TEACHING ETHICS IN A DARK WORLD
by Howie Good
As I begin another semester, I find myself wondering whether it is irresponsible of me to teach students to take democratic ideals and ethical principles seriously and then send them out into a world that has little respect for either.
Twice a year for the past 25 years, I have taught a university course in media ethics. I have also written and edited books on the subject. What I have to say about ethics may be only my opinion, but it is a considered opinion, the result of sustained study and reflection.
Recently I got a jolting reminder that in the wider world, particularly in the wider world of the Web, none of that matters. Neither does reason, truth, or civility. All that seems to matter is who can scream the loudest and act the vilest—who, in short, can be the biggest bully.
The experience has left me rattled. You might be rattled, too, if right-wing blogs with names like MilitiaLaw.com and No Lawyers—Only Guns and Money published your address, phone number, e-mail address, and image. It is the sort of thing that can leave you doubting the utility of your Ph.D. as well as the impregnability of your safety.
My ordeal began with a call from a reporter for The New York Times. He wanted my “expert” opinion on the ethics of The Journal News, a newspaper in Westchester County, N.Y., publishing a map of gun licensees in that area. (The map has since been taken down from the paper’s Web site.)
Most journalism is fast, noisy, and shallow. It treats even deadly serious issues as a kind of carnival. And this was as deadly serious as an issue could get. A week earlier, a gunman had opened fire in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and massacred 26 people, including 20 children.
I told the reporter that The Journal News was within its legal rights to publish the map, but that publishing it was only a first step. To ethically justify publication, the paper would have to push forward with consistent, in-depth coverage of gun violence. The news media in general had to keep a hand on the horn until policy makers as well as the public woke up and attended to the problem. We shouldn’t be allowed to forget Newtown with the ease that we had been allowed to forget Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Aurora.
Underlying everything I said was a belief that freedom of the press exists so that controversies can be resolved honorably, through informed dialogue, rather than through intimidation or brute force. It is a point I make to my students over and over.
I spoke with the reporter, who was up against a deadline, for about 10 minutes. The story that appeared the next morning omitted at least 99.9 percent of our conversation. My contribution to public enlightenment consisted of a single remark shorn of context and nuance and stuck in a bottom paragraph that begged to go unread.
Obviously the reporter hadn’t been seeking my guidance on ethical issues for himself or his readers. He had been seeking a quote to plug in.
I am a journalism professor. None of this shocked me. The shock came a few hours later when I began getting hate e-mails from gun enthusiasts.
The story had gone out over the news wires, alerting folks with a talent for ad hominem attacks to my existence. One called me a “moron.” Another addressed me more primly as “Professor Douchebag.”
Then things got ugly.
A reporter for Reuters contacted me. She asked what I thought of right-wing blogs retaliating against The Journal News by publishing the names and addresses of its reporters and editors.
I characterized the backlash against the paper as unfortunate—and childish. Rather than raising the level of public discussion, “outing” the journalists had dropped it into the gutter, I said.
The information the paper had published was public record, I added, and, if presented in the appropriate context, served a legitimate public interest. Publishing the names and addresses of the journalists had no similar justification. It was plainly an attempt to intimidate the press, and intimidation doesn’t promote democracy.
I know. Brilliant. If I had intended to incite every reactionary with access to a computer to e-mail me, I couldn’t have put it better.
All the next week, hate-spewing e-mails jammed my inbox. Here is a typical one: “Not only a ‘journalist’ but also a college teacher. You are the epitome of a pompous liberal bigot, full of nothing but double standards. Now make sure to complain to your fellow liberal bigots about all the e-mail you received today, cowardly boy. P.S. What is your home address? I’m writing a blog article on cowardly journalists with double standards who hide away in their college offices.”
There is a saying that “a man with no enemies is a man with no character.” Judging by the venomous comments on right-wing blogs, I must have plenty of character. A commenter calling himself “Moe Tom,” for example, ranted on iOwnTheWorld.com, “He also anti second hand smoke, pro abortion, Anti death penalty, has a ‘save the whales’ tee shirt, is a vegge, and drinks with his pinky extended.”
Being the target of so much rancor has been unnerving. I can still feel my heart rate jump whenever I go to check my work e-mail. But it isn’t only—or even mostly—the threat to my safety or the safety of my loved ones that concerns me. I am more concerned about what I should say to students now that I have had my last illusions about the public sphere demolished.
My encounter with creatures from the toxic zones of the Internet has forced me to confront realities I have tried for a long time to avoid confronting: that anti-intellectualism has become a new national pastime; that for far too many people, the threat of violence is the best answer to an idea they don’t like; and that the press, entrusted with the task of informing the public on issues of importance, isn’t always interested in doing so.
Media ethics is something I want students to take to heart, despite my joking with them about its being an oxymoron, like military music or jumbo shrimp. I don’t see ethics as an add-on; it is central to their education. Without systematic instruction in ethics, students would have no reference points to guide their practice of journalism except money and status, and we all know the schlock that produces. So I teach them ethical principles, along with models of ethical decision making. And I paraphrase the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: Be the flame, the light at the tip of a candle.
But should I? So many others seem determined to blow the flame out. Is my first obligation to my students to keep them supplied with matches? Or is it to prepare them to live and work in the dark?
Howard Good is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
*Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 11, 2013