Monday, October 28, 2019

A Bit on Journalistic Ethics

Neil Levy has a post on journalistic ethics that I think makes a common mistake that philosophers tend to make when talking about professional ethics, one that is common because it is easy to make, but which I think also can create severe misunderstandings. The mistake is, I think, a failure to recognize that practical ethics in a profession arises out of the practice of the profession, and not (directly) out of abstract principle.

Levy argues that the journalistic principle of giving people an opportunity to comment on a story about them is problematic:

Asking for comment leads to us being swamped in a deluge of bullshit (both in the technical sense of information delivered without a concern for truth and in the colloquial sense). At best, the responses provide free advertising for the political party (that’s why the media advisors distributed the talking points). At worst, the comments add nothing. Of course, sometimes a politician answers a question. Sometimes they provide useful and honest information. But this is rare enough that these few occasions are easily outweighed by the opportunity costs entailed (all that time that might have been devoted to something worthwhile), not to mention the costs of providing free advertising to those in power.

Levy comes so very close to grasping the essential point in the last sentence, and yet falls short. Getting something substantive this way is indeed rare, yes; it is tedious and takes a great deal of time, yes; it is something that is often used by clever politicians to get free column-inches, yes. Veteran journalists know this infinitely better than Levy does -- it is they who often find it fruitless, and it is they who have to spend the time on it. So the question of importance here is: Why then do they do it?

News journalism is not a matter of shouting from a soapbox or lecturing from a lectern; it is a matter of being an intermediary between the public and goings-on. It is a rhetorical field -- you are presenting ideas in a way suitable to an audience -- but it is a rhetoric not based on pathos or logos but ethos, and since the public in general doesn't know most journalists from Adam, it is often a matter of showing people that you are doing your due diligence. Levy has a highly romanticized view of journalism -- the only end that he explicitly identifies is "holding the powerful to account", which I imagine most journalists would agree is an end, but which most journalists are not going to be able to do anything about most of the time; it's an extraordinary end, not an ordinary one. Most of journalism (like most professions) is quite tedious; it's going through the steps you have to go through to show that you didn't deliberately ignore something that could conceivably have been important. It's the same reason why academics are so often expected to cite: academics cite, of course, when building on other people's ideas directly, but they also cite to show that they are not ignorant of some relevant argument, or that they have read the relevant background, or that they have recognized that someone might be interested in a bit more than they themselves argue. Journalists get comment for the same kinds of reasons: to show that they didn't just ignore it, that they weren't being sloppy but actually took the time to check, that they knew some in the audience would be wondering what the response would be, that they are not propagandistic hacks pushing an angle but actually work to find out if there's any countervailing evidence, regardless of their personal biases. In short, they do it to be professional, and that you are professional is something you have to show people; you can't always just let it be assumed.

And I suspect very much that most journalists recognize that if they took Levy's advice, they can't have Levy on speed dial to get his assessment of each case, so they would be doing it entirely by judgment call, and there would come along a time when they would not be getting responses that someone like Levy would think they absolutely needed to get, and all the rest of the time they would be attacked by people with politics different from Levy's for not doing, and maybe they would even miss that very occasional moment when something spectacular slips out or something new comes to light. The most practical way of going about it is just to do it always, show that you are doing it always, and when the tedious comment-harvesting comes up with something, you can do something with it because you've shown the world that you're a solid journalist who takes the trouble to do things like that. Academics could make their arguments just fine reading whatever's relevant but only citing what they directly use; but the whole point of a lot of citation is to make sure people know that you've been reading whatever's relevant, because that's inevitably something that people are going to raise questions about. So with journalists.

I also think Levy underestimates the difficulty of "holding the powerful to account" as a journalist if you don't have some kind of access to the powerful to keep pressing them on things, and how quickly access can dry up if people think you are selectively failing to report what they want to say. When you get recommendations like, "Politicians should not be given the opportunity to appear on flagship programs until they agree to answer questions (perhaps interviews should end with the first refusal to answer, as judged by the journalist, and refusals should result in bans for an extended period of time)", it's somewhat mind-boggling that Levy doesn't consider the ways this could turn out to be a disaster for the journalists involved, as word spread that its journalists were trying to intimidate politicians into giving the kinds of answers that the journalists had already determined to be acceptable. You can (maybe) get away with that in a niche program, or in a bit of tabloid journalism; but mainstream journalism gets its respectability from its access, and its access from at least usually giving the appearance of letting people say their piece.

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