Today was the day the syllabus said to read and discuss Chapter 10 in “The Elements of Journalism” in my Advanced Reporting for Print class at Cedarville University. The chapter is titled, “Journalists Have a Responsibility to Conscience.”
Last night I saw a Tweet by someone else that linked to this resignation letter:
As I read Dave McKinney’s resignation letter, I knew this would be a topic for class discussion today. If you aren’t familiar with the story, read the Chicago Tribune story about what happened that led to McKinney’s resignation from the Chicago Sun-Times.
In short, McKinney said he was removed from the Illinois state politics beat because of an unfavorable story he wrote about the Republican gubernatorial candidate. It wasn’t his editor who did this, it was much higher up the pay scale. He eventually got his position back. He said the deal was that his life would go back to normal, but it didn’t. So he resigned, saying the Sun-Times doesn’t have its reporters backs.
The Tribune story has more details and will help you understand the situation more clearly.
In “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write:
… it’s part of the journalist’s responsibility to encourage a transparent and open culture that won’t allow critics to call the credibility of the product into question.
If everything McKinney writes is true (and there is no evidence to doubt him at this point), his conscience told him there is no transparency and openness. It tells him credibility has been undermined in the public and in the newsroom. It will be a long time before Sun-Times reporters with a controversial story won’t be looking over their shoulders.
The next paragraph from Kovach and Rosenstiel:
As a consequence, there is a final principle that journalists have come to understand about their work and that we as citizens intuit when we make media choices. It is the most elusive of the principles, yet it ties all the others together: Journalists have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
McKinney exercised his conscience because no one else would.
I make an analogy in class to this principle from Matthew 22:36-40. In this passage, Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment in the law. He replies that we should love the Lord thy God with all of our heart, soul and mind. Then he says the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments, Jesus says, hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Jesus is saying that if we are committed to those two big-picture commandments, we will know how to act and respond rightly in all situations.
It’s like that with the principle of personal conscience. If we have our journalistic ethics right, we will know how to respond when pressured into going against the standards and principles of journalism.
Journalism is an act of character. And, according to McKinney’s account, the acts taken against him did not reflect the character of true journalists.
I hope other newspapers are already forming a line to hire Dave McKinney.
If you are interested in at least a list of the principles from the “Elements” book, here they are: