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Carroll speaks on journalism's future

(02/10/09 9:00am)

John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, addressed a captivated audience about the future of journalism at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy Monday.Carroll largely focused his remarks on the Internet and corporate culture, and their impact on reporting and the ethics of journalism. The speech was part of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy's 2009 Ewing Lecture on Ethics and Journalism and attracted about 120 attendees. "I sometimes think of a newsroom as a teeming swamp of considerations, including ethics," Carroll said. "We developed ethics in newsrooms simply to survive all the things that were coming our way and needed to be dealt with."Carroll said the culture of the newsroom is changing. More stories are being covered through the Internet, and as newspaper businesses also need to turn a profit to run, corporate interests can stand in the way of reporting and, in turn, challenge the ethics of journalism, he added."The swamp is being drained," he said, referring to the changing newsroom. The convergence of corporate and journalistic culture is, in many regards, incompatible, Carroll noted. Although businesses are primarily concerned with turning a profit and pleasing shareholders, journalism's mission is to serve the reader and the public, he said."The clash between values is quite real," Carroll added. "It's quite uncomfortable. It is more intense now that the economy is collapsing." An increase in the number of people getting news from Internet sources, such as online newspapers and amateur blogs, has forced companies to offer online content for free, he said. This, Carroll added, has complicated matters further by leading to many of the financial difficulties that currently plague print journalism."Some very clever people, without malice, have invented the World Wide Web and every newspaper has swooned, perhaps never to rise again," Carroll said.Some students in the audience said they agreed with Carroll that society still needs the traditional media to dig up news. He also noted that it is not the medium or technology that determines ethics-it is the people involved themselves."I think the newspaper is a vital resource to keep the public informed," senior Jessica Adam said.Ultimately, Carroll noted, the people who report the news determine the quality of what is produced. "At any good newspaper, the staff, the rank-and-file, regards itself as the guardian of the paper's good name," Carroll said. "They are perfectly content to allow the editors to make the decisions until the editors stray from the path of righteousness, and then they take charge."After his speech, Carroll spoke to The Chronicle about his start in journalism and how he personally dealt with ethical dilemmas over the course of his career."My father was a newspaper editor in Winston-Salem, and I wasn't really interested in journalism, but I liked the people who worked there," he said. "They were interesting characters."Although he said he lacked interest in journalism as a child, Carroll noted that this field was the perfect outlet for his naturally curious personality."It gave me an excuse to go ask people questions about what they're doing and why," he said. Carroll added that throughout his career, he has faced many ethical challenges, but one in particular resonated in his memory. In 1969, he was assigned to cover the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign staffer who died in the vehicle of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., when he drove it into Poucha Pond in Chappaquiddick, Mass.Carroll chose to report on the aftermath of the accident, despite the fact that Kopechne was a family friend."I always felt torn because I did know her parents but I didn't want to take advantage of them," he said. "And I ended up wishing I never got involved in that."The experience taught Carroll that it was best to remove himself from a story if conflict of interest was at all possible, he added.Carroll said that although there have been ups and downs in his career, he feels his journalism was an important contribution to society."Over time you get deeper satisfactions. You might write a story that gets someone out of jail that shouldn't be there," he said. "At the end of your life, you may be able to look in St. Peter's face and say, 'I actually did something good.'"To listen to The Chronicle's exclusive interview with John Carroll, please click here to be redirected to our News Blog.