“Journalism ethics? Har, har, har! It’s a comedy book, huh?” Words to that effect were the almost universal reaction when I told folks I was working on this project. Comments about oxymorons were often quick to follow, along with multiple complaints about the speaker’s hometown paper or TV news. In short, and surely not a surprise to anyone reading this, the general public’s reaction to journalism and journalism ethics is intensely negative.
The only other common response came almost exclusively from working or former reporters: “Why bother? Traditional news, or at least traditional newspapers, are dead in the water.”
Both reactions are, I think, mistaken. Yes, the ethics of journalism has no shortage of issues and horror stories; its practitioners undoubtedly could do a far better job of reporting ethically. These same judgments, though, apply just as well to the ethics of business, medicine, law, and, for that matter, the academy. If anything, reporters are more self-reflective and self-critical, as individuals and as a profession, than are all other groups with which I’ve worked.1
Further, despite dire warnings, I’m reasonably optimistic about newspapers’ viability. Their death knell has been rung many times before, particularly at the advent of the television age, and yet they consistently revamp and prevail. The current challenges are undeniably acute: competition from online media, deep distrust of mainstream media’s credibility and trustworthiness, a generally non-reading public, and an under-thirty population who say they get their news, if at all, from sources other than mainstream media; these factors all incline toward a pessimistic outlook. But as the chapters in this book attest in both direct and implied ways, we would all be far worse off without newspapers. Despite their many problems—ethical, political, economic—they remain vital to democratic societies and to individual communities.