Lecture: Accountability of journalists

Journalists do not have a very good reputation. When people are asked if they have confidence in the news media and if they trust journalists, the answers tend to be more negative today than they were before.

Why is this so? Well, there is probably more than one explanation. One is obviously that the news media do not always do a good job and don`t perform well. They don`t live up to their own standards. Another explanation is that groups in society consider news media to be politically biased, so not representing their views and interests. A third explanation may be that news media often carries bad news, negative news, which does not generate popularity. However, news is often negative per definition, because it deals with dramatic incidents like accidents, crime and conflicts, and not so much about the normal and everyday life and the slow progress of society.

In many countries, codes of media ethics have been developed in order to improve the ethical standards of the news media. A code - or a codex - is a set of ethical rules which is adopted and upheld as a guideline for professional journalists. Although the form and content of the code will vary between countries, there are considerable similarities across the borders with regard to professional standards and ethical considerations. As a rule, the codes are developed by editors’ organizations, and/or journalists’ unions, and/or media owners` associations.

As in all professional ethics, media ethics have three main purposes: 1) To ensure that the profession provides a good and useful service to society, 2) to avoid harm and damaging effects on people`s lives, and 3) to maintain the credibility and good reputation of the profession. The public should employ the media`s own code of ethics to hold journalists accountable for their performance.

Let us have a brief look at a few main issues in the field of media ethics:


Truth, accuracy and verification

Journalists do not make up stories. Journalism shall provide factual and truthful information. So-called “fake news”, which is intended misinformation and which we have witnessed to an increasing extent in recent times is the opposite of journalism. Hopefully this phenomenon will not appear in professional media.

However, what frequently occurs even in major and professional news media, is the publication of inaccurate, incomplete and even incorrect pieces of information. This occurs when journalists are sloppy and careless, and when journalists are deceived by their sources. It also happens when a journalist, a copy editor or a producer, in order to create a sensational headline or a “clickbait”, stretches and sharpens the story further than is justifiable by the facts.

When a story is being angled or sharpened in such a way that it no longer provides an accurate representation of the facts, it will be a violation of good press conduct.

When a news story breaks, we expect the news media to report it immediately. Online media publish as soon as possible, preferably as live coverage or with continuous updates. They know that the news is probably out and shared in social media already. The demand for immediacy and instant publishing may conflict with basic journalistic qualities such as control of facts, a careful choice of competent sources and accurate reporting. The two concerns, for speed and for accuracy, may pull in opposite directions. One threatens the other. Which option should have priority?

Well, the answer may arise from another question: What is the essence of journalism? " Its essence is a discipline of verification", state Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiehl in a famous book. Journalism is primarily about factual reports, it is about the collection and dissemination of reliable and accurate information. That`s why speed can never outmatch accuracy.

We should, however, not make journalism too narrow. Journalism is a many-sided, open and complex business that embraces a multotude of purposes, business models and genres, from entertainment and cultural dissemination to debate and investigative reporting. But the core is to convey a true picture of what is happening in society. Working methods and professional ethics are developed for obtaining and communicating reliable information.

The rapid and continuous online news reporting has in many ways strengthened journalism. The world wide web has opened up possibilities for better and more effective journalistic research, but it has also created new challenges with regard to checking facts and source criticism. User-generated content is a central feature of digital media, with considerable positive effects. It provides eyewitness reports from the news scene, we get images and first hand reports from dramatic and important events, and the breadth of sources is extended. On the other hand, it may be difficult to know whether reports and messages are correct, whether images are authentic and whether material was collected in a proper manner.

Today, we take for granted that news conveys important events as they happen. But the commitment to check facts and information and maintaining a critical attitude towards sources doesn’t go away. These characteristics of quality journalism are exactly the same as before.


Minimize harm

A news story will sometimes have negative consequences and cause difficulties for somebody. In fact, this happens quite frequently. People who are exposed in the news in a critical or negative manner, will feel it as a burden, and in some cases as harassment. Such exposure is difficult to deal with, and it may have a destructive effect on the life and career of the victim. This does not mean that news should not be published. The story may be of great importance to society, it may be a story that the audience has every right to know about, a story that should not be concealed. In cases like this, the interest of society has priority over the interests of the exposed individual.

Media ethics is not always about being restrictive, careful, aloof and reserved. It is also about boldly bringing important stories forward, into the public gaze, and to let people know what is going on in society, even if publication will cause suffering and despair to somebody.

But harm should be minimized. The journalist should always be ready to explain why the public`s right to know takes preference over the individual`s right to privacy.

These are difficult situations, and no fixed and general answers are given. Every situation has to be considered on its merits. But newsrooms should always take into consideration the negative consequences and the burdens they impose on people who are exposed in the news against their own will.

The ethical demand for a proper and wise balance between two conflicting considerations,  the obligation to publish and the obligation to protect the exposed individual, is at the core of media ethics. It embraces a lot of different questions, many of which are mentioned in codes of ethics. How should news media deal with the victims of a traffic accident, who may we severely injured or even killed? Is it advisable to contact a crime victim’s next of kin and ask for an interview? What about intrusion into privacy and the revealing of private matters? What if a politician has a drinking problem? What if a secret romantic affair is going on between two prominent politicians? How should children be exposed in news media? Should the perpetrator`s ethnicity be mentioned in crime journalism? Should minor criminals be named in news media? And so on.


Independence and integrity

The credibility of news media is closely related to journalists’ and editors’ independence and integrity. The public must be confident that news professionals operate without being editorially governed by the authorities, advertisers, or sources, or any other exerting of power outside the newsroom.

One of the most important tasks of the press is to monitor the government, the business community and other centres of power. A premise for completing this task is that the news media upholds its independence towards the objects of journalism. The press fails its task if it becomes a tool in the hands of power.

The Norwegian Code of Ethics underlines that the press "cannot bow to pressure from anyone who wants to prevent open debate, free flow of information and free access to sources".

It is not only what happens within working hours that is relevant to the question of journalists' integrity. A journalist could easily be caught up in problematic dual roles as a result of more or less private commitments, like for instance, participation in organizations or political parties, as a shareholder in business companies, by private friendship, etc. In cases like this, conflicts of interest may arise. The journalist may be influenced by other factors than professional and editorial considerations, or the public can suspect that this is the case.

This does not imply that journalists should isolate themselves from the community outside the newsroom. A good journalist is living in the midst of society, and has experience of the vibrant community life that he covers as a journalist. Still, professional media ethics obeys rules and principles designed to safeguard both commitment and integrity. Here are three examples from the Norwegian code of press ethics:

2.2 The editor and the individual editorial staff member must protect their independence, integrity and credibility. Avoid dual roles, positions, commissions or commitments that create conflicts of interest connected to or leading to speculations of disqualification.

2.3 Be open on matters that could be relevant for how the public perceives journalistic content.

2.4 Members of editorial staff must not exploit their position in order to achieve personal gain, including receiving money, goods or services that can be perceived as compensation from outsiders for editorial benefits.
Native advertising, product placement and sponsored content are other issues which challenge the independence of news media. For professional news outlets, it has always been important to distinguish clearly between journalism and advertising. It should be obvious to the public what is journalism and what is advertisement, commercials or native advertising. If there is the slightest possibility that the reader or the viewer may be confused about this, the news provider must make sure that commercial content is clearly marked. This has to do with the credibility of news media.

Svein Brurås, Professor, Faculty of Media and Journalism, Volda University College (Norway)

An online manual on intercultural understanding, ethics and human rights to be used by teachers and students in journalism education. Read more.

Email : post@journalism-edu.org

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