Journalistic Integrity and the Compartmentalization of Ethics

An informed citizenry, it is often said, is the bulwark of democracy. The basic principles of journalistic integrity – objectivity in reporting, detachment from personal bias, and disinterested duty to the truth – are essential in facilitating public trust and civil discourse. All individuals and institutions, including churches, share an interest in contributing to these worthy goals.

The advent of social media has changed the way people gather, consume and analyze information. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook, for example, are expanding the channels for public participation in receiving and sharing information. Likewise, these platforms are becoming important tools for media organizations to interact with their audiences. Old, comfortable lines are being blurred. The new values of openness and authenticity are often seen as colliding with the traditional values of editorial oversight and authority. Private expression runs seamlessly into public expression. News organizations across the country are doing their best to adapt to changes as they develop. Nonetheless, these dynamics have not altered the fundamental ethical imperatives of journalism.

This duality between traditional media and new media has created a situation where journalists often report by day and blog by night. For example, a reporter can write an objective news story for an organization’s public website and then later add a personal slant about it on a blog, Facebook or Twitter. Though the perceived distance between personal and public writing might make sense to the reporter, the reader is often left confused. People still expect journalists to be impartial reporters of the facts. If objectivity is absent in one platform, it cannot be present in the other. Trust cannot thrive on contradiction. Nevertheless, these conflicts can be managed with proper rules and guidelines. Openness can co-exist with objectivity, but not with open bias.

Among news organizations grappling with these issues, National Public Radio has done a commendable job of establishing guidelines that promote journalistic ethics by delineating clear boundaries between the private and the public. In doing so, they inject a welcome dose of order into an often unwieldy world of conflicting information   Excerpted below are NPR’s “commonsense rules” that can also apply to everyone in the field of journalism:

  • Information from your Facebook page, your blog entries, and your tweets - even if you intend them to be personal messages to your friends or family - can be easily circulated beyond your intended audience. This content, therefore, represents you and NPR to the outside world as much as a radio story or story for does.
  • Recognize that everything you write or receive on a social media site is public. Anyone with access to the web can get access to your activity on social media sites. And regardless of how careful you are in trying to keep them separate, in your online activity, your professional life and your personal life overlap.
  • You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization. In other words, don't behave any differently online than you would in any other public setting.
  • You must not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog) to express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on

Furthermore, in an effort to ensure a respectful, reciprocal relationship between staff and readers and to promote more civil online participation, many news organizations are establishing guidelines to rein in contentious comments. For example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer recently issued a new commenting policy seeking to end bigoted comments, while at the same time urging its staff members to meaningfully engage with readers. Likewise, the Boston Globe has created a “member agreement” stipulating general rules for reader participation on its site: “You agree not to use language that abuses or discriminates on the basis of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual preference, age, region, disability, etc. Hate speech of any kind is grounds for immediate and permanent suspension of access to all or part of the Service.”  Hopefully, such moves among respected news organizations such as these will be duplicated by media organizations concerned about the low levels of public trust and civil discourse.

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