Ethics in Journalism

The @TerryHeaton blog essay "New media ethics: TechCrunch, a case study" raises issues of journalistic ethics today, asking (then answering) the frequently asked question of whether someone like TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington can be a journalist in good conscience.

Yes, Heaton says, because he discloses his interests, and it's no secret he's a player, not just a coverer. It's a good read, and worthy of discussion. It's nearly impossible to be ethically pure. Those who cover the news are also human beings. Reporters have opinions, families, interests. They shop, vote, invest, buy homes and cars. Yes, it's easy to avoid the obvious ethical lapses, such as buying a stock of a company you're covering directly, but what about the more subtle ones? If you're covering environmental issues, do you buy recyclable products, bring your own bags to the supermarket, shop "green"? Or do you not care and use packaging as it's provided with pleasured abandon?

I'm serious. Disclosure is not only the best disinfectant, it also helps those reading, watching, participating in the journalism decide for themselves how and whether to weight what they're reading. The Wall Street Journal reporters try extremely hard to not be biased. But they are. In favor of growth, capitalism, SEC-style oversight and regulation. Not to say any of that is wrong. But it's impossible to be truly objective, to give equal weight to all sides and concerns.

Fairness, yes. But objectivity?

During my Fulbright fellowship in Japan, I compared Japanese vs. American coverage of specific news events, during an era when US-Japan frictions and fears were making the front pages, covers and lead stories of newspapers, news magazines and evening news shows. I came away thinking that there is no objectivity. Even a photograph or video is not an objective portrayal. The camera person decides how to frame the shot, how tightly to zoom in, and makes other decisions that can affect the way the images are perceived. (One famous example was supposed riotous anti-US protests in Tehran for which one cameraman zoomed out and showed a nearly empty plaza, rather than the more popular shot of some 300 screaming protestors.)

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