Yesterday the University of Oregon was privileged to have journalist and media ethicist Philip Meyer speak in front of a crowd of professional journalists, aspiring student journalists and professors. Meyer holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the UNC School of Journalism and Communications (Jcomm.uoregon.edu). His topic struck close to the heart of our Reporting 1 class, “When Everyone’s a Journalist, Who Will Make the Rules? A Moral Framework for the Information Age”.
Sitting in the 4th row, the crowd in front of me was sparse, behind me, dense and bustling. I assume there was a certain shyness in the crowd, maybe they didn’t want to be picked like in a magic show. Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, Julianne Newton introduced Meyer as a “Journalism Pioneer and Leader”. Meyer spoke calm and confident, as if he’d done it thousands of times before. It seemed as if he’d come to grips with the reality of modern journalism. And though he rarely name-dropped “Twitter and Facebook” or “Aggregator,” instead he focused on the ethics and morality of these new platforms of journalism. The questions he asked were questions that had been asked for centuries by great thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham. Is ethical reporting a matter of the rules (the First Amendment) or the consequences of your actions.
The focus of Meyer’s lecture was whether or not civilian journalism was ethical journalism and whether or not “someone in a basement somewhere, blogging away,” should be held to the same standards as a certified journalist. A certified journalist, according to Meyer, being someone with a degree in journalism. He highlighted the importance of certification as a barrier between the basement blogger and the real-world reporter. Yet Meyer was adamant in the belief that the basement blogger may be the true journalist. This brought up the subject of truth and lies, and the question of accuracy. Meyer pointed out Wikipedia in particular, and the thin line between verified truth and false information masquerading as fact.
This is when Meyer returned to certification. The public has lost confidence in the press as a result of a lack of verified information. Today we get our news from cell phone cameras and internet bloggers. Meyer asked “Is it possible to speed up the verification of truth?”. It may well be, but the speed of lies “can make it halfway around the world while truth is putting on it’s shoes” (Mark Twain).
So who’s a journalist? Many of us know that what a journalist is now is not what a journalist was 50, 25 or even 10 years ago. The spirit of the investigative reporter and the “Izzy Stone’s” of today are, as Meyer put it, “Blogging away somewhere”. The spirit of journalism hasn’t been lost, it’s been outsourced.
I asked photojournalist and professor Dan Morrison about his opinion of Meyer’s lecture. Morrison said he completely agreed with the importance of ceritifcation to verify truth, “but,” he asked “who has the right to certify and verify everything we say? Whose competency and whose morality are we relying on?”
If everyone is a journalist… Who holds us accountable?