Media Ethics: Old vs. New

By Steve Byers

As I read Howard Kurtz on the battle between Keith Olbermann and NBC executives (and many of his colleagues) over Olbermann’s political donations, I was struck by the wide disparity between the ethics I was taught in the “old media” and those that prevail among so many in the “new media.”

For those not following along, Olbermann was briefly suspended by MSNBC after a web site revealed that he had donated funds to political candidates without disclosing it to his audience or his bosses. (Read Kurtz for the details of this complicated situation). To me, the ethical solution was simple: Thou shalt not donate to political campaigns. Period.

But that’s “old media” ethics. In the “new media,” guided by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News Channel, everything everyone does is part of a political agenda, so just donating some money doesn’t count for much, especially when air time is so much more important. Promoting a candidate—or an issue—on air seems to be acceptable or even a plus, given how we in Milwaukee observe our local talk radio personalities shilling for candidates. So, although Olbermann seems to be acting like a spoiled brat, his behavior isn’t so wrong for this “new media” world.

The smudging (or erasure) of the once-bright line between advocacy and journalism has gone so far that page one advertising is being suggested for the Marquette Tribune using as justification that it’s already there for several professional newspapers. And our student editors weren’t offended.

It sure is a new media world out there.

Steve Byers is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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