Ithaca College’s Park School of Communications is supposed to have one of the best journalism programs in the country. The faculty includes some of the brightest thinkers in the field, from War on Drugs expert Todd Schack to Peace Journalism guru Matt Mogekwu. The Ithacan continues to win award after award for its weekly coverage of the campus and surrounding area. And, of course, the college is home to the Park Center for Independent Media and has attracted huge indy media stars, including Arianna Huffington, Jeremy Scahill and Josh Marshall. (For transparency’s sake, it should be noted that PCIM was founded by Jeff Cohen, who is my professor and the advisor for Buzzsaw, the student magazine I co-edit).

So why, in this school that seems to be a haven for progressive, forward-thinking journalism, are the academic curriculums still passing on outdated practices and demonstrating how to conform to the corporate press?

I’ve seen many examples in my two years as a Park School student that promulgate this notion: we should idolize The New York Times and happily fork over the membership fee for the esteemed Society of Professional Journalists and revere the Associated Press as The King of All That Is Awesome and Objectively Sound.

But those observations don’t matter in this blog post. No, the particular occasion that drives this rant is my Journalism Ethics class, taught by Mead Loop. Today’s topic was about the Values, Virtues and Loyalties of the Fourth Estate, where we listed and discussed the philosophies that drive journalists.

At one point, we discussed where journalists’ loyalties should lie. The audience, one student brainstormed. Yourself and your own moral code, another posited. Other possibilities were thrown out: your family, your sources, your friends, your country, your religion, your employer, your advertisers. Professor Loop asked us to rank these loyalties in terms of importance, assuming that “Self” was #1, since the Universal Ethical Principle in Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development says that the individual must make his or her own decisions based on their own perception of ethics.  When the majority of the class responded that the second most important loyalty was to the audience, Professor Loop looked surprised, murmuring, “That’s really interesting.” He reasoned that in some situations, the reader is certainly the most important, but that in other situations, journalists may find their loyalty to their sources, or to their employer, more fundamental because without their sources, they’d have no story and without their employer, they’d have nowhere to publish.

I half-laughed during the class. Surely this statement would be followed up with an explanation that bad journalists value their loyalty to their sources or employers over that of their reader. But no follow-up emerged, and we all walked out of class having been instructed that your primary loyalty as a journalist depends largely on the situation.

            The idea that we as journalists have a loyalty to our employers is laughably ridiculous. Glenn Greenwald proves the right way to do it every time he deviates from the official perspectives of his own employer, But this is the philosophy of the corporate journalism world, and that’s what’s being preached to some IC journalism classrooms. Of course, Professor Loop and others with similar mindsets don’t call it “corporate journalism.” Instead, it’s “professional journalism,” whereas everything else is simply “citizen journalism,” said with a sneer.

            I understand that a Journalism Ethics class is supposed to serve as an exploration of our personal moral codes, and that some students may ultimately value job security over getting out the real story, no matter what cost. But the fact that an educational institution like Ithaca College is not discouraging this distortion of loyalties is insane. If we as journalists are not universally viewing our accountability to tell the reader the full truth as best as possible, as the most important value in our field, then we are failing. There are already enough colleges teaching over and over and over again that objectivity is king and media conglomerates are the way to go for a big paycheck and a national stage. At Ithaca College, we shouldn’t be taught how to conform and work with the mainstream media; we need to be taught to change and challenge that behemoth. And what’s the best way for us to do that? Through independent publications and courageous storytelling that doesn’t confuse its intended goal. 

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