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

By Jeremy Iggers | Go to book overview

8

Toward a Public Journalism

Putting forth a new theory of journalism ethics is easy, but probably not very useful. Others more diligent have put forward elaborate and closely reasoned theories that sometimes read as though they were written for a world slightly different from the one we live in, a world in which all agree to set aside their positions and their vested interests and let the best argument carry the day.

In the world we live in, what matters more than the ethical theory itself is how the theory is translated into practice, and as we have seen, that translation is likely to be shaped by relations of power and institutional interests. As the balance of power shifts away from journalists operating out of a professional ethos toward owners and managers who see the news business as a business, the possibility of a meaningful institutional conversation about journalism ethics becomes increasingly remote.

It is neither realistic nor desirable to merely call for a restoration of the crumbling wall that theoretically once separated the newsroom from the business office. In a market-driven environment, appeals to the sense of public responsibility of corporate owners or managers are likely to have limited impact. And restoring that wall would, of itself, do little to repair a more serious rupture: the loss of connection between journalists and the public.

The most fruitful work in the field of journalism ethics is therefore likely to be not in the area of abstract moral theory, but in the area of politics: creating an alliance between journalists and the public. Journalism cannot exist without a public, the public cannot come to know itself or defend its interests without journalists, and no productive conversation about the ethics of journalism can take place unless journalists and citizens alike have a place at the table. But one of the greatest obstacles to such an alliance is journalists' traditional stance of detachment.

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