Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Interest

By Jeremy Iggers | Go to book overview

3

Contemporary Ethical Concepts in Historical Context

Ethics talk has a long history in American journalism. The vocabulary of ethics has been invoked by editors and publishers since Colonial times to attack their economic rivals or to defend themselves against their critics. But for ethics talk to be more than just talk, journalists must be able to operate with autonomy and accountability. Autonomy means the freedom to act according to the dictates of one's conscience and professional judgment; accountability means that there is some mechanism in place to insure that one fulfills one's responsibilities or to impose sanctions when one fails to fulfill them. The degree of autonomy and accountability that American journalists have had has varied greatly throughout our history.

According to one widely held view, the history of journalism ethics reflects the march of moral progress: a gradually increasing awareness by journalists of their professional responsibilities and a parallel development of the institutional framework for assuring a high standard of journalistic conduct. This progress can be seen in the growing professionalism of the workforce (increasing autonomy) and in the development of formal standards of journalistic conduct (increasing accountability). Though there have been occasional lapses and reverses, the improved ethical character of contemporary journalism can be seen in the separation of news from opinion (dictated by the standard of objectivity) and in the separation of the news and business functions of the newspaper, which prevents advertisers or the economic interests of the newspaper itself from interfering with the newspaper's fulfillment of its responsibility to its public.1

This view is rejected by a number of press critics such as Lance Bennett, who has argued that

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