The Ethics of Engaged Journalism

By Michael R. Fancher

Agora Journalism Center
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“Long live true journalism!”

That’s how my daughter, Beth, ended a note congratulating me on retirement as executive editor of The Seattle Times. That was in 2008. In the years since I’ve spent much of my time exploring “What is True Journalism?” Or, more precisely, “What is the true nature, the highest and best expression of journalism for the 21st century?”

Working with Journalism That Matters and the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, I’ve come to believe journalism needs a new philosophy and ethical framework based on the idea of public trust through public engagement. Let’s call it Engaged Journalism.

First, let’s be clear about what we mean by “Engaged Journalism.” It is about how journalists and the public connect with each other, and how that connection affects journalism and public trust.

Journalism has little purpose if it is not trusted by the public it is meant to serve, so public engagement and public trust are inseparable in the networked world of digital journalism. Engaged journalists are starting to ask, “How can we help people trust each other?”

In addition to representing the public interest, engaged journalism involves the public as true partners, enabling journalism to become complete, more accurate, more trusted, and more meaningful.

The late Steve Buttry, one of the first newspaper editors to advocate what he called “community engagement,” described it as news organizations making a priority to listen, join, lead, and enable the conversation to elevate journalism. He said, “Engagement is an approach that can and must serve and improve our journalism. It may have some marketing benefit, but the purpose is better journalism.”

Jennifer Brandel, CEO of Hearken, says, “Engagement happens when members of the public are responsive to newsrooms, and newsrooms are in turn responsive to members of the public.” Hearken works with newsrooms to develop engagement as a process rather than a practice. “It’s a feedback loop,” says Brandel.

Andrew DeVigal, endowed chair in Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement and associate director at the Agora Journalism Center, distinguishes between engagement that is transactional and engagement that is relational. Transactional engagement typically works to benefit more meaningfully in one direction, while relational engagement is reciprocal.

Engagement is a continuum, and the public should always be at the center of that work,” DeVigal says. “The question we often forget to ask ourselves is: How can we motivate more journalists (and journalism students) to put the community at the center of their work, be better listeners, and understand more precisely the needs of the public? Until we can think of the public not just as ‘audiences’ and ‘consumers,’ but also as experts and partners in the communities we aim to serve, we shouldn’t expect to receive the public’s complete trust.”

Public trust is at the heart of engagement. The American public’s confidence in journalists to be fair, accurate and unbiased has been in consistent decline for decades, as has public confidence in most institutions in our nation. I believe that the way we do journalism, especially the relentless negativity and shortage of authentic community connection, contributes to the erosion of trust.

Public confidence in journalism and democracy are linked, and I believe we are at a point where both journalism and democracy are at risk. Their survival will require action, imagination and courage on the part of journalists and the public to promote the shared pursuit of truth and the common good.

Good Work — A Frame for Thinking About Engaged Journalism

Much of my thinking about the future of journalism emanates from the book “Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon. It examines what professionals should do when their field is in crisis, whatever their profession. The authors chose journalism as a profession to explore, although the book was published in 2001, well before the financial crisis facing journalism became catastrophic in 2008. Their definition of “crisis” was broader than economic imperatives and included concerns such as rigid orthodoxy, the changing needs and expectations of society, rapid and destabilizing changes in technology, and the loss of faith in the viability of the profession.

The authors say that, in times of uncertainty, thoughtful professionals should consider three basic issues:

Mission — the defining features of the profession in which they are engaged;

Standards — the established “best practices” of their profession;

Identity — their personal integrity and values

This essay will explore how Engaged Journalism might address each of these issues. It also offers “An Engaged Journalist’s Creed,” my own personal affirmation.

Engaged Journalism’s Mission — Open and Inclusive

Public service historically has been professional journalism’s guiding imperative. According to the American Press Institute, journalism’s mission has been essentially two-fold:

  1. to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing;
  2. to provide people with the verified information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.

That purpose remains vitally necessary today, but it is no longer sufficient in the digital age; it is no longer adequate for journalists or the people. The insufficiency resides in the words “to provide,” which derives from the technological limitation of the past. If journalism didn’t exist today, we wouldn’t create it hampered by those limitations.

Modern journalism began as a profession in the Progressive Era in the early 1900s, when information was scarce and access to it was limited. Journalism schools were founded in the belief that the profession would not be respected or trusted unless it was taught and practiced to meet certain standards of craft and conduct. Professional societies were born, and codes of ethics were developed to guide their work. Journalists were trained to be the trustees who decided what best served the public good. They were the gatekeepers in a mostly one-way communication relationship.

