The importance of understanding and supporting ethical journalism

Print More

Each fall, I teach a new cohort of student journalists at Ithaca College, many of whom are first-year students majoring in journalism, documentary studies, or sports media. One of the first questions I ask them is, “How many of you have friends and family members who question your decision to study journalism?”

As you may imagine, many hands go up in response. Since the founding of our country, journalism has been closely scrutinized, often criticized and sometimes misunderstood.

Fast-forward to spring when I teach a senior-level thesis course on multimedia journalism, incorporating advancing technology with writing, photography, video, data visualization, and podcasting. One of the first questions I ask is, “How is it that you are still here after four years? How is it that the social pressure and skepticism about journalism hasn’t caused you to turn and run?”

The answers to this question are complex, nuanced, and get at a comprehensive, or higher, truth—the way the students’ reporting should. The responses point to their commitment to tell the stories of the day, examine vital issues regarding civic life and community, and explore the ways citizens dissent and collaborate—and ultimately connect.

This summer, I’m working with student journalists as a mentor via the Oasis Project, the Rochester Beacon’s internship program. The program aims to provide a new generation of journalists with the skills they need to participate in the civic health of their communities as reporters.

The Oasis Project includes instruction on ethical, inclusive reporting, writing, photography, and videography to produce local news. Now more than ever, citizens understand that local news is vital to a healthy democracy.

According to a report out last month by Pew Research about Americans and local news, “Americans still see value in local news and local journalists. A large majority (of those polled) say local news outlets are at least somewhat important to the well-being of their local community. Most people also say local journalists are in touch with their communities and that their local news media perform well at several aspects of their jobs, such as reporting the news accurately.” At the same time, the Pew report notes, “a relatively small share of Americans (15%) say they have paid for local news in the last year. And many seem unaware of the major financial challenges facing local news: A 63% majority (albeit a smaller majority than in 2018) say they think their local news outlets are doing very or somewhat well financially.”

Source: Pew Research Center

Unlike quality local news, social media content is generally free. Local newsgathering requires resources. Ultimately, you get what you pay for—and with social media, the audience is actually the product because readers’ data is valuable to these companies.

Due to the proliferation of social media and my students’ deep engagement with it, our newest generation of journalists has insight into what’s missing when it comes to storytelling via social media. They see that authentic personal connection and accountability are missing in the flattened ecosystem of social media. In other words, it is not generally a healthy community.

Anyone can opine or perform citizen journalism on social media. That democratization of journalism has its benefits, chief among them the opportunity for more voices to join the conversation, voices that haven’t historically been centered.

Social media also can be a tool for news organizations and reporters to share ethical reporting, but the reader must be careful to separate the ethical reporting out there from the rest of the noise—and there’s a lot of noise.

Social media also allows sources to bypass talking with local journalists in favor of controlling their own narrative on social media. That’s just spin.

It is also increasingly difficult to ascertain if a photo, video, story, or quote is authentic on social media, where it isn’t vetted by a trusted source.

While students have differing viewpoints on social media, one point my students overwhelmingly agree on is that the theater of the absurd that is cable news (of all political varieties) is not relevant to them. A Nieman Lab essay as part of its annual predictions feature explains that Americans now see through the theater of cable news (likening it to WWE wrestling storylines popularized in the 1980s).

“Too many news institutions have been sucked into the theater of the absurd,” author Ben Collins writes.

“The good news is the kids see the (theater) of it all. They are now aware of the game within the game. They aren’t watching the news because of it, but they are interested in how that (theater) frames the ever-increasing powerlessness they feel in the ambient horrors playing in the background of their daily lives,” Collins adds.

Reporting that is useful to community members and civic champions, by contrast, involves input from myriad voices with varied viewpoints and experiences. And while all humans have biases, reporters and researchers understand that including many viewpoints in a story brings a level of truth-telling and factual information that is difficult to tease out of the social media noise.

Journalists must understand the cognitive dissonance we experience as humans when reporting varied viewpoints, not all of which validate our own opinions. This ability to recognize the value of complex opposing ideas is a skill we all need, and our student journalists must develop that skill as well.

While we must recognize our personal biases, we can also develop the method of objectivity in our researching and reporting. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. It takes practice and the encouragement—and feedback from good editors and readers—to hone this skill.

For example, if a reporter excludes an important piece of factual information or widely held viewpoint, they will most certainly hear about it from editors and readers.

And therein lies the importance of journalism over the noise of social media. Good journalism takes source interviews and synthesizes them with research and reporting, providing context. Everyone is then held accountable in a way an off-the-cuff social media “hot take” or self-promotion is not.

Media-literate readers will trust reporters who consistently convey supported factual information with integrity, nuance, and complexity. Media Literacy Now defines media literacy as the ability to decode media messages and the systems in which they exist; the ability to assess the influence of those messages on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and the ability to create media thoughtfully and conscientiously.

