Stephen D. Reese: Ed Lambeth - Interviewed by Doug Cannon

Steve Reese

Ed Lambeth considers work as a journalism scholar a calling "with real potential and obligations." The University of Missouri emeritus professor of journalism said students energize and motivate him. Research and creative activity feed into teaching.

"Helping others find their gifts and encouraging them to put them to work for good ends is challenging, sometimes uncertain and often unrewarded," Lambeth noted.

The 71-year-old Alabama native has spent 35 years working as a teacher, journalism researcher and university administrator. He's had full-time faculty appointments at three universities. He's written more than 50 articles for scholarly, professional or popular publications and two books. But Lambeth said he didn't consider himself to be in the major leagues of academic research. "If I have strengths, they may be more in creative activity, teaching and identifying research that is important and doable," he said.

A recognized authority on journalism ethics and civic journalism, Lambeth said he enjoys originating and conceptualizing research and then mustering the energy and wherewithal to make it happen. "I like to think that I can sometimes articulate the implications of research in ways that are helpful and occasionally with new insights," he said. "...I like to do both quantitative and qualitative research, especially if I can find a way to use both to benefit teachers and/or practitioners of journalism.” 

 
From 1983 to 2003 Lambeth directed the National Workshop on the Teaching of Ethics in Journalism—first at the University of Kentucky, later at the University of Missouri. A meeting during the 1970s of scholars from many disciplines at Hastings Institute in New York planted the seeds for that project. The subject for the gathering was the teaching of professional ethics. 
 
“It was clear to me then that our field badly needed an ethics teaching workshop,” Lambeth said. “I asked Gannett (Foundation) for funding, and it agreed to annual funding that lasted for 14 years.” Gannett Foundation money financed intensive five-day teaching workshops from 1983 to 1997. For the past six years the training has been affiliated with the Media Ethics Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and offered as a one-day session before annual AEJMC conferences. 
 
Lambeth produced the first edition of his book on journalism ethics, Committed Journalism: An Ethic for the Profession, in 1986. It was translated into Spanish in 1990. The second edition—containing new case studies and additional material on leadership and management, media criticism, and history—was published in 1992. That edition was later translated into Slovenian, Albanian and Spanish. A Google search shows that the work has been widely cited and used around the globe. 
 
Continuing research on ethical problems in journalism prompted numerous articles in various publications, such as Media Ethics, Santa Clara Law Review, Forum Bioethics and Professional Ethics: A Multidisciplinary Journal. Lambeth wrote the chapter on “Issues and Events in Journalism” for the 1989 Collier’s Encyclopedia Year Book. 
 
Lambeth said he had always been interested in promoting excellence in journalistic practice. Therefore, in the 1990s he expanded his work in ethics to include civic journalism. 
 
“I am not sure that our craft/profession has yet found a really good and workable opportunity genuinely to assess the impact and/or quality of our contribution to society,” Lambeth said. “Unlike the vocations of medicine, law, engineering and the like, we have not yet found the means both to gain the kind of feedback we need and preserve both the perception and reality of our independence. That was a key problem facing even the best of public journalism projects in the 1990s. News media that launched experiments that required or invited public feedback or participation were described as ‘licking the faces of readers.’” 
 
Analysis of civic journalism helped produce Assessing Public Journalism, co-written with Philip Meyer and Esther Thorson, in 1998. The book won the Scholarly Excellence Award from the University of Missouri System Board of Curators. In the September/October 1998 Columbia Journalism Review, James Boylan called the anthology an illuminating work on “an imprecisely defined genre that seeks innovative ways to embrace citizens’ perspectives on issues and stimulate public debate.” Boylan said chapters by Meyer and Lambeth “cut to the heart of the matter.” 
 
Early in his career as a scholar, Lambeth said he established a foundation for critical thinking by completing “a long deferred set of self-directed readings in history, sociology, psychology, philosophy and ethics.” Those readings have influenced his concepts about journalism, teaching and scholarship in general. 
 
Lambeth said he picks research topics based on his “intellectual, spiritual and ethical imagination and energy.” “In my early research,” he said, “the topical, qualitative, historical and critical focus may have been my effort to place into context the two decades I spent as a reporter and shirtsleeve teaching editor. That was followed by a curiosity about whether or how well our work connects with citizens. That was something that interested me all my life—long before the civic journalism movement. For me this early interest took the route of ethics in journalism and what actually contributes to excellence in the doing of journalism.” 
 
Lambeth said he tries to do research “in the company of people whose values you share and whose intellect and intelligence you respect.” He said he values honest feedback from peers. “Be open to criticism,” he advised, “and act on as much as your good judgment tells you is sound.” He said he also appreciates help choosing and executing measurement strategies. 
 
