Cyber-tsunami Hits Ethics

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The Washington News Council in Seattle showed that journalism ethics is a tough sell.

It was the only news council left in the United States when it called it quits in 2014, after 15 years of taking citizen complaints against media organizations, holding public hearings and deciding on the accuracy, fairness and ethics of print, broadcast and online stories.

The council had no legal power or authority, other than the power to influence public opinion and media conduct by publicizing its findings.

“We had a great 15-year run,” John Hamer told the Seattle Times. Hamer founded the council in 1998 and served as its executive director and board president. “We helped a lot of people who were damaged by media malpractice.”

But if you look at the council’s Facebook home page, you find posts that signal a faint heartbeat. Its fighting spirit refuses to die, despite journalism’s and the public’s indifference. That’s often the fate of people who believe in ethics and high standards. They’re seen as high-minded, impractical scolds. Especially now, when journalism appears to be a matter of professional life or death.

On October 26, 2021, the council Facebook page said: “We tried to hold the news media publicly accountable for 15 years, but they resisted. Too bad. It would have increased their public trust.”

On April 12, 2021, another heartbeat signal on Facebook said: “Last night I dreamed that the WNC was still alive, calling out inaccurate, unfair, unethical news stories and holding the media publicly accountable. Then I woke up.”

On February 21, 2019, the council’s Facebook page pointed out that with national or state news councils, it would not be necessary to revisit the landmark U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 “New York Times vs. Sullivan” decision requiring plaintiffs to prove “actual malice” in a libel case. “Those who felt damaged by inaccurate, unfair or biased stories about them could take their cases to a news council for a thorough and open airing, rather than file a costly libel suit…”

An April 1, 2019 post said the council urged news media to be transparent, accountable and open. “Past WNC hearings were widely considered the best discussions of journalistic accuracy and ethics ever heard anywhere in the entire history of journalism.”

In his Seattle Times interview, Hammer acknowledged that “the news media have changed tectonically since we began. The eruption of online digital news and information made our mission of promoting high standards in journalism much more difficult, if not impossible. How can anyone oversee a cyber-tsunami?”

In the list of problems confronting journalism today, add that to the list. Surely, there’s a place for high ideals in journalism’s future. Let that be a challenge for young journalists eager to transform the media industry.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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