Issues of Ethics

As the School of Journalism and Mass Communication assistant professor takes the helm of the Center for Journalism Ethics as its third director, she offers insights into the importance of ethics on her career and the field today.

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Katy Culver is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics and Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics (Photo by Sarah Morton)

Ethics has always been the common thread throughout my career, whether I’m teaching it, whether I’m practicing it. It’s always been something that really grounds me, the idea of what integrity means in communication and how we practice it.

The Center is very much about offering resources to students and educators. It’s about being here for the industry, when they have questions. It’s about shining a light on what good practices are and not being shy about when there are failings.

There’s a lot of criticism that journalism ethics is this walled garden where in newsrooms people have all these conversations and we have our ethics codes and we work on them but we never involve the public. And I would really like to see the Center be part of opening up the gates and getting the public more involved. It’s partly what I do in my research, but also I don’t think many people have the first clue how many difficult decisions arise in newsrooms every day. And how thoughtful journalists are about weighing them. It’s ironic, probably the biggest element of journalism ethics is invisible. It’s the choices you make to not do things. To not call a family that’s going through a crisis. To not run an arrest report because you don’t think someone’s a public figure. It’s what we don’t do, and that’s so invisible. So I’d like to see better public understanding of that.

We spent a good century hammering out all sorts of ethics that we were going to be using in newsrooms, and we thought about concepts like minimizing harm and what it means to be independent. But new technologies are challenging that. In journalism, I can make a decision, a very common decision, not to name the victim of a sexual assault, for instance. But then we see that popping up on Yik Yak or Snapchat, identifying people you would not in the news. It doesn’t automatically mean you change your norms, you don’t loosen things because someone on Snapchat is doing it. But being aware of what information is out there and how that affects your practice is important.

I would love to see the Center help people better appreciate the value of journalism and trust journalism. Democracies cannot function without strong journalism. Our founding fathers saw that. We see it all the time. When journalism is working hard and working well, we function better as a society.

Katy Culver 

Read more about Culver's appointment here. 

News for now

Fake news. Conspiracy theories. Public mistrust. The Center for Journalism Ethics tackled these topics in an annual conference that brought journalists, scholars, students and the public together on campus in March 2017 to discuss how to ensure a free and responsible press in times of extreme partisanship.