UW-Madison: Roundtable to explore ethics for investigative journalism outlets

CONTACT: Stephen J. Ward, 608-263-2845, sjward2@wisc.edu

MADISON – Although many industry observers see nonprofit investigative news organizations as the future, the emerging journalism model brings a host of new ethical issues.

The reinvention of news media is the first in decades, and existing journalism ethics and practices don’t always address the questions raised by these new outlets, says Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Investigative journalism centers – many of them not-for-profit organizations – receive funding from foundations or donors, and some share resources and publishing space with established media outlets.

A Jan. 29 workshop sponsored by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, as well as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the College of Media at the University of Illinois, will look at the ethics of new investigative newsrooms and questions about agenda-setting, conflicts of interest, fundraising and new technologies.

“People are trying to finance good journalism in new ways, but conflicts can arise, there can be questions about transparency and these organizations must ensure content isn’t hijacked” by donors, says Stephen J. Ward, James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics.

Ward will lead the workshop with Hall and Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative Journalism at the University of Illinois.

Dealing with ethical questions is an ongoing process, so it’s helpful for organizations to have guidance and a way to share experiences with the issues they’re confronting, says Houston, chair of the steering committee of the Investigative News Network, a national consortium of nonprofit journalism organizations.

“The answer to (the ethical questions) is disclosure and stories that are credible, that are well-documented and balanced, and that are fair,” Houston says.

Hall, who has worked through many of the issues that will be discussed at the workshop after launching the Wisconsin center last year, says he hears weekly from other journalists looking to start nonprofit news centers.

“There’s clearly a need for reconsideration of how we can best operate these organizations, given the fact that so much of the journalistic landscape has changed,” says Hall, whose center is based at the journalism school and collaborates with many news organizations. “It’s important for us to find ways to be as transparent as possible.”

Other workshop participants will include Robb Cribb, an investigative reporter for the Toronto Star; Margaret Wolf Freivogel, editor and co-founder of the St. Louis Beacon; Alden Loury, publisher of the Chicago Reporter; and Christa Westerberg, attorney and vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, among others.

The discussion will run from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 29, in Room 221 of the Fluno Center for Executive Education, 601 University Ave. Journalists, students, faculty and members of the community are invited to listen to the discussion, but participation will be limited to invited guests.

Ward says the group is expected to make a set of recommendations on best practices that will be compiled and distributed at the ethics center’s second annual Conference on Journalism Ethics, to be held April 29 and 30 at UW-Madison.

For more information about the workshop and the conference this spring, visit http://www.journalismethics.info.