The Philosophy of Modern Newsrooms

Journalists like to debate what constitutes ethical journalism. Should we show photos of the shooter in a mass casualty incident? Is it ever acceptable to pay a source? Should we use photographs taken without permission? What about publishing classified documents? When is it acceptable to identify the author behind an anonymous social account?

Debates are necessary. Journalism has the power to disrupt and harm those we cover, be they individuals, businesses or governments. It’s just that we hold ourselves accountable.

But they can also be unbearable. Debates about rules tend to appeal to those for whom the narcissism of small differences is a way of life. This is partly because these debates are fundamentally insoluble.

We don’t have a fixed, underlying philosophy of journalism that all newsrooms subscribe to. In reality, we probably don’t have a single newsroom where every editorial staff feels the same way.

Here, drawing from a few thousand years of political thought, are five potential newsroom philosophies, into which you can categorize different outlets as you see fit.

The Aristotelian Newsroom

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At first glance, doing what Aristotle thinks we should do seems simple: we should act virtuously for one’s own good – and want to do it, rather than seeing it as resisting temptation. The difficulty comes in agreeing on what counts as “virtuous”. For Aristotle, society should come together and mutually agree on what counts as virtuous, and then citizens should try to model those values.

It’s hard enough when your company is small. In a modern, diverse society, this may seem impossible. Is the truth a virtue or a profit? What happens when they are in conflict? Telling the truth because it was good for profits, if profit wasn’t inherently virtuous, wouldn’t be considered ethical for Aristotle – so if a newsroom wants to claim Aristotelian values, you can bet it will a non-profit organization.

Ethics writing

Deontologists – of whom Immanuel Kant is the most famous – are most concerned with our duties or obligations to each other or to society. For them, the consequences of an action don’t matter – what matters is whether or not it follows the rules we have agreed upon as a society.

This can set a very high bar for actions: it might make sense that drunk driving carries the same penalty whether you run someone over or not, but most of us whitewash at a moral code that says that if a murderer asks you where to find his potential victim, you should tell the truth.

Ethics writing would be difficult to manage. She would argue that while it’s never wrong to invade someone’s privacy, it’s always wrong. If it’s always wrong to keep a secret (like a source), then it’s always wrong. An in-house media operation staffed only by true believers might successfully operate this way, but any other newsroom would quickly run into trouble.

The Utility Newsroom

This newsroom practically reverses the philosophy of the previous one: for utilitarians, consequences are about all that matters. In a given situation, we should choose the option that provides the greatest public good.

In practice, almost all public interest newsrooms operate under this philosophy – knowingly or unknowingly, and even willingly or unwillingly. We have embedded in both law and industry requirements for public interest testing – journalists are permitted to infringe on people’s privacy provided the broader public good is served by doing so.

The court case usually ends up being decided on whether or not the newsroom struck the right balance.

Machiavellian writing

The previous philosophy may seem a little too lofty as an explanatory tool for the actions of some newsrooms – and in particular some owners. For these newsrooms, readers might be tempted to consider the political philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli The princedrafted in prison in an effort to secure his release from the incumbent ruler.

Machiavelli is considered the inventor of realpolitik, to be willing to be sneaky (or at least practical) to secure an advantage in existing political structures. If you are a newsroom owner, you have a very special type of asset – the attention and trust of your audience – which can, if used wisely, be leveraged for other types. of advantages.

It could – purely hypothetically – be used to further an owner’s political agenda, or to confer status and access on those in power, or even to obtain appropriate regulatory decisions, or appropriate changes in law. competition. The possibilities could be endless.

The Nihilistic Newsroom

Nihilism more or less says nothing matters, so you might as well do what you want. For the jaded, most newsrooms are already there, except worse. One editor described the dominant philosophy of journalism in 2022 as “psychopathy (everything for a click) and fanaticism (my tribe is right)”.

After all, hateful clicks matter as much as more worthy clicks. Everyone invents stories, so why not participate? Why not indulge in a little light plagiarism, as a treat? And why not ruin someone’s life, if that person belongs to another political tribe and you are in a bad mood?

There’s definitely something tempting about it, at least once in a while. But isn’t that what social media is for?

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James Ball is a journalist and author based in London, UK. His latest book is Post-Truth: How Bullshit Took Over the World.

TOP IMAGE: Aristotle lecturing future conqueror Alexander. Illustration by Charles Laplante [fr]1866