Do we live in a culture of blame? Some writers at The Economist magazine think so. In fact, a 2008 column in the magazine went so far as to claim that Western cultures have become “dominated and warped by blame.” When it came to assigning responsibility, The Economist called out news media directly for their role in promoting blame.

As a media ethicist interested in issues of journalism and society, I couldn’t let a charge like this go unexplored. So I’ve spent the past two years examining the role that blame does and should play in the news and how that role can influence the way our entire culture engages with blame.

How Pervasive Is Blame in the Media?Let me begin with what I found in the news. Using the Project for Excellence in  Journalism’s weekly News Coverage Index, I studied the top national news stories of 2010. These are the stories that anyone in America who follows the news – via whatever outlets – would recognize. For 2010, the stories included the economy, themidterm elections, Afghanistan, the Gulf oil spill, the health care debate and 68 others. In my analysis, I examined the prevalence of blame within those stories as well as the nature of that blame. This analysis led to several observations and three key themes.

Theme 1: Blame in the news has become ritualized.The idea of ritualized blame is adapted from linguist Deborah Tannen’s concept of ritualized opposition – what she calls agonism – where almost any issue or problem is approached in an adversarial way. An agonistic response lacks a moral underpinning; it is habitual, automatic and disinterested. In reviewing the top news stories of 2010, I found something similar happening with blame. Blame, too, has become ritualized.

Of the 73 top stories for [2010], two-thirds featured blame. What’s more, no particular group had a monopoly on blame.

What’s the evidence for blame’s ritualization? In 2010, audiences encountered blame in the news every week, and during some weeks, every one of the top stories featured blame. Of the 73 top stories for the year, two-thirds featured blame. What’s more, noparticular group had a monopoly on blame. Ideologically leaning media, mainstream media; newspapers, television stations, radio stations and websites; reporters, analysts and sources; conservatives and liberals – all were both givers and receivers of blame.

The typical response to being blamed was to turn the tables and blame someone else. What’s more, although blameworthiness is a necessary correlative to blame, in many of 2010’s top stories, the link between the two was either unclear or tenuous, or was missing altogether. Put simply, blameworthiness often played a negligible role in assigning blame.

Consider this example: In 2010, the economic crisis was the year’s top story. Regardless of the story’s complexity and the likeliness that a number of factors had contributed to the economy’s delicate state, much coverage consisted of politicians, citizens and members of the media taking turns casting blame on a single person or single group. Targets for blame included, among others, the White House and former White House, Democrats, Republicans, the government generally, the Federal Reserve, big banks, Wall Street, economists and citizens. Even when a story focused on potential solutions or positive economic news, it typically featured someone first casting blame.

This story and others like it imply that blame has become more of a knee-jerk condemnation than a heartfelt judgment. But this kind of ritualization is dangerous. Legitimate, necessary and constructive blame can get lost.

Theme 2: From blame’s ritualization emerges a meta-narrative that says “We must blame.”Literature professors John Stephens and Robyn McCallum call meta-narratives “totalizing cultural stories” that order and explain knowledge and experience. Because the media are important agents of socialization, these stories also can be prescriptive; they can tell us what to believe and how to act. My analysis of blame in the news revealed one of our totalizing cultural stories: We must blame.

Because of journalism’s central role in managing the symbolic arena, blame’s ubiquity in the news helps infuse our culture with news, we become part of a media-constructed reality that says assigning blame is the norm. We see people in the news routinely handing out blame, and we notice that one of the first questions journalists ask is “Who’s to blame?” Even if we’re not sure someone is blameworthy, we observe that we should blame that person anyway. If we don’t have someone to blame, we should  seek out someone. But if we’re blamed for something, we see that our response should be to cast blame ourselves. All of these lessons help ensure blame’s ubiquity and its  perpetuation.

Theme 3: Blame is often used to stigmatize, marginalize and exclude.People who cast blame in the news typically are communicating to readers, viewers and listeners, not to the subjects of their blame. In other words, those assigning blame are saying “I blame him” rather than “I blame you.” Likewise, recipients of blame aren’tregularly given the opportunity to respond through the story in which they’re blamed. Although the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics advises journalists to “diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond toallegations of wrongdoing,” blame – likely because of its ritualized nature – appears to be exempt from this clause. Therefore, blame becomes a pronouncement rather than an interchange. And that lack of authentic conversation – the give and take of real discourse – means that blame leads not to change, but simply to more blame.

