Feature Article

Professor, Alumna Examine Ethics in Journalism in Light of New Rhetoric

by Marie Campagna Franklin and Abigail Adams '17

One of the first things we are taught as journalists is that there is a code of ethics, and that adherence to this code - which includes truth and accuracy, fairness, impartiality, humanity, and accountability - is important in maintaining our credibility. As a journalist-turned-professor and a former journalism student, we find it somewhat disconcerting to experience a change in rhetoric, in which mainstream reporting is referred to as "fake news" and less-than-reputable stories are shared with little regard for their source. 

As recently as a few years ago, the concept of fake news was entirely different. We focused on late-night TV, Stephen Colbert, and Comedy Central. After spirited industry debate, we concluded that The Daily Show did little to harm the credibility of real news outlets, and that a laugh or two at the expense of satirizing the news was harmless.

Until now. Fast forward through the last several months and you'll find that fake news is no longer an entertainment term. It has infiltrated the common vernacular and crept into the realm of real, fact-based journalism. We're scratching our heads and asking, what went wrong?

We now live in a world where news outlets actively forsake any attempts to remain impartial or fair. We also live in a world where news deemed harmful to one's reputation can be scoffed at as "fake news." This rhetoric is confusing members of our citizenry, and this is troubling.

The media's role in democracy is to convey information, which the public uses to make decisions about how they want to live. We learn about important issues and policy decisions through the news. We hear different perspectives that help shape our thinking based on what media outlets share. Given the influx of propaganda and misinformation in the mainstream sphere, people are either losing faith that what they read or hear can be trusted, or they are completely tuning out.

In class, we talk about the difference between truth and lies. We talk about how a democracy can't function optimally without effective channels of communication. We explore the difference between factual news and propaganda. Media literacy and the task of teaching students how to spot fake news has taken on a new urgency in America and in the classroom at Lasell.

So how did we go from the normalization of spoofed news on Saturday Night Live to the common practice of sharing any information that comes our way as a reputable fact on social media? How did we go from understanding the difference between satire and truth to blurring the lines previously drawn between journalistic sources and media scams? There's a lack of trust in the media that is fueled by a vicious cycle of ungrounded hearsay disguised as fact making its way into mainstream platforms. How do we take a step back, and how do we retrain ourselves to understand what is real, what is speculative, and what is utterly incorrect?

Let's start with the mainstream media. It's important to ask if they share some of the blame for the public's lack of trust in the news. The answer is emphatically yes. Look no further than recent political coverage by two cable TV networks: conservative FOX News versus liberal counterpart CNN. The former lacks toughness and goes out of its way to avoid coverage of stories that might damage the current president's reputation in favor of excess coverage of political rallies and other events. CNN, on the other hand, is so openly opinionated in their coverage of the president that it is often difficult to differentiate between news and opinion. Perhaps it is time to go back to the newsrooms of years past, where a crusty, curmudgeonly old editor would roar, "Just the facts, Jack!"

It is a tricky time to teach journalism. It is challenging to teach fact-checking, proper sourcing, and the concept of fact versus opinion in a time when misinformation has become mainstream and much of the mainstream media has adopted a bias. It is clear that journalists must find a new way to cover these issues, just as educators must find a better way to teach journalism ethics. And, the general population must find a thoughtful way to view shared information through a critical, unbiased lens.

We can achieve this by holding ourselves to a strong framework of honesty when consuming and sharing media. When an article claims a fact that seems too good or too brutal to be true, take a look at what other outlets are saying about it - if anything at all. When a piece is written in support of a viewpoint you don't believe in, take a minute to read it. Immerse yourself in what all sides have to say about an issue before disregarding a contradicting argument. Differing perceptions of the same issue help us develop the empathy and knowledge needed to navigate through fluffed-up rhetoric.

Yes indeed, it is a challenging time to be a journalism educator, a journalist in the field, or even just a consumer of news in general. But with challenge comes excitement and a shared passion that leaves both this college professor and this newly minted college graduate searching for truth.

Marie Campagna Franklin is a former staff member at The Boston Globe and is currently an associate professor of journalism at Lasell College. Abigail Adams is a 2017 Political Communication graduate of Lasell College and a multimedia journalist for the Cohasset Mariner.

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