Whose Rules? — Kent State’s Media Ethics Workshop

Had an interesting day yesterday attending a media ethics workshop at Kent State that was hosted by my former employer — and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It was one of the better workshops that I’ve attended in years. And there is absolutely no question that Kent State’s journalism program — housed in the way-ahead-of-the-state-of-the-art Franklin Hall — is one of the best in the country.

OK. With that bit of honest promotion out of the way, here’s my take on the workshop. Journalists are finally starting to get it. The revolution involving the news media, to paraphrase Jay Rosen, is over. Freedom of the press now belongs equally to amateurs and professionals. And we are going to have to figure out a way to make this work in the best interests of our country — and our democracy.

The professionals for the most part missed that train when it left the station a few years ago. But now they appear to be jumping on-board. At least from what we heard during the various sessions yesterday.

But I think Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, overall had the most insightful and inspiring comments. Understandable perhaps since he was the luncheon keynote speaker. And he took the time to post his remarks on his blog, PressThink. It’s worth the time to read his post, “If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn’t. So Let’s Get a Clue.”

Rosen makes the point that we now have closed and open editorial systems — which are different. He writes:

They don’t work the same way, or produce the same goods. One does not replace the other. They are not enemies either. Ideas that work in one—and describe the world in that system—do not work in understanding the other: they misdescribe the world.

He said that in a closed system, the barrier for a writer is getting published. In an open system, the barrier for a writer is getting picked up. My problem exactly. I digress.

My view is that many professional journalists are still uncomfortable with this “open system” idea. But it’s reality.  As Rosen says, ” ‘Press tools’ once owned by media companies and operated by professional journalists are now firmly in the hands of anyone who wants them.”

Particularly important, at least it seems to me, are Rosen’s views about citizen journalism. From his blog post:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that “citizen journalism.”

Citizen journalism is most likely to thrive on an “open” platform.

That’s what “blogging” is: an early and awkward name for open platform publishing, in which anyone can participate.

Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, said A.J. Liebling. Well, blogging means anyone can own one. Therefore freedom of the press belongs equally to the amateur and the pro. So does journalism itself.

If anyone can that does not mean that everyone will. It means, “anyone who has time and reason can freely participate.”

Closed and open editorial systems, press and press sphere, are not separate things but richly interactive with one another in the news and information marketplace.

Some other of my observations:

  • Susan Goldberg, editor of The Plain Dealer, is impressive. This was the first time I had the opportunity to meet her or listen to her comments. She talked about the conflict between being first to disclose information — and the need to be right. “I don’t want us to be wrong,” she said. “Big mistakes hurt people and companies. It undercuts credibility.” The Plain Dealer prematurely disclosed the death of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones. “I regret going with the Representative Tubbs Jones story,” Goldberg said. Something tells me The Plain Dealer is in good hands these days.
  • I still get the sense that print journalists beleive they are working for two different businesses: one involving dead trees and one involving the blogosphere. Wouldn’t it make sense these days to view them as the same business — and allocate resources to produce the best product possible in print and online?
  • Lauren Rich Fine, former media analyst at Merrill-Lynch and now professional in residence at Kent State, asked why the mainstream media are afraid to make a mistake — given the self-correcting nature of the online media these days. Jon Talton, a journalist who writes the “On the Economy” column for the Seattle Times had a good answer: “We grew a generation of risk-adverse news managers.” He said this is one reason why the traditional media were late to go online.
  • The Poynter Institute, a “school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders,” partnered with Kent State to hold the ethics workshop as it has for the past several years. Kelly McBride, Poynter’s ethics group leader, moderated several of the sessions and added to the discussions. “Can’t tell any more who is a journalist,” she said. “But we can tell what is journalism.” Not sure about that, personally. But Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada and former Knight Ridder executive, said that the role of journalists is to verify, to authenticate. “Ain’t news if it isn’t verified,” he said.
  • And then there is Bob Steele, who loomed over the workshop — literally — with his image from his office at DePauw University prominently displayed on the room’s big screen. Steele led The Poynter Institute’s ethics program for 13 years — and he has this pretty much down by now. At the end of each of the morning sessions he hurled some digital thunderbolts from the mountain top. Here’s one. “We’re fighting for the credibility of journalism,” he said.

Lots more I could add here. But overall, an exceptional workshop on an extremely important and timely topic.

And kudos to Jan Leach, my friend and former faculty colleague, who pulls this workshop together every year. She’s the former editor of the Akron Beacon Journal — and the students are fortunate at Kent State to have her as part of the faculty.

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3 responses to “Whose Rules? — Kent State’s Media Ethics Workshop

  1. Rob-

    Enjoyed the one session I was able to attend of the Poynter workshop. And I agree with you on Goldberg – she was sharp and insightful.

    I particularly liked how she politely, but firmly, swatted down the “go with it and self-correct it later” school of thought. Get it right FIRST. The revolution may indeed be over, but running or posting an incorrect or underdeveloped story is still ethically wrong and legally liable (reckless disregard, anyone?)

    I liked how Goldberg separated the “journalism of veracity and crediblity” from the throw it on the wall and see if it sticks variety. That, in my opinion, is the difference between journalists and the wannabes.

    By the way, you never told me these PR Tactics students are so sharp! They keep me on my toes (and give me tips on Powerpoint). Enjoying them.

    Hope all is well.

    Tim

  2. Tim,

    You are absolutely right about the PR Tactics students. They are a joy to be with. I knew you would like that class. I sure did.

    And I agree. It’s one thing to say that journalism on the web is self-correcting. I believe it is. But mistakes sure can do a lot of damage to people and organizations while the information is corrected.

    Goldberg had it correct. And I’ll say I thought the contrast between her and the Beacon Journal folks was evident.

    Rob

  3. Pingback: Education, the economy and how the U.S. became France « PR on the run

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