Years before the current populist wave engulfed worldwide politics, Stephen J.A. Ward served as the first director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Ward, who was in that role for five years until 2013, remains an internationally recognized media ethicist, journalist, educator, consultant, speaker and author of nine books on media ethics.
In his latest book, he evangelizes for an evolved approach to journalism that challenges the profession’s historic preoccupation with neutrality. Its title is: “Ethical Journalism in a Populist Age: The Democratically Engaged Journalist.”
In it, Ward contends that journalists need to fact-check everything ever more aggressively, that they more often should connect their reporting to the principles of democracy and also be willing to interact more directly with their communities.
He recommends that journalists abandon the belief that pure objectivity is possible, saying that rigid neutrality is outdated in this time of rampant distortion and disinformation in the public affairs arena.
Ward, whom I met while he was at UW, explained his thinking in a telephone interview from his native Canada: “I’ve been absolutely dismayed watching the drift in politics — not just in the United States, although my book might give that impression — but I think around the world, of extreme populism, intolerance.”
Combine that, he said, with the fact there are blatantly partisan media outlets that “do not respect what I consider to be the norms of respectful communication that you need if you’re going to have something that I call egalitarian democracy. That means respecting your opponent in political life (and not seeing them) as an enemy of the state; and certainly the media is not the enemy of the state.
“What’ll reasonable journalists do to counter that?” he asked rhetorically. “It seems there are two ways to go, neither of which I’m happy with. You’re either going to be totally neutral and pretend you don’t have any views and perspectives on things, or you’re going to be Sean Hannity on Fox News, and I just think there’s all kinds of middle ground.”
Which would look like what?
“Of course we need investigative journalism, and when it’s done well, it’s very close to what I’m talking about. Investigative journalists never say they’re neutral,” Ward said.
“They’re not neutral. They’re trying to get at stopping some miscarriage of justice or something that’s going on in society. They care very much about these things, and they’re blatantly obvious about that, but they don’t let that prejudge their stories. They still get the facts and they nail it down nine different ways, and … that is certainly a model, one model I’m talking about.”
But in all reporting, Ward said journalists must do a better job of verifying claims. Leaders, especially those who employ emotionally populist appeals, need to be constantly challenged on the veracity of their claims.
I asked Ward: But isn’t this the kind of approach journalists have been taught to employ for decades? I pointed to my decades-old college textbook titled “Interpretive Reporting” by journalism professor Curtis MacDougall, who earned his Ph.D. at UW-Madison.
The difference today, Ward said, is that current times require that journalists be even more relentless on every kind of story on the “verificational truth aspect to all of this.”
He also argued that journalists need to get more comfortable having less of an arms-length relationship with the public.
“Sometimes to be provocative, I say even if every journalist out there today suddenly became ethically wonderful and became the greatest investigative reporter in the world, it still wouldn’t be enough because as mainstream journalists we do not control the public sphere like we used to, certainly.
“So, one of the things that, for example, we could get involved with is journalists actively working with educators and developing programs for teaching good media practices, good journalism, and media literacy, news literacy, and ethics literacy.”
The backdrop to all of Ward’s prescriptions is that the journalistic landscape has changed dramatically during our careers. For starters, practically every news organization has seen its staffing diminished by the altered media economy.
Another factor has been about three decades of unrelenting attacks on the press from the right that have apparently convinced perhaps a third of the public to trust politicians like Donald Trump over the mainstream media. That large group just seems almost beyond reach, at least for now.
But that fact, Ward argued, makes it even more important for journalists to think differently about how to connect with those who are reachable. He advocates something he calls “democratically engaged journalism.”
Ward said many issues are matters of principle, and journalists should be unafraid to connect their journalism to principles such as the First Amendment, “the notion of what democracy requires of us as citizens, notions of human values, of dignity and respect for others who are not like us.”
Ward said: “People always ask me, ‘how can you be engaged and yet objective or impartial at the same time?’ Well, it’s very easy. We do it every day. We have goals, we are engaged. I am very, very passionate about democracy as a journalist, saving it and protecting it. I am partisan about that, definitely, but I am not partisan about my methods, which are based on very strong, objective criteria.”
Ward also said journalists need to be more engaged with their communities.
“I think journalists are getting more used to working with other groups,” Ward said, such as public interest and civic organizations. “That brings its own ethical issues, but I think it is just necessary right now. A long-standing tenet of journalism ethics spoke to distance between us and who we cover. But we may have to be involved in communities these days, and that brings up possibilities of conflicts of interest, but so be it.”
Ward told me his next book will be published in 2019, titled “Irrational Publics.” He said it “explores the process by which moderate, tolerant, reasonable publics become the opposite, and how that is a threat to egalitarian democracies and peaceful relations among humans.”
Given where we are now, that’s an undeniably urgent investigation.