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News and the Institutional Ethic: Why News Affects the Way We Think … and Why It Matters

Jan 24th, 2011 • Posted in: Commentary

by Ethics Newsline editor Carl Hausman

In 1954, Edward Murrow did something that made him uncomfortable: He took an editorial stand in his ostensibly objective news program, “See It Now,” and leveled an opinionated attack at Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who had ruined lives and careers with reckless and largely unfounded accusations against individuals he claimed had communist leanings.

Recalling the incident years later, Murrow protégé Walter Cronkite noted that Murrow was troubled about taking an editorial position, but felt he had to break the rules because the situation was dire. It was an exception to the rule, noted Cronkite, but it was “the exception that made it so powerful.”

You couldn’t get away with it every time and not expect the whole house of cards to fall, which it should if news were to be replaced with an unrelenting cascade of opinion, Cronkite said in a CBS documentary about Murrow that was produced decades later.

Let me make a disclaimer right up top: I’m not yearning for the “good old days,” not dismissing the benefits of new information technology, and assuredly not insinuating that pre-internet journalists were uniformly scrupulous about fairness, objectivity, and ethics.

However, I contend that in prior decades there was a prevailing institutional ethic of objectivity, fairness, and accountability in the news business. When I was much younger, I worked with a couple holdovers from the Murrow era — even a few old-timers who had worked directly with Murrow. While the old-timers had opinions and while they were human beings who often failed to keep those opinions out of their news, more often than not they did their best to present a balanced menu of the day’s news.

Had they been pressed for an opinion of what news is, they might have echoed that of a real old-timer, Walter Lippmann, who felt that the function of news was to “signalize” an event, bring to light hidden facts, put information in context, and paint “a picture of reality” on which the citizen can act.

Such views might strike many as quaint, outmoded, and even laughably obsolete in today’s digital high-volume echo chamber, where facts are molded to comfortably reinforce opinion and consumers with increasingly short attention spans are grabbed by the lapels via biased talking points, rants, and hypnotic visuals.

Some in the news community — as well as some academics who study news — actually welcome this new era of news, celebrating the death of “top down” or “elitist” news and glorifying the liberating effect of the digital technology that takes news out of the hands of the corporations and turns it over to bloggers, everyday citizens, and amateur videographers.

While there may be validity to a portion of that argument, I return to the idea that the institutional ethic of news not only propelled the accomplishments of some outstanding news organizations but also provided a type of mental discipline for reporters and news consumers alike — a framework for critical thinking, reasoning, and compassion.

For example, old-school news stresses (I’ve not yet conceded the use of the past tense) the importance of attribution. Where did the information come from? How was the figure derived? What are the exact criticisms of the person central to the story, and who made them? Repeat them word for word, the old conventions told us, and put quotes around the words so we know precisely which words the source said.

The green-eyeshade editors also would insist that factoids be put into context. What, Editor Eyeshade might ask, does the fact that Politician A voted for “the largest tax increase in history” really mean? Does it mean, as is often the case, that he or she (and a lot of other people) eventually voted to pass the federal budget?

The institutional ethic of old-school news endorsed, and strongly encouraged, the expression of strong opinion — but in a separate area such as the editorial page or the commentary section of the local newscast. There was, of course, no hermetically sealed barrier between the two journalistic roles, but there was an implicit recognition that a newsperson could wear two hats (e.g., serve as both a reporter and a commentator), that the two roles are fundamentally different, and that someone with opinions still could construct objective news.

Perhaps the most useful old-school ethic — and the one whose possible passing eventually will be the most mourned — is the editor’s or news director’s expectation that a journalist would seek comment from those in disagreement with the fundamental narrative of the story.

There often were several results from this forced march into new territory, and those results often came as a surprise to the evolving journalist:

  • First, you found out that what a lot of what people tell you isn’t exactly true. Source A might not exactly be lying about Source B, but Source A generally sees things through a particular lens of experience and more often than not selectively deals the cards to provide himself a winning hand in the game of public opinion.
  • Second, you often learned that Source B isn’t such a monster after all. In fact, Source B may have good reasons for harboring views with which you still might not agree, but for which you might develop some understanding.
  • Third, you might find considerable middle ground between sources A and B — ground populated by sources C, D, E, and F, most of whom are fairly reasonable people who, if your news organization has sufficient resources to allow you time to speak with them, can provide you with considerable insight into the human condition.

Let’s not stand in the way of technological progress and let’s not marinate in nostalgia, but at the same time let’s recognize that there actually were some good things about the good old days — among them allegiances to the old-fashioned ethics, no matter how imperfectly practiced, of objectivity and fairness.

Getting back to Murrow: What worries me most about the constant blaring of the opinion-driven new media is that, like an orchestra that always plays at full volume, there’s no room left for the crescendo. And come the day that a courageous journalist needs to make an exception to the rules to point out something that just isn’t right, there might not be any rules to break and no ability to hear over the din anyway.