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Representative Journalism: Ethical Concerns

I blogged yesterday about strings attached to Representative Journalism. Commenter Noah Kunin, concerning my Joel Kramer interview, wrote: :

I think Kramer’s mentioning of “strings” is important but could be easily overcome by transparency in any practical Rep. Journalism model.

That being said, there are already thousands of hidden strings in the MSM – might as well expose them so they can be critiqued.

He is right, but Representative Journalism is new. Ethical questions must be addressed, without answering them, and answering them well, you will not have great journalists become part of the team and great journalists — which I will define more fully in later posts — are crucial to the success of this idea.

So let’s look at one hypothetical Representative Journalism group. Let’s say it is heathcare workers in northwest Georgia. What if, for example, this group’s Representative Journalist found fairly definite evidence that his or her group of healthcare workers were not well trained and treated patients poorly or engaged in financial malfeasance. Would those stories break up the community and have some community members stop paying? Would those potential or real actions be a disincentive to doing such stories? Would the conflict of interest be so great that the reporter would not do any critical stories?

Any journalist who has worked for a small community newspaper faces the same issues. I did when I worked at the weekly Carroll County Independent in northern New Hampshire. Almost each day I saw the people I wrote about. As I remember, there were only about 5,000 permanent residents. I never suppressed a story. I covered all the issues. At times I got people mad. However, I was fair. People knew that and respected it — besides I provided them with high quality journalism that without my reporting they would not have had.

Fairness, thoroughness, transparency are keys. Do you, as a member of a Representative Journalism group, want fair, comprehensive, sometimes hard hitting journalism about your issue or do you want no news at all, which most often will be the trade off. After all we are looking for Representative Journalism groups whose issues are not well covered or never covered. If you want someone who just writes puff pieces, then go hire a public relations specialist. That has to be said over and over again. When the group is formed, ethical considerations should be part of the initial recruiting materials.

Besides Representative Journalism must be to better form of journalism, an improved kind of journalism, to thrive. So back to the healthcare workers. First a really good journalist is going to be telling the community’s story better than ever before, including the good, the bad and the ugly. For the first time the concerns of perhaps the most lowly of healthcare worker will be told. The healthcare workers will be seen as real people with all the strengths and foibles of real people. Those stories will be told because the Representative Journalist will be in the thick of the community and not reporting upon it from afar.

The reporting will be part of an on-going conversation. So if the reporter hits a raw nerve, the community will be encouraged to say ouch and will get their voices heard as part of the conversation. The community, because it knows itself better than any outsider, will always be part of the conversation.

However, what happens when the reporter finds problems? Let’s say, the story is about malfeasance. One would guess that not all healthcare workers are dishonest. But as with all professionals we can be assured that some are. So if there are a bunch of cheats, report about them. Let them leave the Representative Journalism community, the community will be better off without them.

Often things are not so cut and dry. Let’s say one racial group now dominates the healthcare industry, but another is willing to work for less. The dominant group wants to bar the newly arrived group partly for economic reasons, but race and ethnicity might play a role too. Rational argument is pushed aside. The dominant group has far more community subscribers than the nascent group. Tough choices for the reporter.

However, for this new model to succeed, journalism integrity must prevail. It’s easier if there is an umbrella group with many Representative Journalists. If one reporter’s community pulls the rug out from a reporter because the reporter is doing a good job, that reporter must be ensured continuing support to do her designated reporting with funding from the Representative Journalism Cooperative. On the other hand, if a reporter’s community is complaining about their Representative Journalism because of sloppy or unethical journalism practices, the Cooperative must be ready to hold that particular journalist accountable.

In other words, we want great journalism without fear or favor — and when we speak of without fear or favor we include without feat or favor from our representative communities, the cooperative and the individual journalist. Nothing but great journalism principles and practices prevail.

If it is a single Representative Journalism reporter on his or her own, then the situation changes, but integrity must prevail. Remember the power is offering news and information that Representative Journalism Group would not otherwise get.

That’s the bargaining chip. Take all the news, good and bad, but told with all its complexities and from the point of view of all the sides involved and with the idea that we are not just dropping the news on the community and going away, but that the Representative Journalist is an an integral part of the community’s vitality and helps the community define itself in ways that only a news gatherer, storyteller and information producer can. In other words, the contract is: we are providing great journalism — or no journalism. There is no compromise there, but that said, every day we are engaging each Representative Journalism community in ways that they feel their voices and ideas are heard and amplified and their stories told, their problems adddressed and solutions suggested.

One Response to “Representative Journalism: Ethical Concerns”

  1. Noah Kunin Says:

    Without Fear or Favor (WFOF) is definitely a must have for the core values of Representative Journalism.

    Systems can also be put into place to cover those scenarios where WFOF is weakened – the Rep. Journalist should operate in an environment where his Rep. Journalists peers monitor his work and can collectively flag him if his work has been compromised.

    Just having a singular editor monitor the Rep. Journalists in a single news area (let’s say Politics) doesn’t have enough redundancy. But, if Rep. Journalists from say, Sports and Business are also monitoring a Rep. Journalist the chance of a collapse in WFOF of all three quality assurance monitors is significantly less likely.

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    Leonard Witt

    Leonard Witt is the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication at Kennesaw State University and the chief blogger at PJNet.org.

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