For many of the past few decades, the rules around journalism ethics have been largely settled. We know the appropriate ways to treat sources; we understand the wall between news and advertising; we recognize the pitfalls of publishing clickbait headlines in the scramble for readers.
But now, that era of consensus and confidence is ending. Like much else in journalism, news ethics and security have been upended in our tumultuous age. While time-honored principles remain true—fairness, transparency, diversity, accuracy—a wave of new questions has emerged. And the news business has been too distracted (by Trump, by a crushing news cycle, by a fight for survival) to give them the attention they deserve.
We ignore these new questions at our peril. At a time when a large segment of the population already distrusts the press, ignoring them seems more dangerous than ever.
It is telling that our understanding of these new dilemmas comes more in the form of questions than answers. Among them:
- What are the obligations of objectivity for journalists when their employer, and their profession, is being threatened?
- How should reporters treat, and verify, leaked information when that information could well be part of an orchestrated misinformation campaign?
- Is it acceptable to quote people’s social media accounts, or are reporters also obligated to reach out for comment?
- And what about the social platforms themselves: how should journalists cover institutions that sometimes threaten their own jobs?
These ethical questions have been matched by an equal number of new security dilemmas, many having to do with journalists’ personal data and the dangers of exploitation. How we protect ourselves, while staying open and active members of our communities, looms as a defining challenge.
Some of these questions have begun to be grappled with by academics and journalism watchdogs, including at CJR. But much more is needed.
That, then, is the context of today’s announcement of a $10 million gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies to the Columbia Journalism School to boost journalism ethics in the digital age.
The money will be used to endow the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia and to establish a professorship to lead the center. An additional $5 million will be used by the Poynter Institute to create an ethics and leadership center to train working journalists in these issues.
“With disinformation flowing through social platforms and the news, it’s critical to modernize journalism ethics,” Newmark, a founder of craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, says.
CJR, where Newmark is a member of the Board of Overseers, will team with the Poynter Institute this spring to convene a conference to help shape the issues the new centers will tackle.
We see this not as a sole solution to the these problems, but as an important first step. The Newmark gift will help CJR expand its coverage of security and ethics at a confounding time, establishing an important partner at the school. While it’s unlikely we’ll figure out all the answers, we need to begin framing the questions.