Fellowships, research awards and overseas study have helped Lambeth expand his scholarship. He has been a Fulbright Scholar, Coolidge Fellow, Taiwanese Science Council visiting professor, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, Nieman Fellow and Congressional Fellow. He has won several teaching grants from the University of Missouri and a $30,000 sabbatical research award from the Gannett Foundation. 
 
“The Congressional Fellowship gave me an inside knowledge of Washington,” he said. “The Nieman Fellowship fed my journalistic curiosity and convinced me that research could be important and fun. A year in Israel and Palestine—with visits in Jordan, Egypt, Italy and Malta—opened opportunities for international teaching, writing and a bit of consulting. Living in Hungary taught me how to draw upon 2,000 years of history to interpret the fate of a great yet small country with a tragic past and a future made more uncertain by its almost genetic pessimism. Fulbright’s Orszagh Chair in Szeged and Budapest created many opportunities to meet wonderful people and renew ties in nearby Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany. Earlier, the Gannett Foundation Award for Excellence in administration (which I did at the University of Montevallo) gave me an opportunity to revisit the roots of my native Alabama and to write the second edition of Committee Journalism.” 
 
Lambeth said classroom experiences have also shaped his approach to scholarship and conceptualizing research. “Two very different courses I taught at Indiana University—science writing and media as social institutions—required me to develop and understand more deeply what it took to both do journalism well and to grasp and explain what I came to call ‘the stewardship of free expression.’ Teaching science writing allowed me to develop and practice in an area that required rigor and precision. … The media as social institution was IU’s capstone course. It gave me the opportunity to integrate aspects of philosophy, ethics, media criticism, history and social science research on media.” 
 
Besides teaching and doing research, Lambeth has spent time as a university administrator, leader in academic associations and corporate policy-maker. He directed the University of Kentucky School of Journalism from 1983 to 1987 and was associate dean for graduate studies and research at the University of Missouri School of Journalism from 1987 to 1990. He was vice president, president-elect and then president of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication between 1986 and 1989. He helped establish both the AEJMC Media Ethics Division and Civic Journalism Interest Group. From 1994 to 1997 he was on the board of directors for the United Methodist Church communications agency. 
 
These administrative and service duties, Lambeth said, probably detracted from his volume of scholarship. “But I cherished the opportunity of leadership and creative activity those positions brought along with the nitty-gritty,” he said. “Without such leadership experience, I am not sure the National Workshop on the Teaching of Ethics in Journalism would have happened.” Choosing positions that involve leadership—as distinct from administration and management—can demand that a faculty member produce scholarship to set an example, he added. Administrative experience, combined with a solid record of teaching and research, can make a professor a valuable senior faculty member. 
 
Lambeth came into journalism education as a second career. For 11 years he had worked as a reporter—in Binghamton, N.Y.; Milwaukee; and Washington. “I had always wanted to teach,” Lambeth said. “But it took the experience of a year at Harvard as a Nieman (Fellow in 1967-68) to move me to it.” An added inducement, he said, was that teaching would be “a more sane and healthy alternative to being on call 24/7 as a Washington correspondent.” He wanted to spend more time with his wife and children. 
 
The 1954 and 1955 graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism left a post as Washington correspondent for Gannett Newspapers in 1968 to establish and direct the Washington Reporting Program for the University of Missouri. “The program gave the school a new visibility in Washington and, I believe, added a new dimension to its professional graduate program,” Lambeth said. “On a personal level, it taught me how to work as a shirtsleeve editor and, especially, how to listen, listen, listen. That’s vital, not only in reporting but in teaching and research as well.” 
 
While guiding 12 graduate students through the ins and outs of Washington reporting each term, Lambeth worked on a doctorate in political science. “It took me eight years to get my Ph.D. at American University,” he said. “My areas of doctoral specialty largely reflected the interests of my reporting career—American government, urban affairs, science and public policy, and political philosophy.” 
 
Lambeth left Missouri’s Washington Reporting Program in 1978 to teach reporting, writing, media ethics and other courses at the Indiana University School of Journalism. He stayed in Bloomington until 1983. Then he went to the University of Kentucky. He rejoined the University of Missouri journalism faculty in 1987. 
 
During 35 years as a scholar, Lambeth said he has made tradeoffs and value judgments on how best to use his time. He said he has tried to lead a balanced life personally and professionally. “Some friends say I work too hard and spend too much time at it (scholarship),” he said. “I respect and try to reciprocate the obvious good will and wisdom their advice reflects, especially in my more recent years. Looking back, there is not a whole lot I regret doing. I pray that an active brain will help keep me healthy such that I can have a long life. I love every month and minute of it. What a beautiful planet God has given us! How vivid and pregnant with opportunities is the very consciousness he has given us as human beings made in his image!”