News for the World?

Trying to globalize journalism might cause more problems than it solves.

The question I was asked most often as chair of Canada’s largest journalism school was: How many of your graduates get jobs in journalism? The runner-up: Do you teach them ethics? The queries are a measure of public skepticism: a lot of people are uneasy about what we do, and are far from sure they really need us to be doing it. But yes, we do teach ethics, because there are still plenty of jobs in journalism. For all the hand-wringing about broken business models, disruptive technology and the death of this or that, several thousand people earn their living as journalists in Canada. Judging by the number of applicants to our programs, many more would like to.

As for journalism ethics, it is not an oxymoron. It is a flourishing academic field with a vast literature and diverse schools of thought. One of its most respected theorists is Stephen Ward, a former reporter and foreign correspondent with The Canadian Press. He spent several years as a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia and now holds a prestigious chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his first book, The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond, Ward traced the history of journalism’s attempts in Europe and North America to assert a moral stance that would help build audiences and shield it from attack. Now, in Global Journalism Ethics, he puts forward his own ethical foundation—one that he believes is suited to an age of global journalistic reach. This is not a quick reference deadline handbook for deciding whether to report a suicide or run a gory photograph. Rather, it is an admonition to practise journalism as part of a reflective, ethical life, drawing widely from ancient and modern thought. Ward hopes it will inject new vigour into what he calls “the liberal democratic tradition that defines journalism as serving a self- governing citizenry, first and foremost.”

Ward’s is a secular stance, wary of glib assumptions about human nature, requiring recurring invention—even, at times, of values—and constant questioning in light of new discoveries. As a naturalist, he seeks to link ethical analysis, human consciousness and scientifically acquired knowledge. As a constructivist, his purpose is not to align with previously accepted moral facts or values but to arrive at judgements that are as reasonable as possible. As an eclecticist, he believes no right or principle—freedom of expression, for example—may trump others during the process of ethical reasoning. As a holist, he asks us to be open not only to unfamiliar perspectives but also to the possibility that they will force us to reformulate our precepts. As a “moderate relativist,” he believes ethical systems across cultures have much in common that allows them to reason with one another in a “non-arbitrary manner.” Ward argues that journalists, no matter what principles and self-justifications they begin their journey with, must re-examine them constantly and reinvent them if necessary along the way.

So far, so good. Ward’s list of ways in which journalism might contribute to his goal of “ethical flourishing” in society includes many things of which successful journalists are proud: providing accurate information, promoting human dignity, highlighting inequality, enabling inter-community dialogue, critiquing social structures, monitoring freedoms—in other words, promoting the good in the right. In his quest to have journalists think rigorously about their work, he offers a detailed matrix for reasoning up from practical problems to theoretical principles. As his argument for what constitutes good journalism progresses, however, it becomes more restrictive. “It is not enough,” Ward writes, “for journalism to provide information for individual plans of life or to support community … publish sports scores or today’s stock market results … follow the latest entertainment trends.” Rather, “journalism’s first concern should be the vigour of the public and their good”; “a journalism of social justice, a daily inquiry into society’s basic structure and basic liberties, and the levels of political participation among all citizens.” This is accompanied by a strident attack on well-known contemporary sins: “sensational and partisan opining … focusing on individuals motivated by extreme passions and greed … hype, edgy commentary … jingoism, sen- sationalism, and fearmongering.”

On the global scale, Ward believes journalism is at an ethical watershed. Some news organizations now actively pursue a worldwide reach, and the output of even the most modest local newsroom can be read around the world. This, Ward argues, means journalism and journalists must be reconceived as global actors who not only take the world as their audience but accept responsibility for the impact their work will have among people of whom they know little or nothing. All of them, he says, must seek the trust of global audiences and aim for “a well-informed, diverse, and tolerant global ‘infosphere’ that challenges the distortions of tyrants, the abuse of human rights, and the manipulation of information by special interests.”

By implication, a reporter writing about a cash-strapped Winnipeg couple seeking to clothe their children affordably now must factor the plight of underpaid Chinese garment workers into the story. The journalist’s obligation is no longer simply to fellow citizens: “Serving the public means serving more than one’s local readership or audience, or even the public of one’s country.”

It also means blind love of country has no place in the newsroom—although Ward would allow journalists to subscribe to a “moderate,” “democratic,” “global” form of patriotism as long as it is subordinate to the cosmopolitan ethic.

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A profound humanism burns at the core of Ward’s work. He desires fair, compassionate and constructive journalism within societies that are just, participatory and ardently deliberative. As a personal journalistic credo, Global Journalism Ethics contains much that is admirable. If there were more citizens and journalists like Ward, the world would be a better place and journalism would command greater respect.

But Ward is not, in fact, alone. Many journalists produce the kind of material he would like to see, and even the much-vilified mainstream media devote considerable resources to it. One of the difficulties with Global Journalism Ethics is that rather than attempting to extract the good from the exist- ing, it sets out to fill an imaginary clean slate. Ward does not discuss specific stories or incidents, and at times he writes as if no journalist had ever revealed an atrocity or embarrassed a government. Thus, arguing that in the new globalized system “global concerns [should] trump local concerns where they conflict,” he says that if Canada were to impose unfair trading practices on an African country or embark on an unjust war, Canadian journalists should be prepared to report the relevant facts. Yet it is hard to see what ethical adjustment is required here, for what journalist would disagree with him? Similarly, Ward worries about “biased reports” inciting ethnic violence, warns that audiences may misunderstand global issues unless they are “reported properly,” and says a global ethics would be a “bulwark against undue influence of parochial values and social pressures.” But these concerns apply equally at home, and best practices—of the kind taught in journalism schools and applied in many newsrooms—have been developed to deal with them.

