Halifax, N. S., Canada – July was a banner month for anyone interested in following the latest trends in editorial ethics. That’s when noted educator and media ethicist Stephen J.A. Ward went live with MediaMorals.org. Mixing thoughtful analysis with a comprehensive digital media tutorial, the site promises to keep visitors up to speed on everything ethics.

The goal of MediaMorals.org is to promote “responsible democratic journalism in a global media world through analysis and critique of leading issues.” Later on in his mission statement, Ward promises: “I will write about issues wherever they might occur, and show linkages with similar issues close to home. My approach is practical and interdisciplinary.”

Stephen Ward

“We are in the midst of a media revolution where we can no longer stick with existing ethics code forms,” says noted educator and media ethicist Stephen A. Ward.

Ward has been a tenured professor at three major universities in Canada and the United States. He has spent 15 years teaching graduate and undergraduate students, and is the founder of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism.

He is an eagerly sought participant by media organizations whenever ethics code revision is an agenda item. Most recently he contributed input to code updates prepared by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Online News Association. More recently, he was director of and professor in the George S. Turnbull Center at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication in Portland. Currently he is interim director of the International Organization for News Ombudsmen.

Ethics codes require personalization

“We are in the midst of a media revolution where we can no longer stick with existing ethics code formats” Ward told Ethics News Updates. Until now, he said, most ethics codes have been depersonalized. Content consists of a set of principles meant to apply to all journalists.

Ward addresses this situation in more detail via a recent blog post: “Buzz-Word Ethics – Is There Such a Thing as ‘Personalized Ethics’?” He sees promise in the code revision approach taken by the Online News Association (ONA). The ethics committee “is constructing ethical guidelines that do not seek to formulate a rich set of principles for all journalists, but provide a ‘toolkit’ so each journalist or platform can construct their ‘own’ guidelines.”

Another MediaMorals.org blog that caught the attention of ASBPE’s ethics committee was topped by an engaging headline: “Why Journalism Needs to ‘Do’ Ethics, Not Focus on Defining Journalists.”

For some time, noted Ward, journalists and their associations “have been trying anxiously to define ‘journalist’ and ‘journalism’ as a media revolution blurs the differences between journalists and citizens. “I have some bad news for this definition-making industry. No rigorous and widely supported definition now, or in the foreseeable future, is likely to emerge from this row over who is a journalist. Better, I would advise, to explore sources of the definitional disagreement and look for a new way to view journalism.”

During the interview, ENU sought Ward’s feedback on three issues mulled by ASBPE’s Ethics Committee during its recent comprehensive code revision. Here are his reactions:

  1. Editorial quality preservation. “Today there is a heavy-handed approach to publishing economics that sees editorial staff reduction as an immediate solution. Instead, publishers should first consider other options.”
  2. Need for original content. The multitude of online sources available to readers requires that any news article posted “tell me something about a story that I don’t know already.”
  3. Deleting archived material. “Never un-publish archived content or do so only in extreme situations where updating an original article would be insufficient.” (Editor’s note: Archive management policy was a key concern addressed during ASBPE’s recent Ethics Town Hall program. One attendee suggested adapting NPR’s policy when confronted by requests to un-publish. A second article stemming from a reaction to the archive policy discussion appears in this issue.

An important MediaMorals.org section is the four-part tutorial covering “Digital Media Ethics.”

Individual chapters address the revolution in ethics, “layered journalism,” difficult questions for digital media ethics, and the ethics of images.