The Internet has flung the gates open, fundamentally changing the relationship between journalists and the public. There is an increasing shift of control from those who report, edit, and present the news to those who read, watch, or listen. Information is widely available, allowing people to exercise their own news judgment. They are increasingly serving as reporters and editors for themselves and others, telling their own stories in their own voices.

The loss of public confidence in journalism is connected to what journalists do and how they do it. Journalism and democracy are intertwined, and the sweeping loss of confidence in the institutions of our democratic society should be of vital concern to anyone who cares about journalism. Can journalism be said to be living up to its traditional mission if people are increasingly polarized and losing confidence in virtually every institution of democracy?

The fundamental question for journalism and democracy is whether the common pursuit of truth and collective deliberation will be valued elements of our democracy, or whether hyper-partisanship and polarization will erode common ground.

These political dynamics and the imperative for journalism to change are not unique to the United States. In his book Disrupting Journalism Ethics, Stephen J. A. Ward says, that “egalitarian democracy, a democracy that seeks equality as much as freedom, defends the rule of law, protects minority rights from intolerant majorities, and encourages respectful debate, is in peril. The ideal is challenged around the world.”

Ward says we need “democratically engaged journalism.” He explains, “We need a special form of engaged journalism which clearly understands the conditions for egalitarian democracy to flourish and is prepared to use the best methods of journalism to promote this political goal.”

The mission of journalism needs to be re-articulated to reflect the interactivity of the digital age. This new mission should be principled and consistent with the historic public service mission of journalism. It should also be practical, acknowledging the shifting relationship between journalists and the public.

Those who would write such a mission might ask:

  • Why should society value and support this mission?
  • How can journalism be an inclusive network that both represents and engages the public, enabling journalists to be true partners with the public?
  • What would be different if journalists saw building public trust as central to their mission? And what if the public trust were seen not just in terms of trust in journalism, but trust in democratic practices and principles, as well as people trusting each other when they have different beliefs?
  • How might journalism help people trust each other, even when they have different beliefs?

I would offer the following as a possible mission for Engaged Journalism:

Engaged Journalism’s mission is to make journalism more open, accessible, collaborative, and participatory while maintaining the highest standards of accuracy, fairness, clarity, and impartiality. Engaged Journalism is consistent with and supports the historical mission of professional journalism — public good, self-governance, and a better life for all.

Engaged Journalism’s Standards — Tradition and Transformation

The culture of professional journalism is strong. Many professional journalists regard the notion of engaged journalism as unimaginable, wrongheaded, or both. They see engagement as advocacy and can’t envision how journalism can engage with the public without lowering standards and abandoning core principles of independence and objectivity. Hearken, a company that “helps organizations listen better to those they serve and create reciprocal relationships,” studied 100 practitioners of journalism engagement. It found that the biggest barrier to changing was “just internal politics and the culture in the newsroom.”

At the same time, many in the public, especially those who feel they have never been well-served by journalism, doubt that journalists can be more open, responsive, and accountable. They perceive journalistic independence as elitism or even hostility. Many people see journalists as honoring their articulated ethical values situationally, especially the core value of minimizing harm in their reporting. Those who argue journalism needs fundamental change see journalists as more of the problem than the solution.

Given these attitudes within the profession and about it, the time is right and the need is real for a fuller articulation of the values, standards, and ethics to guide and promote Engaged Journalism. The time is right because journalists have unprecedented ability to connect with people, and people have unprecedented ability to connect with information and each other. The need is real because the current situation is unsustainable. Journalists and people will either come together, or journalism and democracy will come apart.

What traditional values or standards of journalism must be protected or improved so that journalism distinguishes itself from other forms of communication? How might each of those standards or values be enhanced by shifting the paradigm from a distributive model of one-way communication to an engaged perspective?

Having clarity about these issues will help journalists see the benefits and possibilities of Engaged Journalism while navigating the risks. That clarity will also help the public evaluate the quality of journalism they receive and create meaningful ways to contribute to it. Both journalists and the public will have a better sense of journalistic accountability and whether Engaged Journalism is living up to its new mission to make journalism more open, accessible, collaborative and participatory.

Principles for the 21st Century

Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel identified this need in their 2014 book, “The New Ethics of Journalism”. They point out, “When anyone can make journalism, it becomes even more important that its production be ethical and that the community be able to recognize and identify when it is and isn’t.”

Ethics codes for professional journalists in the past century have included variations on four key ideas:

  • Seek the truth and report it.
  • Minimize harm.
  • Be independent.
  • Be accountable and socially responsible.

