Journalism ethics

H R Venkatesh
Jun 21 · 6 min read

Journalism, as it is currently celebrated in prizes and taught in universities, is too US-centric.

News is for everyone (Photos: Unsplash 1, 2, 3)

1.

While we’re all reinventing journalism, crafting new business models, and redefining how to measure its impact, we might as well take another look at the core mission of journalism. From a truly global perspective.

One way to do that is to ask the same two questions, again and again:

  1. Why do we do journalism the way we do it?
  2. How can we do it better?

For the most part, the answers to these questions are obvious and easy to answer. We are journalists because the profession can be exciting, rewarding and impactful. It can be a service to society. It can be both a career and a calling.

But when we continue down this path, other questions come at us. Questions with no easy answers. Like the one I posted on Twitter.

Even though a majority of those polled say that our job as journalists is to uncover the truth at all costs, all four choices are valid. We want to safeguard our democracies (if we happen to live in one). We all want to use to journalism to help people make meaningful choices about their lives. And indeed, as citizens of our countries, we want to protect our institutions.

It’s when these four goals contradict each other that it gets more tricky.

Consider two instances:

First, what happens when the truth places your democracy in jeopardy? Imagine there’s a big election in your country. Imagine then, that a Wikileaks-like organization releases dozens of cables, which upon verification, are deemed accurate. Publishing these cables on the eve of an election are guaranteed to alter the election. Do you wait till after the election is over to publish them?

Second, what happens to your journalistic mission when you live in a semi-democracy or an authoritarian country? When uncovering the truth can get you and your family murdered. Our current model says that a journalist must uncover the truth at all costs. But the fact is, there are thousands of outstanding journalists who just cannot do that for various reasons. Should it be their fate then, to not be acknowledged for their excellence?

Press freedom in the world (Freedom House report 2019)

2.

There are currently 195 UN-recognized nations. But from a press freedom perspective, these can be aggregated into three categories—‘not free’, ‘partly free’ and ‘free’—as Freedom House does every year.

For example, the press in Russia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and the United Arab Emirates is ‘not free’. India, Brazil and South Africa are ‘partly free’. And the United States, France and Australia are ‘free’.

For each of these three types of countries, journalism has a unique role, depending on how the three branches of government—the judiciary, the legislative and the executive—perform. Yet our rhetoric around ‘good journalism’ is often ethnocentric. This is so particularly in the way journalism is taught at U.S. universities, and the elevation of particular types of reporting over others.

In 2016, I spent a semester at the Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York grappling with the issue of journalism entrepreneurship. In 2017 and part of 2018, I was an ICFJ Knight Fellow based in New Delhi, but the job also included travel and conversations with several U.S. newsrooms, and exchanging views with journalists from several African countries. In 2018 and 2019, I’ve been a JSK Fellow at Stanford.

I say all this because I’ve seen at close quarters this tendency to celebrate U.S. journalism at journalism schools, festivals, foundations and fellowships. There’s good reason for this trend of course, because the U.S. produces truly outstanding journalism.

But there are other, more relevant examples of great global journalism too — even in countries where the press is ‘not free’ and ‘partly free’. Because I am a journalist in a country defined as ‘partly free’ (India), it might be more useful for me to learn from fellow Indian journalists or journalists from other ‘partly free’ countries such as Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina.

Eventually, each country’s journalistic mission ought to be recognized as unique based on legal, political, cultural, economic and ethical lenses. Another way of putting it is: we need at least 195 different journalism missions.


3.

Journalism doesn’t have a single holy book, a pope, or a high temple. Yet, ethics are central to the practice of this profession.

According to Stephen J.A. Ward, a media ethicist, we’re in the fifth revolution in journalism ethics. The current stage, he says, is an ongoing activity. It is “process-oriented”, “open and global”, and crucially, it also incorporates “non-Western interpretations of practice.”

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has a code of ethics based on four principles. They are: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, be accountable and transparent.

The journalist Tom Rosenstiel, who co-wrote The Elements of Journalism, now runs the American Press Institute. Its website states that the purpose of journalism is to “provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

But for the purposes of this argument, let’s go back to Stephen J.A. Ward. In his book The Invention of Journalism Ethics, he says a journalist has about fifteen different functions. He groups these fifteen functions under four broad categories: individual, social, political and ethical.

Implicit in Ward’s argument, and indeed in all other descriptions of journalism’s mission is that it needs to be rooted in the legal, political, cultural, economic and technological context of a given country. (This doesn’t mean cutting journalistic corners. Indeed, journalism will continue to have to be independent and verification-driven.)


4.

Given the unique needs of people across the world, and based on my argument that journalism globally ought to be tailored for context, we might need a new movement.

Call it the Global Journalism Project.

We would need to figure out exactly how such a project would work, but here are some preliminary thoughts for how several stakeholders would benefit.

  • For U.S. journalism schools, fellowships and foundations, it’s an opportunity to be less ethnocentric. They can also be better at preparing internationals who return to their home countries to practice journalism.
  • For journalists and students who travel to the U.S., such a project would provide a framework to organize their work, measure their impact and find meaning in journalism.
  • For most other journalists and aspiring journalists around the world, such a project would be a source of learning. Brazilians can learn from South Africans, Germans can learn from the Japanese, and so on.
  • For U.S.-based journalists, it would be an opportunity to learn from other countries.

Let’s get started.


This post is the product of my talk at Stanford University in April 2019. It was titled, “Journalism’s ‘mission problem’ and implications for journalists around the world.” Thanks to Jay Hamilton, Jill Geisler, Tran Ha, Pam Maples, Michael Bolden, Djordje Padejski and all the fellows of the JSK Fellowships 2019 at Stanford University.

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

H R Venkatesh

Written by

Journalism Fellow @JSKstanford | Hacks/Hackers Delhi & NetaData | Alum: CUNY, Oxford, SIMC,

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

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