Ethics conference honors Walter Cronkite, ‘the most trusted man in America’

Bob Bergland introduces a panel at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics. Panelists discussed "Ethics in the Trenches" and included Derek Donavan, public editor of the Kansas City Star; Bridget Blevins, news Director of KQ2 television; Greg Kozol, digital content director of the St. Joseph News-Press; Ross Martin, editor of the Platte County Citizen and Adam Waltz, anchor and producer at Fox 26 KNPN. Photo by Bradley Wilson
Bob Bergland introduces a panel at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics. Panelists discussed “Ethics in the Trenches” and included Derek Donavan, public editor of the Kansas City Star; Bridget Blevins, news Director of KQ2 television; Greg Kozol, digital content director of the St. Joseph News-Press; Ross Martin, editor of the Platte County Citizen and Adam Waltz, anchor and producer at Fox 26 KNPN. Photo by Bradley Wilson

By Bradley Wilson
CMR Managing Editor

In an era where decisions to cover something and to publish something can be made in second, not hours or days, college educators — and working journalists — continue to struggle with how to teach ethics and what to teach. Clearly, it is more than giving students a link to a code of ethics and putting them out on the streets.

To foster education in media ethics, Missouri Western State University hosted the Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics for the second year including academic presentations, panel discussions, lectures and open discussions on various aspects of ethics.

To continue the discussion, here are some thoughts from the conference organizer and three participants.

  • Robert Bergland, adviser of The Griffon News and professor at Missouri Western State University, bergland@missouriwestern.edu
  • Don Krause, adviser of The Index and associate professor at Truman State University. dkrause@truman.edu
  • Steve Listopad, student media director and assistant professor at Valley City State University. steven.listopad@vcsu.edu
  • Leah Wankum, managing editor of Muleskinner at University of Central Missouri. lmw27450@ucmo.edu

This was the second year of the Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics. Why did you start it?

Bergland: We dedicated the Cronkite Memorial in 2013, and thought that it would be a good idea to have an academic conference in his honor, promoting the ideals of ethics and integrity that he espoused, on his birthday the following year. We were fortunate to dovetail the conference with the Convocation on Critical Issues, which brought in Cronkite biographer David Brinkley as speaker.

If you had to say there was one take-home point from the first two conferences, what would it be? Why?

Bergland: It’s a somewhat obvious point, but important: journalism professionals, teachers of journalism students and high school and college journalists need to be ever more vigilant about being ethical in the work they do, to counter the “anything goes” mentality that has flourished in the age of the Internet.

Krause: Media ethics is so important on so many levels, from college journalists to professionals. The area is so varied, from what types of images can or should be used to how to cover a fellow student’s death. It’s also important for those involved with the media to discuss the variety of situations ahead of time to gain an understanding of what could come their way and how to handle it, as well as realizing that everyone wrestles with ethical choices.

Wankum: I attended the Cronkite Conference last year as well, and both conferences could be summed up in two words: sharing ideas. We all have our own personal code of ethics, what we think is right or wrong or iffy. We also come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, and many American journalists have a Midwestern background or obtained their journalism education in the Midwest. We also follow a variety of ethics codes from the Society of Professional Journalists and other communication-based organizations. And we came together to honor the memory and legacy of Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America.” Yet the majority of the conference was still spent in panels, discussing our ideas, sharing our experiences on panels and presenting our original thoughts through our academic work. This constant sharing of ideas is critical to practicing excellent ethical journalism and teaching others to do the same by engaging in the sharing process.

Janet Blank-Libra, professor and director of journalism at Augustana University, presents a paper at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics at Missouri Western State University, Nov. 9, 2015. Photo by Bradley Wilson
Janet Blank-Libra, professor and director of journalism at Augustana University, presents a paper “Pursuing an Ethic of Empathy in Journalism,” at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics. Photo by Bradley Wilson

What was the highlight of this year’s conference? Why?

Bergland: Wow—that’s a tough one. The panel of professionals both years has been eye opening. Likewise, the students sharing the ethical struggles they’ve faced in their newsrooms has been very enlightening. But, this year, the two highlights for me personally were the session on ethics and empathy (featured presentation by Janet Blank-Libra) which changed my whole perception of media ethics, and the North Dakota John Wall New Voices Act, which inspired me to work on similar legislation in Missouri to protect the free press rights of high school and college journalists.

As a college educator, it’s clear that you have a vision for why teaching media ethics is important. Why is that? How have you seen the ideas behind media ethics change over time?

Bergland: I’ve been involved with media ethics for more than 25 years. In fact, my very first academic article — published in College Media Review! — stemmed from an undergraduate honors thesis which involved a survey of college media advisers about ethics in their newsrooms. I’ve been especially interested in how media ethics have changed since that time. The basic principles have and should stay the same, but the number and types of challenges created because of technology have made journalism and the dissemination of truth so much more complicated, and thus made the teaching and discussion of ethics, and conferences like this, all the more important.

Listopad: Normative lessons are essential in educational space. We don’t call it the ivory tower for nuthin’. Educational spaces are the only safe places for teaching and testing practical and abstract ideals. A student who graduates without proper ethical training may enter the workforce with strong values, but will have difficulty defining and articulating their values when faced with market forces and other real-world pressures. We need our students to know what values they are upholding and why.

I’m both young enough to be a major social media consumer, and old enough to appreciate the 24-hour news cycle. I believe we in education are taking the value of timeliness too far. Most information gets better with age, and often times it is blatantly unethical to seek immediacy over completeness.