Readers who are not media literate may become angry at stories they don’t agree with. But there is a difference between a factual piece containing information one doesn’t agree with versus mis- and disinformation.

We all owe it to ourselves, for the sake of the health of our community and democracy, to be media literate and understand the difference between misinformation and factual information that we don’t like because it challenges our worldview.

Local news organizations like the Beacon, which operate from a place of ethical journalism and media literacy, will do their part to be the vital watchdog the community has come to rely on. In turn, the community has a responsibility to understand how ethical reporting works—and to understand the biases and cognitive dissonance the reader brings to the relationship.

This brings me back to the Oasis Project. These are the ideas our interns are grappling with. Journalism education includes hands-on skills along with an understanding of theory and ethics they must fully understand and incorporate if they want to be credible journalists.

As you read their work over the next few months, or perhaps interact with them as sources for their reporting, know that our readers and sources are vital to the high-quality journalism the Beacon produces.

We appreciate your support—on every level. If cultivating a new generation of journalists matters to you, please consider donating to the Oasis Project before this year’s Beacon Community News Fund campaign ends on June 19.

Allison Frisch was a journalist in New York (including Monroe and Ontario counties) and Pennsylvania for 15 years before transitioning to higher education as an assistant professor of journalism and documentary studies at Ithaca College in Tompkins County. She is a member of the Rochester Beacon board of directors.

6 thoughts on “The importance of understanding and supporting ethical journalism

  1. It would be of immense value to an historically-illiterate electorate if, in addition to educating them on how to discriminate between news and propaganda, they were also enlightened on how journalistic bias is nothing new and indeed was far more virulent and one-sided during the founding days of the United States and in the period leading up to and through the Civil War.

  2. Hi Allison and Beacon leadership.

    This article clearly describes the pressures the historical news business model and media reporting faces today. Thanks for doing your part with your limited resources, to help take on the difficult job of dealing with journalism’s very serious challenges.

    Add to it, the underling First Amendment issue of protecting our democracy. Since day one, the media has been held up as the defender of the voices of the checks and balances for the citizenry of all levels of our government. A “Sacred Trust,” so to speak.

    This Trust is threatened today like no other time in our history. The unfettered ability of the number and the high-pitched volume of “fake news” social media voices have overwhelmed the arena of news validity from aggressive domestic and foreign sources. The newest frontier is AI’s ability to alter the truth and even images of factual situations.

    For example, we have an acquaintance who believes that President Biden is a pedophile because she saw a report of the President patting a child on its head. The actual photo was of the President patting his grandchild at the funeral of the child’s father, President Biden’s son Beau. Sick.

    Finally, it was reported recently that the Stanford Internet Observatory and Election Integrity Partnership that was monitoring sources of fake news primarily about elections, has been shuttered by pressures from members of Congress and law suits from the extreme political right

    The Washington Post’s masthead quote “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is more true and endangered than ever before.

  3. YES! Support the honest brokers of news at all levels. “Free” news supported by commercial messaging inevitably contains hidden biases that are very costly to you personally and very dangerous to our democracy, which depends on choices made by informed citizens.

  4. With this nation having more opinionists than journalists, the Beacon provides a healthy option. Most important, should you disagree, you have the option to comment. The mainstream media lack that with the reporters posing as journalists. You can count the journalist on either hand. Congrats Beacon for creating a forum that allows for reader commentary.

  5. Thank you Allison for the good work you and your students are doing on ethical, local, journalism. “Solution focused” journalism might also be added to “ethical” and

    I am increasingly concerned that good news gets overlooked in favor of bad news. Good news is less attention grabbing because it is boring as compared to sensationalized bad news.

    I also am concerned about the idea of “fair and balanced.” Truth does not have an opposite side and I hope that good journalism reports the truth. Non factual information does not need to be reported in most cases. There is a huge difference between facts and opinion and increasingly the lines between these two domains have been blurred since “news” became entertainment.

    Keep up the good work. My check is in the mail.

  6. My issue with today’s journalism isn’t that its biased (IMO it is biased), its a private business and they can publish anything they want (provided their legal dept doesn’t think its libelous) . I would critique it in that as a industry, print seems largely group think to me. Most local publications seem to have given up covering local government. When is the last time you read a probing summary of a Roc City Council Meeting ? (unless there is a scandal..) Further more most publications have done away with public comments . NYT, WaPo, Gannett have done away with them in lieu of letters to the editor (which they cherry pick) or emails to the author (which are done in obscurity). It’s ironic, a industry that promotes itself as free speech/press advocates, with slogans like “All the news that’s Fit to Print”, “Democracy dies in darkness” etc, who fought to focus sunlight on things like the Pentagon Papers, are afraid to show comments on line from its paid subscribers? Fortunately, the Beacon seems to believe that its articles can withstand its readers review.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *