In 1976, when John Hulteng's The Messenger's Motives was published, I was an eager-beaver young professor who had just gotten tenure and was teaching the typical range of courses that are the lot of those in that position: media and society, reporting, editing, and press criticism. Reading Hulteng's annotated bibliography in preparation for participating on a panel in a conference on Hulteng's contributions to the field (organized by Tom Bivins, Hulting Chair in Media Ethics at the University of Oregon) made me nostalgic. I had almost every one of those books on my shelf, had actually read most of them, and was using many of them to cobble together my journalism courses.
Compared with today's field, the literature available to teach journalism in 1976 was exceptionally sparse, across the board. There were a few reporting and editing books, three or four media and society texts, and almost nothing in journalism ethics. No other textbook in news ethics was available to help the average journalism professor develop a course on ethics or even a good unit within a course of larger scope. There were a couple of readers on social responsibility, plus John C. Merrill and Ralph Barney's (1975) ethics anthology. We were still teaching from the Hutchins Commission's 1947 report, working through Four Theories of the Press (1956), and invoking codes and canons.
John Merrill's 1974 Imperative of Freedom: A Philosophy of Journalism Autonomy, with its appeal to individualism and articulated moral duty, stood out as the sole contemporary critique of the trend toward collectivism in the world's journalism. However, it wasn't widely adopted in journalism courses, in part (if memory serves) because there were few if any stand-alone journalism ethics courses, and in part because many professors disagreed with many of the views espoused by Merrill (who was both Barney's and my Ph.D. advisor).
The most popular reporting and editing textbooks in the market provided little beyond moralizing advice and excerpts from codes of ethics. The handful of mass comm and society texts rehashed the "four theories" as articulated by Fred Siebert, Ted Peterson and Wilbur Schramm in 1956, the Hutchins Commission report, and a scare story or two plus advice from published codes of ethics-buried (as most chapters on ethics remain to this day) in the back of the book, immediately following the law chapter and before the index.
Where was journalism ethics discussed by scholars and professionals? As Cliff Christians (1998) reminds us, there had been little formal activity in media ethics between the 1920s and 1970s-either in the academy or in professional/trade associations. Journalism Quarterly was the primary outlet for journalism scholarship, and it carried almost no philosophic or normative research articles. (AEJ's Qualitative Studies division was still a glimmer in the eyes of a few frustrated academics who had been unable to present or publish their numbers-free research in mainstream outlets.)
Sigma Delta Chi, now the Society of Professional Journalists, had just revised the 50-year-old code of ethics it had plagiarized/copied/borrowed from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. SDX's code revision in 1973 was one of the first signs of the trade's recognizing that the times they were a-changin'; that the Watergate/Vietnam War/Civil Rights/Women's Movement/campus unrest and other social and political crises necessitated a rethinking of standards for decision-making in journalism.
John Hulteng was way ahead of the curve in recognizing that the mid-1970s was experiencing severe underwater tectonic shifts that were about to launch a tsunami in journalism ethics. The half-century of relative quiet in the field prior to publication of The Messenger's Motives has been explained away as being a result of the dismissal of the progressive era's chest-thumping about morality, followed by the objectivity fetish in journalism and trade-school moralism, coupled with the age of relativism in academics and American life in general. In that interim, relatively unnoticed, the press had grown to become a big business both economically and culturally-so big, indeed, that some pundits credit (or blame) Walter Cronkite and his colleagues for affecting public policy on the Vietnam War, and "Woodstein" for toppling a presidency. Edward R. Murrow had already galvanized insightful journalists and public officials about the role of journalists as objective reporters or opinionmakers. Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, Truman Capote and others were showing the rest of us that non-fiction reportage didn't have to be boring and that truth may very well reside in the eye of the beholder.
What a great time to start doing journalism ethics!
(It's telling that, after Hulteng's Messenger's Motives, the next major journalism ethics text to hit the college bookstores was titled Groping for Ethics in Journalism -Eugene Goodwin's title reflecting the moral confusion and philosophic relativism of the field at that time.)
His motivations for exploring journalism ethics were twofold: to produce more ethical journalism, and to improve journalism's credibility. That is, he told us to think of the enterprise in both moral and pragmatic terms. Unfortunately, if you'll excuse my sarcasm, the 30 years since this book was published have seen the industry pour millions of dollars into the latter motivation (improve journalism's credibility), and about 39 cents into the former (to actually produce more ethical journalism).
Hulteng defined ethics (on his p. 8) as having to do with conduct that is "right" in the view of a given society and time period, and with conduct that is "good" out of a sense of duty or conviction rather than from fear of punishment. That makes him an interesting sort of a philosopher-one who seemed to embrace cultural relativism at the same time he advocated deontology!
His summary of five "essential values of the journalist" (p. 23) was framed by-and-large in deontological terms. However, note that his fifth value was highly relativistic. He said:
1.Journalists must observe a responsibility to the public welfare; their impressive power should be employed for the general good, not for private advantage.
2.Journalists should provide a news report that is sincere, true, and accurate; accounts should be thorough, balanced, and complete.
3.Journalists must be impartial; they should function as the public's representatives, not as the mouthpieces of partisan groups or special interests.
4.Journalists must be fair; they must give space or air time to the several sides of a dispute; private rights should not be invaded; corrections of errors should be prompt and wholehearted.
5.Journalists should respect the canons of decency, insofar as those canons can be identified in a society with changing values.
That mixed philosophic orientation, it turns out, shapes the entire book, and may be problematic when helping its readers make the tough calls.
The remainder of Hulteng's book is informed by his list of journalism's essential values. As we read through the cases and commentaries, we should ask: Did he consistently apply his standards to do normative ethics-telling readers how they ought to "do ethics"-or is it primarily a text filled with relativistic and/or descriptive ethics, telling readers what others have done, without passing judgment?
To answer those questions, we should look at the 150 intriguing case studies in The Messenger's Motives. All of them were clearly presented, most of them were quite succinct, many of them were dark gray, although some of them were clearly black-and-white.
His "black-and-white" cases were benchmarks of contemporary journalism malfeasance. They were worth recording in this early textbook, if only because they were no-brainers for experienced journalists and sophisticated media critics, while providing clear warning signs for neophytes who might not yet know what constitutes the bright line of minimal standards of the craft.
The "mostly gray" cases offered choices that were somewhat right and somewhat wrong-that is, they were morally challenging. Unfortunately, most of these cases left the readers/practitioners thinking that, like it or not, they were on their own, without specific guidelines, as they attempted to resolve the dilemmas. He didn't give codes of ethics much credit for providing specific guidance; it seems that he would have liked journalists to be classically trained moral philosophers, but he didn't hold out much hope for that happening.
I never met Professor Hulteng, but from his writings (and confirmed by those who did know him well) I conclude that he was a gentleman, in the truest sense of the word. He hesitated to impose his standards on others, but he definitely suggested they be considered. He didn't pick on many of the journalists in his case studies, particularly the decision-takers. (He was much tougher on the decision-makers.) When somebody needed to be picked on, Hulteng let his secondary sources prosecute the perps rather than editorializing too strongly himself. However, at some point in each chapter, usually at the end, he did connect his standards-his "essential journalistic values"-to the case studies. He was didactic without rampant moralizing, a trait that only some of his successors in journalism ethics have bothered emulating.
It is interesting to consider what issues of journalism ethics Professor Hulteng focused on 30 years ago, and to think about how many of them were idiosyncratic and transient and how many of them have remained on the radar screen.
conflicts of interest
good taste (the relativistic nature of)
gatekeeping (in the public interest-or for what the public is interested in)
fairness and accuracy in quoting sources and putting stories in context
reporter-source relationships and reporter's privilege
errors and corrections/accountability
stereotyping and simplifying
blurring of news and opinion, and news and entertainment
surreptitious/deceptive newsgathering and reporting
economics (particularly concentration of media ownership)
public relations and advertising pressures on news media
news photography (grief, intrusion/invasion of privacy, good taste, staging photos)
abuses of trust (bottom line ethics, pandering to the lowest common denominator, boosterism, news suppression, advocacy journalism, objectivity vs. "The New Journalism")
coverage of politics (adversarial journalism, deck-stacking, pack/herd journalism) and, in a final chapter,
whether journalism is or should be a profession; who ought to hold journalists accountable (journalism reviews, news councils, ombudsmen, the academy); pros and cons of ethics codes; an appeal to the morally autonomous individual journalist; working for an enlightened management; a look into the future and the predicted disaster of a wired world with self-indulgent news consumers.
All in all, it's an excellent summary of the issues of 1976, and a frighteningly accurate assessment of the issues we have yet to resolve in journalism ethics! For its time, The Messenger's Motives made an extremely important statement about the field. While it may not have been as normative as today's journalism ethicists would prefer, it did a splendid job of describing the slippery slopes, and a gentlemanly job of telling us to get our acts together. Re-reading the book three decades later is a humbling experience, as it reminds us where we've been, where we are, and how far we still have to go.
Christians, Clifford (Ed.). (1998). Books in Media Ethics. Accessed Feb. 12, 2007, www.silha.umn.edu/bib1998.pdf
Commission on Freedom of the Press (The Hutchins Commission). (1947). A Free and Responsible Press. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goodwin, Eugene. (1983). Groping for Ethics in Journalism. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
Hohenberg, John. (1968). The News Media: A Journalist Looks at His Profession. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Hulteng, John. (1976). The Messenger's Motives: Ethical Problems of the News Media. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Merrill, John C. (1974). The Imperative of Freedom: A Philosophy of Journalistic Autonomy. New York: Hastings.
Merrill, John C. & Barney, Ralph D. (Eds.). (1975). Ethics and the Press: Readings in Mass Media Morality. New York: Hastings.
Siebert, Fred S., Peterson, Theodore, and Schramm, Wilbur. (1956). Four Theories of the Press. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2007 (18:2), pp.3,16-17.