A Journalist’s Creed, Examined

As journalists, the debate is ongoing: what are the universal values we should hold to? Beyond the obvious legal constraints that we must operate within, there’s no accreditation board for journalists— we are really only bound by institutional or cultural codes of ethics, which of course vary widely.  

Modern journalism has a lot to learn from Walter Williams, the first dean of the world’s first school of journalism at the University of Missouri in 1908. Today I’d like to break down his famous Journalist’s Creed and discuss what each part of it means for journalism today. Plaques bearing the creed are up in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. since 1958, as well as all over Mizzou’s campus. Below the bold sections are parts of the actual creed, and the italicized parts are my comments. The image at the bottom of the page is of a plaque bearing the creed near the building housing the Columbia Missourian newspaper.

My purpose in sharing this is to introduce you to the creed and get you thinking about journalistic codes of ethics.

I believe in the profession of journalism.

This may seem like a simple and uninteresting way to begin, but it’s actually rather a profound statement. Too often I hear people say, “Today, thanks to social media, everyone’s a journalist.” I think it’s easy to assume that a journalist’s job is to be be a fact-reporting robot, but in reality we must be thoughtful about what we produce and do so in a professional manner.

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You’re a journalist! You’re a journalist! Everybody’s a journalist! (Except Oprah, apparently)

oprah

I recently overheard a debate between two journalism students at Mizzou about whether or not Oprah Winfrey is a journalist. One of the students described her as such, and the other objected indignantly. “She can’t be a journalist, she has an opinion!” she said. To her, although Oprah is undoubtedly a media personality and content producer, the fact that Oprah engages in advocacy and philanthropy invalidated her as a “journalist.”

Isn’t it weird to belong to a profession whose legitimacy can be questioned like this? Who decides who is and isn’t a journalist?

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Don’t give in to “churnalism”

This week I’d like to share a TED Talk by Channel News Asia journalist Akshobh Giriharadas, mostly because I think he does a great job of summarizing the issues facing our industry, as well as encouraging journalists to reflect and think critically about the work they are doing and how it impacts consumers. At the same time, I appreciated his call for consumers to reflect on what kind of journalism they would like to see created going forward. If you’ve ever wondered what we, as young coming-of-age journalists, talk about in graduate school, this is a pretty good overview of the kinds of issues we talk about in class, over coffee, and in the hallways of the j-school.

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No really, why doesn’t America read anymore?

Remember when we only had to deal with fake news once a year?

That’s how it felt, at least, before false information purporting to be real took over the internet, luring unsuspecting users in with legit-looking websites and information meant to appeal to a certain kind of person who would be likely to share the information. But it wasn’t always like this— despite being tainted by the current political climate, fake news is still a source of joy for many on April 1st.

Many journalism outlets and public relations companies have made it a tradition to observe April Fool’s Day and put out at least one fake story to fool their audiences. (The Washington Post put out this delightfully exhaustive list of hoaxes perpetrated this year in the world of media). I possibly liked NPR’s approach the best, though, which involved not only posting a funny fake story, as they do every year (a chef who cooks with dirt, anyone?) but also reposting a neat little social experiment that they first started in 2014.

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Newsroom diversity is about more than race

Much has been said over the years, and quite rightly so, about the fact that if journalism exists to serve the public, then it makes sense that the demographic makeup of journalists should look like the public. Recognizing the many facets of diversity is essential for providing fair and accurate coverage of people, events, and issues. But the American Society of News Editors, which performs an annual census of U.S. newsrooms, found that in 2016 minority journalists comprised just 17 percent of the workforce.

The most prominent and oft-discussed facet of diversity is, of course, race— and the industry still has a long way to go in terms of ensuring fair representation. Pew Research Center projected last year that by 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority, and over the next five decades the majority of U.S. population growth will be linked to new Asian and Hispanic immigration.

When it comes down to it, what does “diversifying” as a verb actually mean? To me it means recognizing the need for greater representation and keeping that need in mind when hiring and also throughout the journalistic process. It helps to reflect constantly on the sources you’re using for a story to make sure they are representative of the issues being discussed. This may sometimes mean privileging minority voices over others— one of a journalist’s most important jobs is to give voice to the voiceless, after all— but this is not always the case.

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Sharing stories while begging for bread

james

Is there ever a situation when money should change hands after an interview?

Compensating— and conversely, accepting gifts from— your subjects is almost universally regarded as a major no-no in the world of journalism. Journalists should not have to be beholden to their subjects and obligated to paint them favorably, and neither should they be tied only to the subjects who can pay in order to be interviewed. By the same token, journalists paying subjects for interviews undermines the (ideally) egalitarian nature of news coverage, whereby subjects freely consent to sharing their stories with a journalist without slapping a price tag on their words. For most journalistic subjects, their time and their stories can be freely given— albeit sometimes begrudgingly— and the notion of payment need not even cross the mind of either party. But this is not always the case.

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