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Deadlines & Diversity:
Journalism Ethics in a Changing World

Edited by Valerie Alia, Brian Brennan and Barry Hoffmaster
with a Preface by Arthur Kent
Fernwood Publishing 1996, 255 pp
ISBN 1-895686-54-7

Reviewed by Renée Eaton

"We work in a craft governed more by instinct than by rules…But who could argue that a review of our ethics and standards has ever been more urgently needed than right now. Our readers and viewers have never had more reason to question the value of the material offered up to them in the guise of news and analysis. Especially in the electronic media, the only frontiers being blazed these days are of bad taste, hyperbole and, occasionally, outright fraud" (Preface, Arthur Kent).

Deadlines and Diversity is an exclusively Canadian book exploring the issues of journalism ethics. A collection of case studies, first hand accounts, and essays by journalists and academics, it is recommended reading for anyone involved with or concerned about the news media. The editors offer "an alternative approach which takes journalistic realities as a starting point…Here is a real-life context in which to examine ethics."

Accuracy, accountability and trust are held up as key journalistic principles for journalists, yet some argue that the idea of objectivity in news gathering and reporting ignores the fact that a journalist engages in a forum with key players and the community while investigating and reporting a story. There is also a strong tradition in journalism of editorial reporting, where the journalist makes his or her own opinions known and offers them for debate. Two essays in Deadlines and Diversity explore the dichotomy of objective and subjective reporting. Valerie Aria discusses the reality and value of the journalist as both observer and participant, and Conway Jocks explores the most subjective of journalistic forms, the editorial cartoon.

The contributors show that the ideal of objectivity is a simplification of a process that involves much more than reporting the facts. As the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci said, "Today's history is written the very moment it happens. It can be photographed, filmed, recorded…It can be transmitted immediately through the press, radio, television. It can be interpreted, heatedly discussed…What other profession allows you to write history at the very moment it happens and also to be its direct witness? Journalism is an extraordinary and terrible privilege." Journalism is both objective reporting of, and an active agent in, the historical process. Inherent in Fallaci's quote is that accuracy and truth telling should uphold this privilege. And that the journalist's role in history making should be acknowledged in the reporting itself.


Politics and Ethics of Inclusion

According to Valeria Alia, "Reporting is not just about collecting 'facts' and accumulating 'sources.' It requires descriptive powers, investigative skills and an ethnographer's attention to context. It often involves participant observation, removing the pretence that the researcher (or journalist) can or should stand antiseptically aside."

Alia suggests that the journalist's role in news gathering has striking parallels to that of an ethnographer. Rather than effacing herself for the unattainable ideal of pure objectivity, the journalist declares herself to be an active observer and participant in a particular experience or culture, reporting to the public, in the words of James Clifford, that "You are there, because I was there." As a participant, a journalist acknowledges that it "requires a certain humility, a willingness to learn new information and an awareness of one's limitations." Though the journalist's credo of uncovering 'the truth' is tantamount, as an observer, an ethnographic approach incorporates the reality that the truth is really an arena of multiple truths, taking "several reporters' voices to tell the whole story. Sometimes it takes the combined voices of insiders and outsiders."

There is another benefit to being both an active participant and observer. Pursuing and interviewing key people and the 'hard data' involved in a news story is obviously important for accuracy. Yet, as Stevie Cameron discovered during her years as an investigative reporter, sometimes softer approaches provide information otherwise missed. By presenting a "quieter and less obtrusive" journalist's self to the world she is observing, she can establish greater trust and improved access to information. By simply "hanging around" she can learn more from "hairdressers and cooks" than the day's power brokers. Through the exploration of journalist as active participant and observer, Alia convincingly argues that the truth is better served by acknowledging the journalist's role in the social arena and presenting the many voices that make up the news or issues of the day.


Ethical Issues

"You have to be a political analyst, an artist, a caricaturist, a humorist and a journalist - all five. The only difference between New York Times columnists James Reston and an editorial cartoonist is that Reston doesn't know how to draw" - Israeli cartoonist Ranan Lurie.

The editorial or political cartoon, often viewed as entertainment form, is the most subjective form of journalism. Editorial and political cartooning challenges the journalist's traditional credo of objective and balanced reporting. Cartoonist Conway Jocks describes his own dilemma as a "rabid liberal" and journalist, working within a subjective form. For Jocks the liberal approach of fair play and the journalist's credo of objectivity are challenged when he draws an editorial cartoon. "Closer examination made me realize that [the liberal ideals] of absolute 'fair play' was not part of the editorial cartoonist's rules of engagement which begin with 'A for Ambush.' My dilemma had to be uncompromisingly resolved in favour of the cartoonist's point of view...Editorialists operate from a position of bias or, editorially speaking, 'righteous bias' - they fight perceived wrongs." The editorial cartoon can fight the good fight but at the expense of objectivity. For Jocks, there is a freedom in this subjectivity. One of the reasons why a cartoon is such a powerful journalistic vehicle is that the form has very few ethical or moral restrictions applied to it.

As Jock argues, it is through the process of elimination that the cartoonist's ethical standards are uncovered. The threat of libel appears to be one of the most pertinent constraints. Yet, as has been proven in the courts, politicians are considered public figures and therefore not generally granted rights of privacy. Editorial or political cartoonists can use the defence of "fair comment" against any threat of libel. A cartoonist can "attack, charge, ridicule and caricature any official or public figure with impunity unless the cartoonist states an untruth in the process." For Conway Jocks the ethical limits for editorial cartoonists: "lie somewhere short of graphic depiction of murder, cruelty, pornography, obscenity, racism or treason." The value then, with editorial or political cartooning, comes from the cartoonist's point of view and the freedom in how the subject matter is presented. A cartoon makes us laugh and engages us in a debate, not only with the cartoonist, but in the public forum as well.

In a media world where print and broadcast tabloid formats truncate the presentation of information in a way that leaves 'the news' as empty as cotton candy or as skewed as a court proceeding without all parties being present, the phrase "journalism and ethics" appears to be an oxymoron. This book reminds us that a continuing discussion about the ethics involved in investigating and reporting a news story and how the news is presented should continue to flourish.

 



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