Ethics are the moral codes which define everything a person does.  Everyone’s ethics will be different, depending on your upbringing, beliefs, and life experience, and naturally these ethics will influence how a journalist represents the world in their writing. An advocate for white supremacy, for instance, will see immigration in a starkly different light to a liberal writer.

As such, newspapers, magazines, and websites will always have a specific ethical outlook on the stories they report. This is frequently determined by the publication’s political bias, meaning a left-wing newspaper The Guardian is just as prone to criticising conservative ideas as right wing paper like The Evening Standard will publish derisive pieces about liberals.  These papers have generated these cultural reputations by reiterating the same political values throughout their existence. We can see these ethical distinctions most clearly when we compare how these two papers have represented the current Brexit debate. The Guardian has predominantly published articles questioning the logic of Brexiteers- take this piece on how economist Jonathan Portes believes leaving the EU could lead to a 2p increase in taxes-http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/10/brexit-unlikely-to-mean-deep-migration-cuts-but-may-lead-to-2p-tax-increase.  The Sun, on the other hand, has frequently featured articles which advocate leaving the EU, an excellent example being an exclusive interview with macroeconomist and Thatcher acolyte Patrick Minford, who claims UK families will be £40 richer if the UK leaves the EU. You can find the piece here- http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/7100715/Margaret-Thatcher-s-economics-guru-says-Brexit-will-leave-families-with-an-extra-40-pounds-a-week.html

Nevertheless, it’s ultimately up to the reader to decide whether their own ethics are compatible with the publication’s. If so, they may become a loyal subscriber. If not, they have the freedom to reject the newspaper’ s message altogether and seek a publication which better caters to their individual beliefs.

However, there some basic ethical codes which every journalist is expected to follow.  These are rather different from their social obligations, which pertain to how a journalist’s work benefits society.   Ethical obligations are there to encourage a journalist to operate accurately and fairly.

The Society of Professional Journalists neatly summarises these obligations into four categories- Seek Truth and Report It, Minimise Harm, Act Independently and finally, Be Accountable and Transparent. I have used their  categories to help structure this portion of the piece, and you can find the SPJ’s full list of Journalistic ethics at this web address: http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Seek Truth and Report It

The first category requires that journalist take responsibility for the accuracy of their writing by verifying their sources and using original sources whenever possible. The latter point is to encourage the journalist to seek new information and to not simply regurgitate old news. You see, discussion of current affairs is like sharks. If they don’t keep moving forward, they seize up and die.

Coherency is the most fundamental component of good journalism, so it makes sense that the SPJ harp on about for pages. They recommend that a journalist accepts that the rush to meet a deadline or the brevity of a format is no excuse for inaccurate reporting. They also prescribe that a journalist mu always strives to provide a context which doesn’t misrepresent the story being reported, and to always clearly identify their sources. If that source requests that they remain anonymous, it is the journalist’s call whether they honour that request.  They need to consider whether publicising the source’s identity will make them vulnerable to personal attack, and must ensure to explain to the reader why the source has gone unnamed if we decide to accept the source’s anonymity.

Minimise Harm

Sometimes words and broadcasts will hurt people by incident or necessity, so we must be conscious of the harm journalism can do.  Let’s take the Watergate revelation, which not only indelibly stained Nixon’s reputation but rattled the American people to their cores.   Cases like these demonstrate the importance of balancing the public’s need for enlightenment with the potential discomfort it may cause. Sometimes the damage is justifiable. Other times, we’re at risk of simply reporting a lurid story for the sake of it.

Journalism could be described as a profession of compassion.  We must understand the personal impact news coverage can have on its subjects and examine every person, be they a politician or a refugee, with the utmost respect and an uncompromising willingness to understand. In addition, we need to empathise that private people have the greater right to manage their personal information than public figures who seek attention.  The consequences of the releasing personal information must also be considered. The long term implications of publishing/broadcasting/posting information can be harmful if that information is incomplete, suspicious, or wrong, making it important that a journalist is able to publish more information as a story develops or issue retractions if an erroneous detail was reported. 

Act Independently

A journalist’s highest duty is to serve the interests of their public. Everything else, including their interests or that of a third party, is completely secondary.  The SPJ help journalists to remain true to the public with these recommendations- They must avoid conflicts of interest which would distort the objectivity of their writing. For instance, when screenwriter Jay Cocks was a film critic for Time Magazine, he was forbidden to review any film directed by Martin Scorsese due his close friendship with the filmmaker.  Journalists should also deny advertisers or donors preferential treatment and resist the external and internal pressures to control coverage which may emerge from government officials and corporate executives. Sponsored content must be labelled and strongly distinguished from proper journalism that’s trying to make a difference.

Accountable and Transparent

The SPJ write “Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public”.  Journalists should be as accountable to their audience as politicians are to their constituencies. Journalist should take care to explain ethical matters to their readers and use their public platform to encourage a civil debate on journalistic practices, coverage and what gets reported in The News at 10. All journalists must be able to provide adequate answers about accuracy, reliability and clarity, while also being fully prepared to acknowledge and correct any part of their writing which lacks in those categories.  In addition, journalists must operate by the same standards they expect of others and need to be ready to expose journalistic misconduct, even if it abides in their own news organisations.

These rules are clear, sensible, and vital, but journalists are only humans, vulnerable to honest errors, compromise, and manipulation from corporations and governments.  And it happens all the time.  A mere few weeks ago, the Wednesday 27th April editions of The Sun and The Times ran front pages on David Cameron’s social media preferences (WhatsApp, as it happens) and how the bankruptcy of clothes franchise BHS could make one of its key executives lose his knighthood. Sounds like a dreadfully slow news day, doesn’t it?

It was, of course, anything but.  It was the victorious day when a jury unanimously ruled that the 96 victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster had been unlawfully killed.  Papers as ideologically opposed as The Guardian and the Daily Mail all agreed this triumph of justice needed to be trumpeted from the front pages.

So why didn’t The Sun and The Times follow suit? It has been proposed that the reason The Sun and The Times failed to follow suit was because both are under the corporate umbrella of News UK, the Rupert Murdoch owned company notorious for its shady activities. Even if there was no interference, these papers still fail to honour the first adage of the SPJ- Seek the Truth and Report It.

Let’s contrast this with Alissa J. Rubin’s Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the difficult daily lives of Afghan women. Rubin demonstrated exceptional journalistic ethics throughout, ensuring her work was truthful by verifying her sources and by refusing to let the possibility of personal reprisal from organisations like the Taliban to prevent her from documenting the truth.

I’ve mainly referenced the ethical regulations of the SPJ throughout this article, but news organisations will often have their own uniquely tailored ethical codes. Note that as a broadsheet newspaper with an audience of businesspeople, skilled professionals and teachers, The Guardian will feature some reporting on stock markets. It is therefore relevant that their code of conduct contains ethical guidelines for financial reporting. These can be found under the Personal behaviour and conflicts section of The Guardian’s Editorial Code, which can be viewed in full at this link- https://www.theguardian.com/info/2015/aug/05/the-guardians-editorial-code

However, tabloid newspaper The Sun’s code of conduct makes no mention of ethical financial reporting simply because they don’t publish articles about the stock markets. Tabloids like The Sun are infamous for their heavy use of photographs of popular celebrities, so they have an entire section of their code of conduct pertaining to how photographers obtain and present images.  I’ve linked the entire code here-http://www.heraldsun.com.au/help/code-of-conduct .  

It seems clear that when every newspaper operates differently, it is of paramount importance that newspapers self-regulate to ensure these operations remain ethical, legal, and fair.

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