Philosophy 2730F/G Lecture Notes - Lecture 7: Corporate Crime, Tehelka, Proactive Law
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Media Ethics, Class 7:
Principles Articulating What We Expect from Journalists
B. Meyer’s et. al.
We continue with readings that are concerned to try to identify and justify
principles by which to assess the specific practices of the modern mass media in an
effort to ensure they are independent, neutral, and critical.
Last time, we considered Souder’s attempt to show that the essential elements of
capitalism can be used, by means of analogy, to identify and structure the essential
elements of the mass media in a democratic society.
The resultant framework established a set of ethical obligations, that according to
Souder, varied based on the role each individual plays in maintaining the integrity
of the system of mass media. This obligation to the system should take priority
over short-term self-interest.
Our first article for this week by Meyers et. al. tries to articulate a set of principles
that will guide the production of journalism, and help consumers distinguish
between legitimate and illegitimate journalism, based on widely accepted standards
used to define professions.
The motivation for this project follows from the rise of the internet and the
subsequent proliferation of content claiming to be ‘journalism’ that is not, in any
meaningful sense, legitimate journalism.
Our second article by Levy tries to establish that, in order to fulfill their role as a
fourth branch of government, investigative journalists need to be more active in
exposing government and corporate corruption.
B. Meyers et. al. – Professionalism, not Professionals
The increase in sources of information creates a need to distinguish between
legitimate and illegitimate journalism. The best means of doing so is to shift from
focusing on the source of the information and instead articulate clear criteria that
examples of legitimate journalism satisfy.
(So you don’t care who wrote a piece or where it was published, focusing instead
on the extent to which each published piece satisfies these criteria.)
I. Journalism is not a Profession
Professional: so dedicated to a job that it is a calling that (i) serves a vital need, (ii)
is primarily intellectual, (iii) mainly autonomous/self-regulating, and (iv)
committed to satisfying client’s basic needs.
The concept as defined is normative in the sense that the relationships between
professionals and their clients as structured by the above criteria generates a
structural trust (i.e., clients trust professionals because of their rigid training and
The approach to journalism is also normative; Meyers et al is trying to present an
argument about what journalism should strive to be, rather than an account of what
it is in terms of the practice of journalism.
That journalism is not a profession does not imply that journalists cannot strive to
behave professionally, that is, be highly competent at their task and perform it in
an ethical manner.
Since we can no longer identify legitimate journalism merely by reference to its
source, the best approach will involve assessing the extent to which any given
story is competently and ethically written.
II. The History of Professions
The first field to formally professionalize was medicine in an effort to distinguish
those who practised on the basis of science from those who based their practices on
theology or experiential approaches – the goal was to establish a monopoly.
Though they weren’t always motivated by noble goals, medicine’s development of
rigid accreditation standards ultimately provided a legitimate and necessary
foundation of trust.
III. Journalism and the Rise of the Internet
Journalism developed a de-facto monopoly over the dissemination of information
as a result of economic factors; to determine whether a story was legitimate
journalism, you needed to simply identify the source.
The advent of the internet ended that monopoly, meaning both experts and non-
experts can claim an equal legitimacy, irrespective of the quality of information
Hence the push in some circles for journalism to become a formal profession; to
provide a clear and simple mechanism by which to distinguish legitimate from
IV. Journalism cannot be a Profession
Journalism meets a vital need (the provision of information), but cannot satisfy the
remaining criteria of ‘profession’; it does not require formal training, identifying a
journalist’s ‘client’ is difficult, and there is no state sanctioned legal monopoly.
More importantly perhaps, journalism is, at its core, intended to critique the status
quo which is comprised in large part of professionals – so if journalism was to
become a profession, it would be thwarting one of its central objectives.
What journalism should strive to do is:
(i) Develop standards of best practices that can be performed in an ethical manner
(ii) Create a voluntary accreditation scheme
(iii) Seize control of quality standards from the economic control of employers
(iv) Encourage consumers to become more media savvy
V. The Professionalism of Journalism
Technology ended the previous monopoly on journalism because it ended the
preferential access of journalists to publicly relevant information and provided all
with the means to distribute the information.
So journalism will have to be distinguished by reference to two broad qualitative