Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Improving Public Dialogue: Media and Citizen Responsibilities

By Jerry Ceppos

Freedom of the press is one of our cherished rights.

But so is freedom to criticize the press. Just yesterday, I read the following criticism, with which many of you will agree: "Our newspapers every day are loaded with accidents, casualties and crimes concerning people of whom we never heard before and never shall hear again, the reading of which is of no earthly use to any human being. "What is news? What is it that an intelligent public should care to hear about?"

Sound familiar? It should. Those words were spoken on Sept. 6, 1881, when one Charles Dudley Warner presented a paper to the Social Science Association. My point in quoting Mr. Warner somewhat belatedly is to prove that media criticism—I suppose that it would have been press criticism in his time because there weren't many media—that press criticism is an old and honorable exercise.

But I also found Mr. Warner's two questions provocative. First, he asked, "What is news?," a question that journalists love to debate. Next he asked, "What is it that an intelligent public should care to hear about?," a question for that public.

It seems to me that those two questions give us a framework, perhaps a new one, on which to build a look at media ethics. I want to argue that, yes, the media have very significant ethical responsibilities. But an ethical public also bears some responsibilities, which we usually don't talk about. Talking about journalists but not readers is a little like talking about elected officials without mentioning voters. So let's talk tonight about the ethical responsibilities of both the journalist and the public.

For the journalist, four ethical responsibilities:

1) Tell the public what you do—when you do it, not a few days later. Years ago, after lots of deliberation, the San Jose Mercury News ran a front-page picture of Richard Allen Davis, the killer of Polly Klaas. He was making an obscene gesture after being convicted by a San Jose jury. The Mercury News explained—on the front page just beneath the picture—what had gone into the decision. The paper also invited readers to tell how they felt about the decision. About 900 responses later, readers overwhelmingly endorsed the decision because they understood it. On the other hand, many readers condemned other Bay Area newspapers that also published the picture on their front pages-but didn't explain their decisions.

Just imagine if newspapers of the 1800s had told Charles Dudley Warner why they ran all of those crime stories. More recently, imagine if the Los Angeles Times had explained at the time why it was reporting on allegations against Arnold Schwarzenegger rather than waiting until the Sunday afterward to explain. Better yet, ask for reader reaction. Of course, implicit in that suggestion is the thought that journalists will listen once they ask.

In summary, transparency—the good kind of transparency—should be the name of the game: Explain why you do what you do.

2) If you're a journalist, watch out for what I call drive-by shootings of newsmakers. Before I cite an example, I should say that I've been impressed by the Mercury News' aggressive coverage of the case of a local judge accused of misconduct. But in the 23rd and last paragraph of one story, the Mercury News wrote, "'People have been talking about Bill Danser for years now, but everyone was absolutely shocked when word came out that a grand jury was investigating him,'' said one longtime prosecutor....'' You shouldn't let anonymous sources opine that "people have been talking." Likewise, even careless word choices can cause the same kind of unintended pain…

3) Which leads to a third ethical rule for journalists: How will all of the stakeholders view the way they're being portrayed? Does the story make an effort to look at issues and conflicts from the standpoint of each affected individual or group? Incidentally, to give credit where it's due, I should point out that the Mercury News has handed out laminated cards to its staff members enumerating those questions and others.

4) If you're in charge of a newsroom, decriminalize corrections rather than punishing the offender. Praise reporters who volunteer that they've made errors in their stories. Run more corrections rather than fewer. Some very good editors try each year to publish fewer corrections than the year before, thinking that suggests better efforts at accuracy. The goal should be to ferret out more errors. It is impossible not to make mistakes—perhaps many mistakes—in a newspaper with 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 pages and probably thousands of pieces of information.

Incidentally, my favorite correction ran late last year in the New York Times. Remember that it was last year, 2002. The correction read, "An article on Nov. 28, 1994, about the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and his home in Sri Lanka misstated the surname of a University of Tennessee law professor who nominated the writer that year for the Nobel Peace Prize.... The professor is Glenn Harlan Reynolds, not Roberts. A reader recently brought the error to the Times' attention.'' A nine-year-old correction is bizarre in itself. But there's a more important point: The Times had made an error and felt a responsibility to correct it, even nine years later. It even explained why the correction suddenly appeared.

Finally, I'm tempted to ask, When was the last time that you heard a correction on radio or TV or saw one on the Internet? But that would be a lost cause, which is quite remarkable in itself.

So, four ethical points for journalists:

  • Practice transparency, the good kind.

  • Watch out for drive-by assassinations by anonymous quote or ill-chosen word.

  • Consider how each of the stakeholders will feel.

  • And decriminalize corrections at newspapers and someday at other media.

Now, four ethical points for citizens:

1) Read or listen to news from a variety of sources, even if you don't agree with them. The New Yorker recently quoted an Associated Press story about how President Bush gets his news. "Bush said he insulates himself from 'opinions' that seep into news coverage by getting his news from his own aides. He said he scans headlines but rarely reads news stories. 'I appreciate people's opinions, but I'm more interested in news,' the president said. 'And the best way to get the news is from objective sources, and the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world.'"

I respectfully would say that I wish my boss used me as his only source about what's happening in my company's newsrooms. But he seems to think that may not be the best way to get the news. He's right. Remember that the authors of the Bill of Rights presumed that lively debate leads to informed decisions about the way we should be governed. That debate, and the subsequent good decisions, are at risk when citizens listen only to the news that they want to hear....

2) Which leads to the second ethical responsibility of citizens: Tell journalists when you think they're wrong. There is nothing worse than hearing that someone in the news or that someone you know criticized your newspaper-but not to you. That's effectively what happened as Jayson Blair's career was unraveling at the New York Times. We now learn that the subjects of some of his stories knew that he had made up facts but didn't say anything because they presumed that's how the media work. How in the world will those media improve if its customers don't react, or interact? We're all in this together....aren't we?

3) The third responsibility of citizens: Read or listen to the serious news. I am not one of those "pure" journalists who worried about too many celebrities being in the news. I'll read about J. Lo, and I don't mind if you do. But I find it incredibly depressing when readers ignore a lot of serious news even if we spiff it up and make it interesting and relevant.

4) Finally, read the editorial page. Again, this is uniquely a print animal. Editorials almost have disappeared from TV and radio. It's a newspaper's responsibility to lead the community with interesting, timely, accessible local editorials. It is your responsibility to read and react to them.

So, four responsibilities for citizens:

  • Read or listen to the news even if you don't agree with it..

  • Give journalists feedback.

  • Read or listen to the serious news.

  • Read the editorials.

Imagine the possibilities if journalists and citizens alike agreed on their ethical responsibilities.

October 23, 2003

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