Gearing up for the fall semester

10 Aug

Good afternoon.

And a special welcome to my fall semester JAMM 341 students who might be registering for this blog before the start of classes.

We will be using this blog to initiate and/or continue discussion of current media ethics cases presented in class. Earlier, I posted to links to a handful of cases from earlier in the summer. Unfortunately for the craft — but good for the class– there have been a number of excellent cases in recent days.

For example, ABC News announced it will stop paying story subjects (through roundabout licensing agreements) for interviews and information. Earlier, ABC execs had decried the need to pay sources, a long-time ethical no-no, but argued it had become a common practice necessitated by competition. That is a pretty lame excuse any student will recognize — “everyone else is doing it” — and certainly does not constitute a meaningful ethical calculation. Here is a link to a Howard Kurtz piece on the decision.

Another favorite from the summer; a Reuters executive, arguing that Twitter has become the new newsroom, said it is OK for journalists to use the social media service to pass along rumors or incomplete information. Here is the Poynter piece on the issue. So much for accuracy, a central ethical value for journalists.

And yet another: The New Yorker published this month a terrific recounting of the Seal Team 6 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. The story, here, is a wonderful example of compelling narrative journalism. But as has been reported in several places, the reporter didn’t actually interview any of the raid participants. The account is based on interviews with sources who may have talked to the raiders. But the story never makes that clear, leaving the distinct impression the detailed account reflects the recollections, even personal thoughts, of raid participants. That was certainly my impression. Here is a fine WWD story on the controversy.

In class, I make the case that transparency is a fundamental ethical value. I do not believe it would have diminished the wonderful New Yorker piece in any way to have disclosed, separate from the narrative, the reporting techniques behind the story. Failing to do that, and then trying to explain away that failure as New Yorker editors have done, is to do exactly what editors wanted to avoid, to diminish the work of an excellent young journalist.

Feel free to post your responses to any of these issues in the comment thread below. Or suggest issues you have come across that might be good fodder for class discussion.

steve smith


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