Knight Center
Knight Center


Journalists discuss media ethics and reporters’ responsibility at ISOJ

John Cook, Sylvia Stead, Edward Wasserman, and Tom Rosenstiel speak at the 2014 ISOJ on the UT-Austin campus, Apr. 4, 2014. Lauren Schneider/Knight Center.

At an April 4 panel on journalism ethics during the 15th International Symposium on Online Journalism, journalists and media academics took on a number of basic ethics problems and hashed out long-ranging historical debates regarding the role of journalists in society and their ethical responsibilities to the profession and their readers. 

Edward Wasserman, dean at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, began the panel by noting that there is no uniform body of journalistic ethics, but rather a decentralized model that goes back to the days of partisan papers and tabloids.

Wasserman questioned traditionalists’ fear of technology while warning that “technology confers responsibility,” but wondered if a sense of civil duty could be lost amidst the race to be first, warning that new media could shift its focus from “making a difference” to “making a killing.” 

Sylvia Stead, public editor at The Globe and Mail took a more traditional approach to journalistic ethics, although she warned against nostalgia for a bygone era. Critiquing a “closed” old system of journalism, she was optimistic about the possibilities of technology as a force for accountability and transparency.

Referencing a news hoax Stead’s own paper fell for, she emphasized the need to verify information and correct mistakes prominently. For Stead, taking down stories riddled with errors is clearly unethical, although she acknowledged that a “no unpublish” policy could come under pressure as old stories become more searchable to the public. In the Q&A, she said traditional journalistic values could highlight that journalists are working for the common good, not gossip.

John Cook, the new editor-in-chief for digital magazine The Intercept, one of the new online publications funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, questioned the entire endeavor of ethics pointing to what he saw as a misleading and excluding media “superstructure.” 

"I guess I'm here to argue against ethics in journalism," he said.

Responding to one question on media responsibility, Cook criticized the New York Times for holding a 2005 story about Bush’s NSA surveillance program until after the 2004 presidential election. He said a “polite” mainstream media has sought to ingratiate itself to powerful institutions in several occasions while ignoring the risks of sources in others. 

Addressing his time at as editor-in-chief at news and gossip website Gawker -- where he spearheaded a crowdfunding effort to purchase a video of Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine -- Cook explained that his team followed many of the traditional journalism ethics values, like thoroughly vetting sources when reporting on an exclusive story.

However, with widely reported stories, the emphasis was entering a relevant conversation, he said. Talking about how to address rumors and anonymous comments, Cook pointed out that even the mainstream sources use them to report on developing stories, like during the coverage of the missing Malaysian plane.

Jane Singer, professor at City University London  and University of Iowa tended to agree with Cook that talk of “ethics” can be used to resist legitimate change. Speaking in front of a slide titled “OMG it’s the Internet!” Pointing to the apprehension over speedy communications during the 1990s and skepticism over blogging during the 2000s, Singer argued that journalists have benefited from these developments and been hurt when resisting them.


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