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Seeking Moral Clarity

It is a debate happening now among journalists.

On the way to work this morning I caught a snippet of news and discussion about the topic of “moral clarity,” which piqued my interest. I have had numerous conversations with people who decry mainline news sources as “totally biased” and not trustworthy. I’ve written before about what news sources I read and sometimes quote from them in this blog — all deemed to be “out to lunch” by those who consider the writings there to be unfair and sometimes outright untruthful.

I was planning to work on something else as I rode the train to work this morning, but the topic of moral clarity grabbed me and so I looked it up.

I think this is a good but very brief summation of the term, explained by an author who wrote an entire book on the topic. It is from a New Yorker article with the title, “Why Are Some Journalists Afraid of ‘Moral Clarity’?”

“So what is moral clarity? The philosopher Susan Neiman, who wrote a book on the subject, says that it is not, in fact, a statically defined concept: it can be found only on a case-by-case basis. ‘Moral clarity, however, is about looking at each particular case, looking at all the facts, looking at all the context, and working out your answers,’ she stated in a lecture. It should not be confused with moral simplicity: we may have clearly defined moral values, but the quest for the actual position of moral clarity is always complicated and specific to the circumstances. For Lowery, moral clarity is, he wrote, ‘first and foremost, about objective facts. Nazis are bad—objective fact. Black lives matter—objective fact...’ In his Times Op-Ed, Lowery added that moral clarity involves naming what we observe without resorting to euphemisms.... Moral clarity can also describe the journalist’s own position in relationship to the subject matter. ‘So often the questions that get the best/most insightful answers are posed from a place of moral clarity,’ Lowery tweeted. ‘Questioning someone powerful from a place of ‘neutrality’ often, in practice, results in journalism that is inappropriately soft in its framing.’

“In other words, moral clarity is a quest, guided by clear values and informed by facts and context, and clearly aligned with the original concept of journalistic objectivity. In the early twentieth century, some visionary reformers of American journalism imagined that reporting could strive to emulate science, with every article an experiment of sorts: the writer could lay out all of his evidence and the circumstances under which it was collected before drawing his conclusion—or, better yet, letting readers draw their own. Like a scientific paper, a news article could be written in such a way that if someone else decided to replicate the experiment—go to all the same places and ask all the same people the same questions that the original
author did—he would likely draw the same conclusions.”

Now, to agree with the above you would first have to agree with the scientific method, that there are facts and there are not alternative facts — and I’m not talking about statistics.

I think in today’s world it is difficult for journalists who are not opinion writers to talk about the politics of the day and not be labeled X, Y or Z. It would seem that they are being squeezed in the crucible of events and being pushed to avoid topics and statements while struggling with moral clarity as to their role in sharing information that is truthful and not subjective.
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.