In journalism and in journalism ethics, the depth of the words and concepts we use are often paper-thin. Some new phrase sounds nice and, as journalists, we like nice-sounding phrases. Soon everyone is using the term. But the trouble is that we haven’t stopped to critically ask what the phrase means, whether it represents anything new, or what other concepts might be better.
Such phrases are especially attractive if made popular by a slick entrepreneur of a media start-up.
This is buzz-word ethics. Ethics with good public relations.Empty, simplistic. It has a presumed “clarity” that disappears with a few well-placed questions
Some popular terms are oxymoronic or make no sense: “My own truth”: There is no truth that is just mine. My belief either describes a fact that exists independently of my perspective, or it is not a truth. Period. What “my own truth” should be called is “my opinion” or “my interpretation” which may or may not be true.
My favorite current “candidate” for buzz word of the month is “personalized” or “personal” journalism ethics?
I see the phrase popping up in all sorts of stories and commentary. But what does it mean? To be personal could mean many things: On the surface, it means belonging to a person, and by implication, not to others. It could mean sensitive information on myself that I wish to keep private. Applied to ethics, it could mean simply the values I endorse. But what if someone “personally” values a set of beliefs espoused by a world-wide religion? Is this a personal belief, or the endorsement of a common belief of many others? If the latter, why harp on calling it “personal”? If not the latter, then it seems that being personal means having a belief that belongs only to me….or no? You see? One minute of reflection shows how superficial our understanding of this phrase is. Or, is “personalized ethics” just another nice-sounding phrase for ethical relativism or subjectivism? That is, all ethical beliefs are relative (read: personal) to each person?
What would “personalized ethics” mean in journalism ethics? It is a cliche to say that we all have our personal beliefs and values. That says no more than I believe certain things. And, to be sure, we live by a set of values. But how does that have anything to say about ethics for a social practice like journalism, which has impact that goes far beyond my personal life? There are some interesting projects that look like they might qualify as a personalized approach. For instance, the Online News Association is constructing ethical guidelines that does not seek to formulate a rich set of principles for all journalists, but provides a “toolkit” so each journalist or platform can construct their “own” guidelines.
This project sounds like “personalized” ethics but what again does it mean? Does it mean that almost any value or new practice affirmed by a journalist is valid because it supports their “personal values”? How much latitude do journalists have in writing their “own” ethics? If journalism ethics is, almost by definition and history, a group-wide ethics for an entire practice, to what degree can journalism ethics be “personalized”? It would seem the ethics of journalism, or at least it basic values, are based on the practice’s public (not personal) duties to democracy and its citizens. There seem to be principles that are not based on someone personalizing them. There are duties for all journalists, no matter what they personally believe or like. Journalism ethics does not belong to individual journalists.
So I return to my question: What does this trendy term, personalized ethics, mean?