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Advocacy, Transparency, Objectivity: A Debate On What Constitutes Ethical Political Reporting

(Via Flickr/Richard O. Barry)
Journalist Jeremy Scahill speaks to Blackwater protestors in 2008.

Should a journalist strive most to be fair and objective? Or should his or her primary goal be transparency? Can a content-producer be both an advocate and a journalist? What is the role of the press in the future of democracy and what should its journalistic ethics be?

These are questions news outlets and individual journalists alike must answer as they navigate the future of journalism in the United States, and the topic of discussion during the Second Annual Public Ethics Conference at the University of Missouri-St. Louis on Thursday, November 14.

Among the speakers at the conference are independent journalist Jeremy Scahill, University of Washington professor Lance Bennett and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale School of Journalism director William Freivogel. 

With views all along the spectrum, Scahill, Bennett and Freivogel mirrored the currently evolving journalistic debate over advocacy and objectivity.

To Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater and Dirty Wars, there's no such thing as truly objective journalism today. He believes journalists should instead strive for transparency, and that it's okay for a journalist to express his opinions.

"To me there is a real debate about what journalistic ethics even are," said Scahill. "I don't think that large, corporate media outlets are actually the sort of 'golden cow' of objectivity. I don't think there is such a thing as objective journalism right now."

But to Bill Freivogel, objectivity is still something journalists should strive for. He thinks people should know whether they are reading advocacy journalism rather than traditional journalism.

"Traditional journalistic ethics - the journalistic ethics that are ascribed to by professional journalism organizations - do include an attempt to be impartial, objective, to put aside one's personal feelings, and I know...this is becoming passé. And I happen to think it's important," said Freivogel, who worked at the St. Louis-Post Dispatch for 34 years before becoming a journalism professor at SIU-Carbondale.

Freivogel pointed to Glenn Greenwald, the primary author of the NSA revelations, as someone who reports with a clear point of view - an advocacy journalist if you will, as opposed to a traditional journalist.

"He is not following traditional journalism ethics, and he's proud of it," said Freivogel, referring to a discussion Greenwald had with Bill Keller of the New York Times.

As a writer who has worked in collaboration with Glenn Greenwald, Scahill passionately defended Greenwald's journalistic ethics, challenging instead the ethics of the New York Times.

Scahill, Freivogel and Bennett agreed that traditional news outlets have made some major mistakes in recent years, but had differing views about what the next steps should be.

"Here's what I think is going on," said Bennett, professor of communication and political science at the University of Washington. "The legacy press has established relations with mainly official government sources over years...and there's been a conflation of objectivity and political power...The establishment press has been positioned to report what officials say. If democracy is off track..then that leaves the conventional press with some soul-searching to do."

A discussion about journalistic ethics and the evolving role of reporting on agencies and organizations of power.

Related Event

UMSL'S Center for Ethics in Public Life Presents 2nd Annual Public Ethics Conference: “The Ethics of Politics and the Press”
Thursday, November 14, 2013
8:30 a.m. - 4:40 p.m.
UMSL's Millennium Student Center Century Room
For more information, call 314-516-5974 or visit the University of Missouri - St. Louis website.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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