The Digital Journalist
The Changing Problem of a Journalist's Loyalty
December 2006

by Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery

The U.S. is experiencing an interesting bit of role reversal.

The American media have long had a presence in news markets worldwide. Now international news media are increasingly penetrating U.S. markets.

The most dramatic example emerged last month, when a start-up cable company announced that it will carry English-language Al Jazeera programming, making it available to 60 million Americans. Al Jazeera-English is already available on the Web at

Of course, some international media have served the U.S. market for decades – the BBC and Reuters come to mind. But these news organizations share a common cultural frame of reference with the United States. Non-Western news outlets such as Al Jazerra-English presumably do not. Their emergence in U.S. markets points to some interesting moral problems. Foremost is the issue of journalistic loyalty.

Loyalty is an allegiance to a person, place or an ideal.

All journalists have a variety of loyalties including loyalty to oneself and family, employer, professional colleagues and fellow human beings. These loyalties can come into conflict when doing news. We have all heard stories about instances when news organizations have put loyalty to advertisers ahead of loyalty to the audience.

The globalization of news raises questions about the place of loyalty in a multinational news environment. Particularly difficult is the problem of patriotism, or allegiance to one's country.

This familiar form of loyalty becomes most salient for the field of journalism during wartime.

The usual assumption is that a journalist is also a citizen so the patriotic thing for the wartime journalist to do is to support his or her nation's government and the soldiers fighting on its behalf. It is also assumed that the organization for which the journalist works is made up of like-minded citizens who have a similar responsibility to the nation and its wartime efforts.

Deviations from this norm are sanctioned.

For example, the patriotism of journalists covering the Iraq war has been repeatedly called into question, sometimes by pundits and other times by members of the reading and/or viewing audience. Some questions arise because journalists reveal information that may either aid the enemy or demoralize the troops or folks on the home front. Kevin Sites' story about the American soldier who shot a wounded Iraqi in a Fallujah mosque or news organizations printing photographs of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal come to mind.

This problem of patriotism and journalism will become increasingly difficult as new technology makes the "global village" more and more a reality. Organizations that were once uniquely American now have audiences in all corners of the globe. And markets that were once served exclusively by domestic news media are now increasingly open to foreign competition.

So, as journalists, here and abroad, serve an increasingly global audience, patriotism and nationalism will likely be called into question. To whom, or what, should the journalist be loyal? Does he or she owe a primary loyalty to the country of citizenship? To the military? To the audience? (And, if so, to which members of which audience?)

Without a crystal ball, it is impossible to know how patriotism will play out in the new information age. One possibility is that journalists covering international news for a worldwide audience will reaffirm their loyalty to truth-telling.

As journalism in the U.S. has evolved professionally, its purpose has been to bring truth to the country's citizens. Likely, audiences elsewhere on the globe will want the same.

So if the new media environment plays a role in shaping or reshaping one's loyalties, as we suspect it might, the journalist's first loyalty will, logically, have to be to telling the truth.

© Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.