Blame’s tendency to stigmatize, marginalize and exclude is reinforced by the toxic nature of much blame that appears in the news. So often the generosity of spirit that philosopher T.M. Scanlon says should accompany blame is replaced by acrimony. Toxic blame – some of which serves to vilify, humiliate and shame – effectively puts those being blamed outside our communities of care and concern, and it strips them of their moral agency. They become the objects rather than subjects of blame.

These three themes provide a portrait that depicts blame in the news as habitual, self-perpetuating, exclusionary and often toxic. They help us understand the role blame is playing. But for an ethicist, that’s just part of the work. Beyond asking what blame in the news looks like, I can’t help but ask if it looks the way it should.

Blame doesn’t have to be toxic. . . . Blame is intended to hold people up to morality’s demands, not to damage their dignity through vilifying, humiliating or shaming them. 

Blame Has a Legitimate PurposeAfter being immersed in a year’s worth of non-stop blame in the news, it was tempting to argue that we should just jettison blame altogether. A world without it would be a much more harmonious – not to mention a kinder – place. In fact, supporters of a therapeutic ethos take this position, contending that we ought to refrain from casting judgments against other people.

But is abandoning blame realistic or even desirable? Most philosophers would say no. In fact, theories of the good, the right and the virtuous – the three primary traditions in Western philosophy – each contend that if we are to have a system of morality, weneed a mechanism for addressing instances when moral principles have been flouted or ignored. That mechanism is blame.

For utilitarians, who are concerned with outcomes, blame is moral criticism with a pragmatic aim, and blame’s purpose is influencing a person’s future conduct. For Aristotelians, who are concerned with virtue, blame relates to a flawed character, and one who is blamed is viewed as having a moral stain on her character. Likewise, one who blames unjustifiably is seen as lacking virtue. And for deontologists, who are concerned with duty, blaming someone is an indication that he has failed to live up to a moral obligation, and it leads to withdrawing good will from that person. For each of these traditions, therefore, blame is implicit in the question “Why be moral?”

A world without blame would seem very strange. Nevertheless, blame doesn’t have to be toxic. Even philosopher George Sher, whose book is titled In Praise of Blame, says we would do well to “lower the condemnatory volume.” Blame is intended to hold people up to morality’s demands, not to damage their dignity through vilifying, humiliating or shaming them.

The news media have untapped potential to help shift our culture away from blame.

What Can Journalists Do?It’s clear that we have a disconnect between the prescriptive and the descriptive – between the role that philosophy sets out for blame and how we actually see blame expressed in the news. But can journalists do anything about it? After all, it’s a journalist’s job to tell us what’s happening in the world; if the public sphere is full of blame, the news should be full of blame as well. Right?

Not exactly. The problem with this argument is that understanding news as simply a reflection of reality fails to capture both the power and the potential of journalism.

The news media, like all media, reflect society, but they also shape it. Going one step further, many media scholars argue that the media help create reality. Through the stories they tell, the media give meaning to the world and help us make sense of thatmeaning. If this is true, the news media have untapped potential to help shift our culture away from blame. And journalists – as people who tend to care about making the world a better place – can take the lead in confronting blame’s ritualization, its exclusionary and toxic nature and its tendency to make us believe that we must continue the cycle.

To encourage this shift, I offer a set of four conditions that would make blame in the news ethically justifiable. These conditions apply to journalists in their work with sources, as well as to journalists who provide their own analysis or commentary or whospeak on behalf of the public.

Condition 1: Journalists are ethically obligated to do what they can can to ensure that the person (or organization) being blamed is blameworthy.Reporting blame without confirming blameworthiness helps turn journalism from a practice committed to verification into one that hangs on assertion. This isn’t acceptable. It’s not enough to accurately report that one person is blaming someone else. We need to know that the person being blamed actually deserves it. As veteranjournalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel assert, a commitment to verification is what separates journalism from other forms of media: “Journalism alone is focused first on getting what happened down right.”