Krause: Students need to see the role of media in society. By understanding the purpose of the media, students can then decide how to approach a variety of situations. We can never tell students the answer is X or Y because there are so many gray situations. On the drive home, my students and I were talking about the conference. It always seems there is never an exact duplication of a situation. There is also an extra variable. By reminding students of the purpose of the media, it helps them to understand why a certain action (or inaction) is appropriate.

Ethics is becoming more complicated just because our world is getting more complicated. Years ago we had time to think about a situation before making a decision. Today, those decisions are made in seconds. These are tough for journalists who have been in the industry for years, and even tougher for student journalists. Social media also plays a role in that some information may have been released or speculated on in social media, and that complicates the media landscape. Journalists are not the only providers of content.

Over the years the audience’s expectations and acceptance of certain items has changed. People have more access to documents that may detail sensitive information.

Unlike many conferences, this one has a variety of formats including academic presentations, panels and discussion from professional journalists and even high school students and educators. Why get all these different groups together?

Bergland: I’ve been to many academic conferences in journalism/mass communications that consisted almost entirely of teachers/researchers, devoid of the students we teach and the journalists we prepare our students to be. Especially with a hands-on topic like media ethics, the conference becomes so much more interesting and relevant for everyone when we add students and professionals to the mix. Everyone gets more out of the conversation when all become part of that discussion.

Listopad: In education, the sage advice of the faculty and professionals needs to be tested against the real-life experiences of the students on whom we thrust our ethical standards.

Krause: Ethics is not reserved for one group of journalists. All levels of journalists, students and professionals, face situations that require major decisions that affect people’s lives for years to come. Having all areas represented at the conference was appropriate as we can call learn from each other. By getting everyone together at one time, we can all share our ideas and thought processes. By understanding those thoughts, we can all get a better handle on the challenges facing others.

It is also helpful for everyone to see that they are not alone in the ethical decisions

Wankum: it’s important to bring these groups together because we are all part of the community of journalists. Too often, the number 18 is taken too seriously as the legal adult age. It implies that anyone younger than 18 cannot practice ethical journalism, should not be protected by the First Amendment and should be censored when necessary. This is a slippery slope to put our youth down that path, because it teaches them at a young age that they are not taken seriously and that they are not capable of practicing ethical journalism. Furthermore, high school journalists who go on to college and beyond in the field of journalism must be as prepared as possible with the tools they need to succeed. Separating them from their older, more trained peers is detrimental to this essential learning process. It’s not all classwork, the way many high school students and college students are being taught. It’s nothing less than internships, apprenticeships, job shadowing and other real-world experiences that are what employers are expecting in future hires. And it takes open communication with other journalists. The conference offered these tools, and anyone who attended had every opportunity to take advantage of them.

Robert Vartabedian, university president, at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics at Missouri Western State University, Nov. 9, 2015. Photo by Bradley Wilson
Missouri Western State University President Robert Vartabedian gives attendees at the conference a tour of the Cronkite exhibits. Photo by Bradley Wilson

This year was special because, at the conference, Missouri Western State University also dedicated a memorial to Walter Cronkite who was born in St. Joseph. Share some observations from this dedication and why MWSU is the home to the memorial.

Bergland: This was actually the dedication of Phase III of the Memorial, the new CBS studio replica. It, like the rest of the memorial, was the brainchild of the MWSU president, Robert Vartabedian, who was a communications professor earlier in his career and grew up listening to Cronkite broadcasts. When he found out Cronkite was born in St. Joseph and that no other memorial to the late anchorman existed, he spearheaded the effort to create a memorial, seeking out the artists, raising the funds and working with the Cronkite family to make it a reality. This year, it was great to have Sen. Roy Blunt and CBS president Les Moonves be part of the celebration.

At the end of this year’s conference, you were already looking forward to next year’s conference. Why should people attend conferences like this one generally and the Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics specifically?

Bergland: We are very excited about next year, and planning has already begun. Our first two years, we’ve wanted to grow the conference slowly and focus more regionally. Next year, we hope to double the number of attendees and sessions and make this truly more of a national conference. In addition, it will be the 100-year anniversary of Cronkite’s birth, so we have some extra special activities in the works. Some possibilities include the dedication of Phase IV (a proposed Cronkite moon/space coverage exhibit), a presentation by one or more major news media figures, and (fingers really crossed for this one), the release celebration/First Day of Issue of a commemorative Cronkite postage stamp. Attending conferences in general is great because it opens your eyes to new information and different perspectives, but the focus on media ethics and all the great things planned for next year will make this an especially useful and interesting experience.

NEXT YEAR
Abstract and panel proposals deadline: June 15, 2016
Notification: July 1, 2016
Final papers: Sept. 1, 2016
Conference: Nov. 3-5, 2016

Robert Bergland at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics at Missouri Western State University, Nov. 9, 2015. Photo by Bradley Wilson
A local television reporter interviews Robert Bergland  at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics. Photo by Bradley Wilson

MEDIA COVERAGE
“Busted: Walter Cronkite style” — Leah Wankum, graduate student of mass communications at the University of Central Missouri, was awarded a Walter Cronkite bust for being the winner of the Graduate Student Conference Paper Competition on Monday during the second annual Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics and Integrity at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.

“New piece of Cronkite display opens” — Phase 3 of Missouri Western State University’s Walter Cronkite Memorial was revealed Monday night.

“Final piece of Cronkite Memorial unveiled”

 

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