Perceptions and Manifestations of Autonomy, Transparency and Harm among U.S. Newspaper Journalists

Article excerpt


The media ethics literature is filled both with calls to more clearly define the values that govern media practitioners and with claims about which values ought to drive good journalism. Yet virtually nowhere in the field has social psychology research into the nature of values been brought to bear on this discussion. Based on an analysis of a series of in-depth interviews with 15 newspaper journalists in California, New Jersey and North Carolina, this examination of how journalists perceive, articulate and seek to embody their personal values in their work suggests that, far from working in a moral vacuum, journalists bring to bear a number of morality-based and competency-based values on their everyday ethical decision-making. Drawing from the body of value-theory research in social psychology, the analysis suggests that 1) journalists may have an inadequate conceptualization of journalistic autonomy; 2) the field suffers from an excessively wide range in the degree to which journalists embrace the goal of transparent deliberation; and 3) the journalistic admonition to "minimize harm" requires clarification within the profession.

The controversial forces shaping contemporary journalism have drawn enormous attention from media theorists and outside observers. Several critics have argued that journalism is "in crisis" and that the fate of the profession depends on the outcome of the struggle between its traditional core principles and the trend of corporatization (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001). "[Tjhis is a pivotal moment in which the scales are hanging in the balance," according to one recent book. "We do not know whether quality journalism or schlock sensationalism will prevail" (Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi & Damon, 2001, p. 152). The profession appears to be at an ethical crossroads; a disturbing 63 percent of journalists recently interviewed perceived a decline in values and ethics within their field (Gardner et al., p. 128). The two books mentioned dwell extensively on the role of values in guiding the work of journalists; indeed, in their protocol used to interview journalists, Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi and Damon were interested, as this project is, in exploring the values, standards and beliefs that journalists say inform their work (p. 259-262). Obviously, many different forces will continue to shape the journalism that we see - forces of technology, economics and corporate ownership, of cultural norms and the diverse demands of various authences. But the values embraced by the profession also will help determine what kind of journalism will "prevail" in the future. It is more critical than ever to have a precise understanding of the values claimed by journalists. While landmark sociological studies such as Tuchman (1978) and Gans (1979) remain enormously valuable, the increasing pressures and shifting professional landscapes confronting media practitioners require new efforts in the field of media sociology. This study, by providing an analysis of personal, in-depth interviews with newspaper journalists across the country and drawing on social psychology research, represents a small step toward responding to that need.

Values in the Context of Journalism

The problem of applying competing or conflicting values continues to intrigue media ethicists. "Journalists frequently lay claim to broad principles, such as a commitment to truth. Yet they offer little insight into how to move from that principle to practice, such as deciding whether absolute accuracy or clear meaning (through editing) is more important to the 'truth' of quotations" (Boeyink, 1992, p. 110). The nature of that dynamic of values represents an Aristotelian search for moderation, for ways to balance the interests of news subject, reading public and wider community, as the journalists repeatedly indicated in the interviews conducted during this project. As early as the 1920s - long before it became a preoccupation in many other professional fields - ethics was embraced as a critical topic by journalism educators. …


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