McBride and Rosenstiel proposed a new set of guiding principles for journalists:

  • Seek the truth, and report it as fully as possible.
  • Be transparent.
  • Engage the community as an end rather than as a means.

“Truth is still the greatest value, the first among equals,” McBride and Rosenstiel wrote. “Where we once argued for independence, we now advocate transparency. Independence is a part of that principle, and we still believe in its essential value.”

Transparency, they write, “demands that the public see how the journalism of the future is produced and calls for an openness that encourages constant conversation between journalists and citizen, newsroom and community.”

McBride and Rosenstiel suggested that the traditional ethic of minimizing harm be expanded into a principle of engaging the community. Identifying the challenges ahead, the authors wrote, “Professional journalism must grasp this deeper, more complex idea of community and the ever-expanding range of tools that make it possible. That will require a new mind-set, new work processes and a new rapport.”

Arguing that journalism must survive for democracy to survive, they asserted, “If journalism can accomplish this transformation into a service that creates and supports the community, rather than one that creates news products, this could be our best investment in survival.”

That Engaged Journalism movement is well underway. Since the publication of “The New Ethics of Journalism”, many news organizations have begun adding engagement editors in their newsrooms, and new journalistic entities have been formed around the concept of community engagement. But progress hasn’t come easy, as news organizations continue to question the economic return on investment in engagement efforts, and many journalists question whether engagement undermines the traditional values of their profession. That can change.

The Paradox of Tradition and Transformation

I believe progress requires reconciling a paradox of tradition and transformation. Journalism is being tested and challenged as never before. Journalists must preserve, even strengthen, the profession’s tradition of public service through independent, truthful news and information while also radically transforming itself to be more inclusive, democratic, interdependent, and authentically accountable.

Clearly, there is tension between tradition and transformation, but there has always been tension within the core ethical values of professional journalism. For example, journalists have always wrestled with tensions between reporting stories fully and withholding details that would be unnecessarily harmful, such as not publishing a rape victim’s identity or being independent of sources, but cooperating with law enforcement if the timing of a story would hamper an investigation.

While striving to be objective and neutral in their reporting, journalists cannot be robots. Indeed, a core tenet of journalism is that it is an act of conscience and character. A more engaged approach to journalism would help journalists better understand and respect how the public views and weighs these tensions while also helping the public understand why journalists weigh the relative values the ways they do.

Tradition and transformation may seem self-contradictory, but Engaged Journalism can uphold both at once. The concept comes from the book “Built to Last” by Jim Collins, who says to reject the tyranny of the OR and embrace the genius of the AND. Collins says that a truly visionary company embraces both ends of a continuum. It preserves a passionately held core ideology or purpose and stimulates progress or transformation in everything else:

“Continuity and change

conservatism and progressiveness,

stability and revolution,

predictability and chaos,

heritage and renewal,

fundamentals and craziness.

And, and, and.”

Journalism’s choice cannot be between defending traditional principles OR building public trust in journalism and democracy through public engagement. To “save” journalism, its practitioners need to create radically new ways to connect with, learn from and report about all of the people. They must open their hearts and minds to the transformational ideas. Create the AND.

One way to simultaneously uphold tradition and transformation is to explore established principles from a more engaged or interactive perspective. Examples that have emerged from various convenings of Journalism That Matters and the Agora Journalism Center include:

Be Independent AND Be Interdependent

Journalism must be independent of any vested interest other than the public interest to protect its integrity from coercive pressures or influences. Interdependence is an ethical value of Engaged Journalism to enable open, honest connection between journalists and the public they serve. It means recognizing that journalism’s ability to flourish is directly tied to the flourishing of communities and civil society. Also, it means acknowledging that quality journalism can no longer be thought of as something that journalists can/should produce independently of the public. Reconciling these values of independence and interdependence requires a leap of faith, with hope, courage and conviction. The potential benefit is collective learning with increased dialogue and deliberation.

Create Journalism for People AND Create Journalism with People

Engaged Journalism is done for people; it is also done with people. It welcomes the public as active partners in mutual inquiry to support the democratic purposes of journalism. This kind of participatory journalism goes beyond mere transparency to give people meaningful opportunities to be involved in all aspects of the journalistic process. People who are motivated and have the opportunity to be part of creating journalism will likely be more trusting of it.

Speak Truth to Power AND Speak Truth to Empower

Engaged Journalism holds power accountable. It also has the potential to help empower people, individually and collectively, to understand and achieve their own best interests and aspirations. It “gives voice to the voiceless,” while helping people find and use their own voices. Engaged Journalism values journalistic neutrality, transparency and accountability as parts of its truth discipline, but it also advocates for democratic principles and practices.

