The Journalist's Moral Compass: Basic Principles

The Journalist's Moral Compass: Basic Principles

The Journalist's Moral Compass: Basic Principles

The Journalist's Moral Compass: Basic Principles


What basic ethical principles should guide American journalists to help them justify their invasion of an individual's privacy, to be "objective" in their reporting, to avoid being influenced by government or economic controls? A wire service and newsroom veteran and a sociologist and scholar in mass media/communications have designed a philosophical guide for students, scholars, and practitioners to use as a kind of "moral compass." Key excerpts from some of the most important writings on the subject from Milton to Louis Brandeis, from Plato to Sissela Bok, and from Adam Smith to John Merrill deal with some of the most serious contemporary issues in journalism today. This short text also includes the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics and a full index.


What right do all these journalists have to harass mayors, police chiefs and tax collectors--not to mention everyone who runs afoul of the law, from the tax cheat to, perhaps, the president?

Who are we--the journalists--to interrogate the accused?

Why should we be allowed to impose ourselves and our intrusive questions on the bereaved?

How is that right assumed and extrapolated from the First Amendment? When they forbade any law "abridging the freedom of speech or of the press," what freedom did the Founding Fathers have in mind?

Freedom of the press has become a written-in-blood sanctity, an asylum, an electronic fence meant to halt the bloodhounds on the heels of the press. It is an assertive position taken by an unlicensed, unregulated and occasionally unloved assembly. We call ourselves journalists, reporters, columnists, commentators, broadcasters--even newshounds. While others sometimes call us things unfit to print, we demand the right to print--and to broadcast--virtually all we know in pursuit of the public's right to know. Uncensored, of course.

I'll admit to invoking that "public's right to know" from time to time in a journalism career that has spanned more than a quarter-century, automatically resorting to an unquestioned foundation in the First Amendment. But is that reflexive armor philosophically impenetrable? Have we worn it well? Would the pursuit of truth be any different without it?

In The Journalist's Moral Compass, Steven Knowlton and Patrick Parsons have presented us with the intellect of the ancients, revolutionaries, and contemporaries. It is a collection meant as much to provide questions as to answer them. But should journalists be as good at seeking out the questioning principles as simply asking the questions?

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