A dose of ethics for magazine classes

by Hayden Wright / Beacon Staff • March 22, 2012

For a good part of my first four semesters writing and editing this college newspaper, something restrained me from going so far as to call myself a journalist.

As far as I knew, I wrote, but didn’t report. I edited journalism, but I wasn’t a journalist. As a writing, literature, and publishing major, that term seemed foreign — I wrote personal essays in class and op-eds for the Beacon, occasionally doing arts and entertainment features. But by no means did I consider myself a “reporter” by trade. Reporters wrote hard news, descended on crime scenes and knocked on strangers’ doors with their notebooks to get scoops. I admired their pluck and shared their religious dedication to the truth, but my creative writing program seemed to differentiate me from their more scientific approach. 

Now a junior, I realize this false dichotomy occurred because of how magazine classes are presented in the WLP program, whose catalog equates the development of fiction or poetry with the production of magazine journalism. In fact, they’re parallel options freshmen consider when choosing their first writing workshop. Magazine writing courses exist under the umbrella of “publishing,” rather than creative writing, but the standard workshop structure across all WLP writing classes makes that placement largely semantic. 

For many WLP majors, this is a gesture of the program’s convenient flexibility — creating writers-of-all-trades. We learn to pitch trend pieces to Harper’s Bazaar while submitting our poetry to Ploughshares. However, the ethical burden of feature writing is very different than that of poetry — that burden is called “journalism.” In my experience as a WLP student, Emerson’s magazine curriculum doesn’t go far enough to explore the ramifications of that. Before students in my department can dabble in magazine writing, they should be subjected to the same kind of ethics-based prerequisites as our peers who major in journalism. 

Even a broadcast journalism student who aspires to work for a nightly tabloid show like Entertainment Tonight is required to take JR212: Ethics for Journalists. It’s a clear gap in the WLP curriculum that the students Emerson prepares to ostensibly write for Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone — a magazine that unseated the commander of international forces in Afghanistan in 2010 — aren’t mandated to give those topics their undivided attention for at least one semester. 

Programs like WLP and visual and media arts — where many students focus their efforts on documentary filmmaking — ought to enforce the same standards. The fact that writing for magazines and producing documentaries are studied in a more creative context than, say, the inverted pyramid, doesn’t excuse us from considering the same ethical questions that a city hall beat reporter makes on a daily basis. 

Perhaps the line between “arts” and “communication” at Emerson is drawn a bit too broadly. All of us who report should be able to identify conflicts of interest, bias in our own writing, concerns of taste and acceptability, and freedom of information. Someone with the audacity to write a profile or feature story must first understand the most basic tenets of libel law.

It’s unfortunate that a graduate of Emerson College who earned a degree on the back of magazine writing courses could avoid giving these concepts a good, hard look. This oversight in the curriculum runs the risk of turning out bad magazine journalists — not because of ugly writing or graceless turns of phrase, but because students aren’t comprehensively warned against interviewing their roommates for a feature on snoring. 

Granted, these topics arise in magazine writing and publishing courses because the working professionals who teach them understand that they’re essential. However, not devoting an entire four credits to law and ethics means those messages are interspersed with the creative and commercial packaging of magazines — which are often at odds with the highest intentions of journalism. Without a firmer ethical component, the program further risks training capitalists instead of magazine journalists, more interested in cobbling together freelance bylines or selling issues than being measured and objective.

Admittedly, much of the material published in popular magazines today is intended for the primary purpose of selling copies. Cosmopolitan recycles sex tips, and just last year, Men’s Fitness drew criticism for repeating cover lines from 2010 — those editors more or less recycled an entire issue. Some Emerson students may aspire to jobs like this, just like those broadcasters who’d follow in former Emerson student Maria Menounos’ footsteps on Access Hollywood and Dancing with the Stars

These career options are more than viable. But non-journalism majors who study that discipline deserve a foundation that is rooted in greater integrity. We deserve a foundation that makes us feel like journalists, not hustlers of content, or creative writers playing it straight.