The writer is a commentator based in Nairobi
Journalism is having quite a moment.
Last week, Bari Weiss quit as one of the opinion editors at The New York Times, alleging in her resignation letter that the organisation had lost its nerve. “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” she wrote. Top management, she claims, was unwilling to protect her and others with conservative views from harassment by co-workers and online mobs.
Meanwhile, Ms Weiss’s former employer and USA Today have both disavowed opinion pieces by conservative authors after social media and staff criticism.
A piece written by a White House official, Peter Navarro, attacking top US infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci “did not meet USA Today’s fact-checking standards”, wrote Bill Sternberg, the editorial page editor in an explanatory note later appended to the article. His counterpart at the New York Times, James Bennet, had resigned a few weeks earlier following the publication of an op-ed by US senator Tom Cotton calling for the military to be deployed against protesters in American cities.
There is a critical difference between the way Ms Weiss and the senior editors frame the raging conflicts about the limits of acceptable debate. While she argues that her treatment was an ethical failure, Mr Sternberg and Mr Bennet said that the furore was due to incompetence — the problem was that the Cotton and Navarro pieces failed to live up to the papers’ standards, not broader journalistic standards themselves.
These incidents are not exceptional. Across the world, news organisations are increasingly being forced to pay attention to what their audiences and junior staff say. Recently in Kenya, an op-ed in The Star arguing for a currently constitutionally barred third term for President Uhuru Kenyatta was quietly withdrawn following online protests.
Decades ago, what was newsworthy, as well as what was appropriate, was decided by professional newsmen (usually white men, at least until reporters began suing for gender and racial discrimination).
Theoretically, these standards reflected societal expectations of the media system. In practice, however, since media folk manned the gates to the public sphere, debates over media ethics inevitably skewed towards their preferences and interpretations, and became institutionalised in professional codes adopted by media associations.
The internet and social media have radically altered this power dynamic. Many more people from many more places can now participate in public debates, independent of media gatekeepers. Furthermore, declining revenues and audiences have made news organisations much less predisposed to brawl with those readers — the fruits of victory would be ashes in their mouths.
This has led to the tabloidisation and hyper-partisan reporting of news outlets, exemplified by the rise of Fox News in the US. While it can be argued that the media has always been polarised, the professionalism of journalists, and their ethics codes, put a brake on many of the worst impulses.
As a result, traditional media finds itself trapped in a vicious cycle. No longer able to insulate themselves from a vocal online public who increasingly challenges their publishing decisions, news organisations know they need to develop a new way of doing things. Yet they are too busy simply trying to stay afloat to actually take the time to do this.
A new generation of journalists, many imported from online blogs, has been challenging established norms for a while now. A 2008 Pew Research Center study found that newsroom staffs were getting “smaller, younger, more tech savvy [with] less institutional memory”. Today, these staff members are leading internal demands to change the coverage of issues like racial justice and police brutality.
Academia is not riding to the rescue. Media scholars are mired in a debate as to whether anything fundamental needs to change. Some argue that it is just a case of pouring old wine into new bottles — applying existing norms, such as editorial independence and objectivity, to the digital age. However, as Stephen Ward notes, there is little agreement on how to do this beyond “a paper-thin agreement on abstract principles, such as truth-telling”.
Others, such as Jane Singer, argue that “when it comes to ethics, the medium does matter”. While principles like fairness and truth-telling may not change, she argues that they should be viewed less as a requirement of professional conduct, and more about maintaining relationships with peers and audiences.
This leaves news organisations and their staff picking their way through an ethical minefield without a map. It is unclear whether they should try to agree on a new, common set of principles for the digital age or pursue personalised ethics. There is even less clarity on the role audiences should play in decision-making.
In the end, media groups have to decide whether to provide what they think audiences need or what they say they want. Who gets to decide what is, in the words of the Times’ famous slogan “the news that’s fit to print”?
As they struggle with this dilemma, news organisations should scrap outdated professional codes that rely on “thou shalt nots” in favour of training their staff in methodical ethical reasoning. Although professional journalists consistently score higher in tests of moral development than many other professionals, learning how to justify and explain editorial decisions will be key to making it through the minefield.