New study shows how journalism ethics developed

[September 11, 2009]

Three commissions that investigated violence in the 1960s had a significant impact on the development of widely accepted views about journalism ethics, according to a study published in the summer 2009 issue of Journalism & Communication Monographs.

In a monograph titled “Two Visions of Responsibility: How National Commissions Contributed to Journalism Ethics, 1963-1975,” Glen Feighery says it was not just the work of the Hutchins Commission or the Watergate investigation that prompted media organizations to focus more on social responsibility, but that the work of three commissions, The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, and the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, offered significant advice on how journalists should ethically approach their work. The media responded with revisions of codes of ethics, the creation of news councils and journalism reviews, and increased employment of minorities.

Feighery argues that through this challenge and response, a heightened sense of media responsibility arose. Part of the evolution within journalism ethics at the time forced journalists to consider the relationship between their independence and their responsibility, Journalists valued their freedom from entities of authority, such as government, special interest groups, etc., but they also recognized a duty to adequately inform the public about existing problems. This strong sense of responsibility required journalists to go a step beyond minimizing harm and provide people with information that would allow them to make an informed decision.

Feighery argues that journalists struck the balance between freedom and responsibility by developing the approach of “autonomy,” which meant that journalists would follow self-imposed restraints. As a result, journalists could maintain their independence and work for the greater good of the public, creating an ethical approach that continued to influence the media in the decades following the 1970s .

Feighery is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah.

CONTACT: Glen Feighery, University of Utah, Office Phone: (801) 585-7521, Email: glen.feighery@utah.edu.

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