First Person

Everyone who shares information should take ethical responsibility for it

March 16, 2015

When Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly came under attack for embellishing his reporting experience in the Falklands War, Sally Quinn, widow of former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and a friend of O’Reilly’s, said something fascinating.

“O’Reilly is an entertainer and everything he does is totally subjective, including his memories,” Quinn told The Daily Beast. “Lighten up, everybody.”

O’Reilly is an “entertainer.” Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who got a six-month suspension for embellishing his account of a wartime report, is a journalist. O’Reilly has neither admitted nor apologized for his inaccuracies, and he likely won’t have to. The consequences of informing irresponsibly, it seems, don’t apply to him.

Many people wouldn’t blink at that double standard. Yeah? So what?, they’d say. But why do journalism ethics only apply to those who wear the journalist label when so many others now slide into the journalist role? Information is coming from everywhere, but only a fraction of sources feel pressure to get it right.

We need a new way of looking at media ethics. One where ethics follow not people, but impact.

Andrew DeVigal, Chair of Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement at the University of Oregon and former multimedia editor at The New York Times, has launched a project that may help do just that.

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#THISisjournalism is a public collection of work that, as explained on its landing page, “challenges our definition of journalism and yet continues to serve the functions of journalism to enhance public knowledge and enrich civic life.”

#THISisJournalism because former alum @mciaglo can tell a story in a picture #LifeAsAJStudent #UOsojc

A photo posted by University of Oregon SOJC (@uosojc) on

The project, a social media campaign by the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication and Agora Journalism Center, is also a statement: Forget about whether someone is or isn’t a journalist. If something serves the functions of journalism, it is journalism.

“If we think of journalism as for the public, then I think they should have critical voice into what that is,” said DeVigal, who plans to present the collection at the university’s “What is Journalism?” conference in April.

The hashtag has seen a modest number of entries from sites like Twitter and Instagram, each taking the form: “#THISisjournalism because …”

In the mix are documentaries like Do Not Track, data visualizations like this drone strike project from Pitch Interactive, a provocative reflection by technologist Dan Gillmor, a fifth grader’s local news blog in Longmont, Colorado, neighborhood apps like Walk Your City, and innovations like Pop-Up Magazine and the community-focused local New Orleans Listening Post.


Pitch Interactive’s Out of Sight, Out of Mind details every known drone strike in Pakistan since 2004 through impactful data visualization.

Some of the collected projects have closer ties to traditional journalism than others. But to #THISisjournalism, their origin doesn’t matter. Only their potential to “enhance public knowledge and enrich civic life.”

DeVigal gave me a thumbs-up over Skype when I told him I’d submitted a popular clip from the HBO show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” to #THISisjournalism. Underneath the clip’s humor lies the most effective explanation of net neutrality I’ve seen anywhere.

At the end of the clip, Oliver, a veteran of “The Daily Show,” rallies viewers to visit the website of the Federal Communications Commission, which invited public feedback while it weighed proposals to address net neutrality. The deluge of traffic temporarily crashed the FCC’s commenting system after the show aired last summer.

To DeVigal, the call to view new channels of impactful information as journalistic forms isn’t so much an academic exercise as an urgent need. I couldn’t agree more.

“I just fear that we’re on this path of destruction because we are constantly, as a society, going further and further away from identifying a common ground to be able to resolve our issues,” he says. “We need to find this collaborative place between public and legacy media to foster an environment where we can truly have the conversation that’s impacting our communities.”

Of course, a journalism defined by impact over source has its own dilemmas. We’re still talking in vague principles, first of all, using far too many abstractions. What does collaboration between legacy and new media even look like? What kind of “impact” are we talking about here?

Plus: We’re never going to get everyone who shares information to feel as responsible for its effects as we expected Brian Williams to feel. Accountability falls on a gradient, and it’s determined by a person’s reputation, credibility, genre, and reach. In short: How much do their audiences expect of them?

That’s where we can change things. By celebrating public information that enlightens, and calling out public information that misleads, we can show audiences everywhere that they should expect more.

Not just from “journalists.” From “entertainers.” From Facebook friends. From everyone.

Monica Guzman is a CJR columnist, as well as a technology and culture columnist for The Daily Beast and GeekWire. She serves as vice-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee and was a juror for the 2014 Pulitzer Prizes.