Introducing the section on patriotism, Ward touches briefly on his own career. “As a war correspondent in the 1990s,” he writes, “I came under pressure to be patriotic when reporting on Canadian soldiers or peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere … I should not embarrass Canada by reporting on mistakes in the field; I should not quote soldiers puzzled about their mission; I should do ‘feel-good’ pieces about soldiers watching hockey via satellite in warring Bosnia.” Well, where did the pressure originate? Home-team favouritism among his editors would be a serious ethical concern. But if it came from military or government officials, what else is new? They always want to shape our coverage. That has not stopped reporters in Kandahar and Guantanamo Bay from highlighting hypocrisy and filing stories that cast official Canada in an unfavourable light.

More troubling than these disconnects is Ward’s insistence that journalism’s primary goal should be to serve the public interest. We often hear this, but strictly speaking it is true only of public broadcasters. Newspaper proprietors, first and foremost, want journalism to help them stay in business, and most of their employees want it to provide them with a living. Journalists who produce long-form magazine articles, books or documentaries might cite creative expression or storytelling as a primary urge, and their audiences might be grateful for it. None of these people would deny the value of serving the public interest. But there are many other ethically justifiable reasons why they perform acts of journalism and why these acts are well received.

For Ward, however, journalism should be judged chiefly on its contribution to the public good. “The primary value of journalism is instrumental, as a means to the sort of society we wish to maintain or create,” he writes. Therefore “to enter into a discussion of the ends of journalism inevitably takes us beyond the professional aims of journalists.” He does not say whether the same is true of art or athletics, or indeed philosophy, but in any case it leads him to a strikingly relativist view of freedom of expression. He concedes that “the activity of journalism, as a form of human expression, has inherent value,” but this value apparently has strict limits: “Freedom to publish is valuable as a means to ethical journalism. Otherwise, such freedom can be harmful and its ethical value questioned.”

The chance of journalists standing tall and proud becomes even more remote when Ward reveals that for him, only certain kinds of publics are capable of being properly served by journalism. “I reserve the term ‘a public’ for citizens of a society who have the capacity and opportunity to be members of a democratic political association in ways that are both participatory and just,” he writes. This is surely unfair to both citizens and journalists who live under authoritarian regimes, since much great journalism has been produced in them for active, courageous publics. It also squares poorly with Ward’s global vision, since the global public he would like to see journalists embrace includes billions of people without access to the tools of democratic life.

In any case, the notion of serving a global public is not as simple as it might seem. Journalists need to build the trust of well-defined audiences who are capable of supporting their endeavours. That means engaging them on issues they care about, and no matter how sensitively this is done, the end product simply may not resonate with people far away. As for potential consequences, just how worried should a Canadian reporter writing about a conflict between tribal leaders in Afghanistan be about the tribal leaders’ reaction to his work? Should he pull punches in the name of cosmopolitanism and risk impairing the trust of his primary audience? Or should he hew to well-established practices of accuracy, fairness and contextualization—none of which requires major ethical adjustments?

Also deserving of close analysis is the contention that journalism and democracy are joined at the hip. Consider a democracy in peril, with its armed forces looking for an excuse to seize power. A journalist confirms that the elected president has been siphoning public funds into a personal offshore bank account. The published story lives up to journalism’s watchdog ideals, but it gives the generals the excuse they need to stage a coup d’état. Does this tactical failure render the act of journalism unworthy of the name?

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Ward’s is a maximalist project—an attempt to fuse a personal world view and moral outlook with a framework for procedure in everyday practice. But in journalism ethics there are strong arguments for minimalism—for encouraging certain practices and discouraging others, yes, but within a framework that defines journalism broadly and is compatible with many kinds of practice. We have no formal structure for saying “journalism (or good journalism) is this, therefore you should (or must) do that.” There are only journalists—or more precisely, in an age when cellphone tipsters have an audience of billions, people who perform acts of journalism.

All of them are exercising a basic human freedom—the right to personal expression, which is protected by many national statutes and increasingly by international law. This sharply limits the prescriptive capacity of any system of journalism ethics and places a particular responsibility on the ethicist. Authorities often wave red cards marked “unprofessional” or “unethical” when they send off their journalist critics. We must take care to frame our arguments so as not to give support to the enemies of free expression.

This is not an abstract matter. Journalists in northern Mexico—the most dangerous place in the world right now to be a reporter—deserve our support and the protection of the authorities without having to undergo an intellectual means test about their commitment to expanding the global public sphere. So do thousands of honest, talented, technically proficient newspeople who bust their behinds in difficult conditions, sometimes to publish reports that elsewhere might seem mundane.

For that matter, everyone who sits down and bangs out a story after getting all the facts straight and making that last phone call is contributing to the flourishing of human knowledge, whether it is about prorogation or perfume or potting soil. The sportswriter who files a vivid, accurate report of the men’s final at Wimbledon has every right to call herself a journalist, and a damn good one, as she heads for the bar. And when it comes to hashing out principles of ethics—local, national or global— I want her, and the Mexicans, and everyone who ever checked the spelling of a name three times to make sure they got it right, under the tent and in on the conversation. We need to make the journalism we have as good as it can be, as well as promote the journalism we want.

Ward acknowledges that much needs to be built on the foundation he has sought to lay. I hope that in his next book he gives us examples of the kind of work he believes his global framework would foster and shows how they would take us beyond what we now have. I hope he will consider the possibility that any expansion of knowledge through an act of journalism is a public good in its own right, regardless of the subject matter. And I hope he considers the ways in which renewed respect for well-established best practices in newsgathering might contribute to his goals. Poverty of ethical reasoning may be partly responsible for journalism’s current discontents, but so is a failure of nerve.