Journalism: Code of Ethics

Introduction

In the last two decades, the ways in which news industries work have undergone a massive change. Where previously consumers were limited to what newspapers and various local news organizations provided, with the introduction of the Internet to the equation anyone can now take ‘news’ into their own hands. Thus the creation of what I believe is ‘new media’ — where the ‘old’ media was defined as being a means of mass communication from producers to consumers such as television and radio, new media is interactive content that is produced and responded to by the consumers themselves, usually straight from the source. This leaves out the middleman that is the news organization, and explains parts of the fall in popularity of newspapers. Because of this, the journalistic code of ethics should be applied to both professional journalists and citizen journalists, as having a code of ethics that is only applied to professional journalists and leaves out a good portion of other sources that consumers get news from is an exercise in futility. The following guidelines to ethical reporting are only the very basics, and far from encompass all the possible situations that could happen while reporting.

Accuracy

Journalists should have a responsibility to the accuracy of their work, including context, sources and the report itself. They should never knowingly include false information or report in a way that intentionally misleads the viewers. All content should undergo fact checking before being published — this leads to the next point, which is that of sources. Sources should not include those that are open to the public for editing, unless the reporter is searching for the opinion of the general public and makes explicitly clear that the information that they gain from this is from this sort of source. This is the importance of context — making a news report holds the underlying implication that all included is truth, and if not made clear then the audience may mistake speculation as the fact of the matter. Thus, context must be provided in all circumstances — to provide another example, when the journalist is unsure of their information they should leave it out of the report or make it clear that they don’t have solid facts on that particular matter. The sources themselves should be open to the public so that the audience themselves can judge the reliability and accuracy of the source — unless there are special situations such as anonymous sources, whom should be avoided as much as possible unless they face possible negative consequences or have exclusive information.

Objectivity

Journalists should never let anyone or anything affect the truth of their report, nor should they allow themselves to be censored purely so that certain parties can gain from it. Censorship is only acceptable in circumstances where spreading the information could cause harm to others — for example, an unproved bomb threat, which could cause mass panic amongst the public. Journalists should not allow sponsors or people that fund them to have an influence on their reporting in any way, nor should they involve themselves personally in circumstances that could affect their capacity to report in an unbiased manner. Facts and opinions should always be clearly differentiated between, and the report should be checked so that the personal views of the journalist are not skewing the facts of the matter. Opinionated language in general should be minimized because even though one may not think so, there are many subtle ways in which language can convey bias — for example, racism in America had been subtly reinforced by the reporters using negative language such as ‘thug’ in the case of black criminals and positive language such as ‘misguided youth’ in the case of white criminals. When reporting, both sides of a debate should have the opportunity to speak and represent themselves, regardless of whether the report is criticizing their crimes.

Privacy

An important part of ethical journalism also lies in the ways in which information is gathered. Journalists should adhere to standards of openness and honesty when gathering information and interviewing sources — this includes identification of their news organization and the fact that this will likely be going into an article. In more sensitive situations, it would be prudent to gain informed consent from the interviewee, especially when there could be possible negative consequences to them as a result of their being interviewed. When sensitive situations are part of a journalist’s work, whether they are political or otherwise, sometimes subterfuge and deception is required in order to gain information that could potentially prevent a great deal of harm. When this happens, the circumstances through which the journalist gained the material must also be reported along with the content they gathered with complete transparency. And to re-iterate the obvious, local laws should always be followed when gathering information.

Furthermore, there is the problem as to whether one should report aspects of private lives. For public figures such as celebrities and politicians, disclosing material on their personal lives is expected and acceptable to a certain extent — however, journalists should keep in mind the wellbeing of their subjects and the fact that they are toeing a somewhat delicate line — i.e. not intruding into their homes. For those that lead private, normal lives however, one should not report on them unless they are related to an important case and the details of their life relate to that particular piece of news. Informed consent should be given, and special care must be taken around children and those that cannot really give consent.

Controversial material

To begin with, journalistic material absolutely should not contain hate speech from the journalist aimed at any group, regardless of race, gender or sexuality. When a journalist degrades into hate speech, what they write cannot truly considered the ‘truth’ anymore and can only be seen as another person airing out their personal views — it is not journalism, regardless of whether they are a professional or not. On the other hand, reporting on a hate speech isn’t inappropriate, although concerns have been brought up that it may be furthering the agenda of those who made the malicious speech. It is up to the journalist personally whether they wish to report such material, but a warning of the content before reading is recommended for the benefit of the audience. These warnings can also be applied in the case of other controversial material and things like gory photos, nudity, etc.

Concluding

This is my personal view as to what should be part of the basics of an ethical code for journalism, and does not cover all situations.

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