Of course, verifying or validating someone’s blameworthiness isn’t easy, particularly when we consider the kind of complex stories that often involve blame. But even so, journalists shouldn’t be let off the ethical hook. Far too often, journalists don’t even attempt to find out where culpability lies.

The key question a journalist ought to ask someone who casts blame is: “What makes this person blameworthy?” Asking a source to articulate the evidence for blame – getting at the particular moral principles that were flouted or ignored – will help a journalist determine whether that blame should be reported. Perhaps a source offers compelling evidence; perhaps it’s clear that the person being blamed is, in fact, blameworthy. In those cases, the first condition for including blame in a news story has been met. If, however, a source can’t provide the evidence, journalists become obligated to investigate and test the claim.

Condition 2: Journalists are ethically obligated to end news discourses that become a blame game.Much of today’s news is filled with blame that is simply passed from one party to the next. What results is a blame game in which people continually respond to charges of blame by casting their own. This kind of circular debate rarely accomplishes anything.Instead, it tends to create frustration, inhibit decision making and obstruct problem solving. Therefore, journalists are obligated to end news discourses that become nothing more than perpetual blame shifting. What’s more, they are ethically obligated to intervene when they recognize blamers using blame to take a negative spotlight off – or shine a positive spotlight on – themselves.

This obligation applies even when conditions of blameworthiness have been met. If blame is deserved, it should be given. But that blame doesn’t have to be passed along in perpetuity. When this happens, progress toward repairing relationships, solving problems, and moving forward stops. If journalism ought to be a practice that helps communities live, work and govern together, news discourses must move out of unproductive back-and-forth blame and into conversations that lead to something.

Condition 3: Journalists are ethically obligated to hold discourses of blame to a standard of civility that helps maintain mutually respectful relations.Journalists are facilitators of society’s conversations, but they also can serve as moderators. When blame takes an ugly turn, a good moderator intervenes, calls a “time out” and then helps move the conversation from hostility to civility.

Civility’s meaning can be murky, but as political scientist Virginia Sapiro points out, one sense of it deals with good manners. While civility can’t rest on etiquette alone, the level of etiquette is important if we are to move to civility’s next level, which deals with constructive engagement. Therefore, journalists should insist that their sources control their behavior and exercise restraint. When blame turns toxic, journalists can remind their sources of a centuries-old list of French Jesuit rules that ends with this imperative:“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Of course, journalists often do the blaming, and they can be just as guilty as their sources of fostering a culture of blame in the news. Therefore, journalists must apply to themselves the same conditions they apply to their sources.

Condition 4: Journalists are ethically obligated to ask, listen and think beyond the blame.Spending just enough time with a source to find out where the blame lies isn’t good enough. While morality requires that journalists respect well-considered and well-justified blame, they shouldn’t stop there. Instead, journalists should go on to seek suggestions, solutions and other responses that foster genuine democratic  argumentation and contribute to problem solving.

A journalist’s first question to a source should never be “Who’s to blame?” Doing so serves immediately to frame the story in terms of blame. It serves to oversimplify what is often a complex issue. And it, of course, serves to foster blame’s ritualization. Instead, journalists should get beyond what editor Cole C. Campbell called categorical thinking (Who’s the villain? Who’s the victim?) to engage in expansive thinking grounded in a world of ideas.

My conditions aren’t intended to imply that blame should be handed down with kid gloves. Journalists must respect their own and others’ strong convictions, but they should simultaneously ask: What will this blame accomplish? Will it lead to constructiveengagement? Will it build relationships of mutual concern? Will it effect change? Or will it lead to a shouting match or even silence? Even if the conversations of our culture are infused with blame, journalists have the opportunity to refine that conversation into onethat is constructive rather than damaging. The challenge becomes expressing the kind of blame that carries with it the required moral force but doesn’t overwhelm with condemnation. Blame should be done with an acknowledgment of mutuality that, when it works properly, can achieve what morality needs of it. And if we can get blame right in the news, perhaps we have more chance of getting it right beyond the news.

Wendy Wyatt’s monograph, “Blame Narratives and the News: An Ethical Analysis” will be published in Journalism and Communication Monographs.

Read more from CAS Spotlight