Shape up

I’m leaving Washington state, heading to Louisiana.

I just graduated from college last week with a degree in journalism. Some students in my graduating class were already working high-end jobs in Seattle before they were issued their degrees. I can write a story, I can take a picture, I can compose a tweet. I can even make a video. But do I know enough about ethical journalism? It’s a reoccurring thought and one of my biggest fears.

My education at Western Washington University has been excellent, but honestly, I’m not confident I know the ins-and-outs of ethical journalism. It’s my understanding that when most people are taught journalism ethics they are run through a checklist… as if it were that easy.

The type of “ethics” checklist we see in the Society of Professional Journalists’ and Reuters’ handbooks are not ethics, one of my professors this past quarter said. They are common sense, she said. That applies to any ethical checklist. Unethical journalism can ruin our sources and it can ruin our careers. The weight of ethical journalism should not rely on something as frail as a checklist.

The ethical test begins when we, as creators, have to make serious judgment calls on behalf of our audience, our sources and ourselves. As far as I know, there is no textbook that tells you how to make the right judgment call. It’s something that comes with experience. It comes from imitating quality work, understanding and respecting the golden rule and from being able to admit you are wrong. (I’m still working on that last one.) But for journalists, it’s also about telling the story your audience needs to hear. It’s about the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s Utilitarianism at its finest. A degree in philosophy may apply.

Ethical journalism puts us in a position of power, and perhaps that is what makes me so cautious about beginning work. We become the gatekeepers in a world drowning in bullshit.

I won’t bash Reuters, and certainly not the SPJ. Both organizations’ provide strong guidelines for their reporters. But those guidelines seem to protect the workers more than they protect the trade. I don’t think there is any way we can really safeguard our trade as it is. But perhaps that is a good thing.

Why not let journalism be the beast that it is? Instead of shaping our trade around us, maybe we should shape ourselves around the trade.

Louisiana is scary. Looking for a job there will probably be scarier. But at least by moving there I’ll be learning something new and shaping myself in new ways. I’ll be challenging myself to see things differently. I am exploring and traveling in a way that I have never done. I am anxious, and I am cautious, but I am also excited.


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