Reveal What is Wrong AND Illuminate What is Possible

Engaged Journalism is more truthful when it reports possibilities, not just problems. The relentless negativity of news and its sharp focus on conflict and confrontation distorts reality and is not a truthful, comprehensive or helpful perspective. Engaged journalists should always ask of their work, “What good does it do?”

Finding the AND

Finally, a note of caution about establishing the values, standards and ethics of Engaged Journalism. How you do it matters.

Stephen Ward warns that the public should participate in developing what he calls “open ethics” or “public-participatory ethics.” Ward cautions, “A closed approach (by and for journalists) only confirms the skepticism of the public that journalists are not willing to be transparent about their ethics and therefore are not to be trusted.” An open approach “builds ethics literacy while increasing public confidence in quality journalism. It encourages transparency and accountability of media.”

Ward also suggests that the ethics of democratically engaged journalism should guide all who communicate in the public sphere. “If you are communicating with the public, you-whomever you are-owe concrete and effective accountability methods to your audience,” he says.

A few of the questions Ward proposes are: How might an “open” approach to developing new standards for journalism be undertaken? What new practices and norms would the public support? If the public publishes, contributes to or shares media content, is it their ethical responsibility to be truthful and trustworthy?

Ward’s warning reminds me of a 2015 gathering that Agora Journalism Center and Journalism That Matters co-hosted in Portland, Oregon. It was called “Experience Engagement: How communities and journalism can thrive together.” The non-journalists at that gathering came up with their own admonition to the journalists: “Nothing about us without us.” It is a phrase that has a long history in the international disability community as an expression of fighting back against powerlessness.

In the context of journalism, the phrase speaks to the reality that people have unprecedented control over their use of media. Engagement is essential for journalism to have value in their lives, and will be better for being inclusive and tapping into the collective knowledge of the community. People now have a genuine opportunity to help shape the future of journalism and a responsibility to do it.

Engaged Journalism’s Identity — Bridge builders:

The authors of Good Work describe identity as “a holistic sense of a person’s background, traits, and values… a person’s deeply felt convictions about who she is, and what matters most to her existence as a worker, citizen, and human being.”

“A central element of identity is moral — people must determine for themselves what lines they will not cross and why they will not cross them. But a sense of identity also includes personality traits, motivations, intellectual strengths and weaknesses, and personal likes and dislikes… Each person’s identity is shaped by an amalgam of forces, including family history, religious and ideological beliefs, community membership, and idiosyncratic individual experiences.”

Walter Williams saw the importance of identity when he founded the first school of journalism in 1908. He urged his students to think hard about the standards and behaviors of their profession and required them to write a personal statement to which they would hold themselves accountable. In 1914 he wrote his own statement of personal affirmation, entitled The Journalist’s Creed. It begins:

“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust…. The supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.”

More than a century has passed since Williams wrote the Creed in 1914. Some of its language is antiquated, but the primacy of public service has remained at the heart of journalism. The Creed’s core principles have endured: clarity, accuracy, fairness, truth, and independence. For many decades it guided generations of journalists, publishers, and others associated with journalism. It also served as a statement that the public could use to understand the role of the press and to evaluate its performance.

Its words guided me for more than 40 years, from the time I first read them in a high school newspaper class until retirement from The Seattle Times, where I spent 20 years as executive editor. I quoted the Creed many times in newspaper columns and speeches, but I came to understand it differently after I retired and read it anew as a fellow in the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

My fellowship asked the question, “What is the Journalist’s Creed for the 21st Century?” In exploring that question, I came to appreciate that the creed was as much about identity as it was about craft standards. Most of the traits identified concerned standards of character through the use of words like helpful, tolerant, constructive, self-controlled, patient, respectful, unafraid and humanity.

The Journalist’s Creed was less about the “how” of journalism and more about the “who.” It was about identity.

The authors of Good Work say that good work happens when excellence and ethics meet, asserting that it can happen even in difficult times. They explain that it is “not difficult, necessarily, in terms of daily creature comfort but difficult in terms of people’s ability to know the right thing to do and remain in their profession.”

Clearly, these are difficult times for veteran journalists and prospective journalists alike. The profession is at risk and under attack as never before. And yet, when I talk with journalism students and those in the field, I hear a new sense of determination. The crisis is increasingly perceived as a new reality with emerging possibilities. There is new urgency about the need to diversify the voices within journalism so that the profession reflects all the people.

