders, including, importantly, citizens. James W. Carey took seriously this connection between the press and the public. In one of his more eloquent and memorable passages, Carey described the bond this way:
The god term of journalism—the be-all and end-all, the term without
which the entire enterprise fails to make sense—is the public.
Insofar as journalism is grounded, it is grounded in the public.
Insofar as journalism has a client, the client is the public. The press
justifies itself in the name of the public: It exists—or so it is regularly
said—to inform the public, to serve as the extended eyes and ears of
the public, to protect the public’s right to know, to serve the public.
The canons of journalism originate in and flow from the relationship
of the press to the public. The public is totem and talisman, and an
object of ritual homage.1
The press clearly has obligations to the public. But is this relationship between journalism and the citizenry one-sided? Does the public make sense without the press? And if it doesn’t, what must the public do to ensure the perpetuity of journalism that exists to serve it?
In this book’s ethics theory chapter (ch. 1), Deni Elliott and David Ozar claim that journalism and the public should have a collaborative relationship: “The ideal relationship of journalist and audience is to see them as partners in the project of judging what information is needed, what information responds to common social desires, what enhances autonomy, and what builds community.” Elliott and Ozar’s chapter—and most of this book—focuses on the