As with the first professional journalists more than a century ago, the journalists of today and tomorrow have the opportunity to create a new kind of journalism. To be successful, these journalists will need a clear sense of identity and an understanding of what calls them to do this work. More specifically, what calls someone to Engaged Journalism?

I think I heard part of the answer at a recent Agora Center convening on the ethics of engagement. Participants articulated traits of successful engagement, many of which fit squarely in the category of identity. Under the trait of “Be Human,” they included things like authenticity, sharing, self-awareness, respect, recognize mutual humanity, interconnection, reciprocity and vulnerability.

Perhaps the sentiment that best captured the identity of Engaged Journalism was, “We are bridge builders.”

Engaged Journalism — A Personal Affirmation

In the spirit of Walter Williams, and with profound humility, I offer a statement of personal affirmation about Engaged Journalism. A work in progress, it is an amalgam of what I have learned from those with whom I worked at The Seattle Times and at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Journalism that Matters, the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, and Agora Journalism Center.

Personal thanks to Frank Blethen, Seattle Times publisher; Peggy Holman, co-founder of Journalism That Matters, and Andrew DeVigal of the Agora Center. I thank them all for their support, wisdom and inspiration.

Long live True Journalism!

An Engaged Journalist’s Creed

I believe that journalism belongs to all the people and that journalists are stewards acting on their behalf.

I believe that the highest and best expression of journalism in the 21st century is Engaged Journalism, a full partnership between those who report the news and those whose lives are affected by it.

Engaged journalism’s purpose is to make journalism more open, accessible, collaborative and participatory while maintaining the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, fairness, clarity and impartiality. Engaged Journalism is consistent with and supports the historical mission of professional journalism — public service, self-governance and a better life for all.

Truth and trust are the linchpins of engaged journalism. Engaged journalists see public trust not as an abstraction, but as a relationship with an abiding desire to connect on a human level. Engaged Journalism is inclusive, authentic and reciprocal, with a goal of supporting people and communities to thrive.

Engaged journalists recognize that journalism isn’t just on behalf of the people, but in concert with them. Engaged journalists see the public not as an audience but as a community, and people as citizens, not as customers. People see journalists as part of that community, not apart from it or hostile to it.

Engaged journalists go beyond institutional perspectives and sources, devoting special attention to the lived experiences of the people in the story. In considering what is newsworthy, engaged journalists are mindful of whose story is being told, who tells the story, and who benefits from the stories being told. The people who newsrooms aim to serve are respected in the process of deciding what is newsworthy.

Engaged journalists regard listening as a superpower. They listen with empathy and respect, and they wish to hear a more complete story. They listen to learn, not just to tell. Listening is foundational in fostering trust between communities and journalists, as well as within communities.

Engaged journalists foster inclusion to ensure all have a voice and an opportunity to be heard. Engaged journalists strive to accurately represent a community as made up of diverse experiences and not as a monolith or as stereotypes.

In addition to revealing problems, engaged journalists illuminate possibilities. In addition to who, what, when, where, why, and how, engaged journalists ask, “What’s possible now?”

Engaged Journalism builds capacity through experimentation with networks, collaboration, shared infrastructure and technology. It doesn’t seek to “save” journalism; it seeks to increase journalism, with more people participating on many platforms and in non-traditional settings.

I believe that the journalism that succeeds best-and best deserves success-is introspective, honest and responsible; corrects its mistakes willingly, fully and openly; works to mitigate against bias of any sort and promotes justice; contextualizes information and strives to be as complete as possible. It seeks truth, meaning and understanding.

I believe Engaged Journalism isn’t a subset or offshoot of journalism; it is journalism. It encourages journalists and others who contribute to journalism to explore new ways of enhancing public knowledge and civic life. It elevates democratic principles and practices and champions the public’s right to know.

About the Author

Michael R. Fancher retired from The Seattle Times in 2008, after 20 years as executive editor, and almost 40 years as a professional journalist.

Since retirement, he has remained very active with teaching and administrative roles in journalism education, focused primarily on journalism ethics and democracy.

He was a 2008–2009 Donald W. Reynolds Fellow in the Missouri School of Journalism and Reynolds Chair in Ethics at the University of Nevada in 2011–2012. He was interim director of the University of Oregon’s Turnbull Portland Center and the Agora Center for Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement during 2015–2016. He is currently chairman of the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Fancher has a journalism B.A. degree from the University of Oregon, a communication Master’s from Kansas State University, and an MBA from the University of Washington.

“The Ethics of Engaged Journalism” by Michael R. Francher, and published by the Fourth Estate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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