In the current media ecosystem of Twitter, News of the World, a failing news economy, and a rise of sensationalist news, how can your newsroom maintain credibility while everyone else seems to be losing theirs? Aidan White, Director of the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), insists the answers to maintaining a journalism worthy of democracy’s highest ideals can be found in reassessing ethics standards – a task which is much harder to implement in practice. For the last two years, the EJN has helped journalists and media in some difficult countries develop practical ways to promote ethics in the news, with outreach efforts including Pakistan, Egypt, Hungary, Albania, and Turkey. In the below exclusive GEN interview, Aidan White outlines the major pitfalls in media ethics and how news organizations can uphold ethical practices on a daily basis.
GEN: What do you think are the best strategies for modern news organizations to maintain ethical standards?
Aidan White: The ways traditional media and journalism work and do business have changed, but what has not changed is the ethical imperative of good journalism. The benchmarks of quality journalism – accuracy, reliability, impartiality, respect for humanity and the audience – remain cardinal principles that make content credible and useful to the wider audience.
News media across all platforms should ensure that they have put in place structures for editing and reporting that produce high levels of quality. But they should also recognise that ethics and standards are also an essential part of the management and ownership process of media. Rules of good governance in management are as important to creating a culture of ethical journalism as are codes for staff in the newsroom.
Media need to carry out their own internal audits that review the way they work in order to ensure both corporate social responsibility and ethical practice in the newsroom. Setting up internal monitoring structures to review performance and to improve the conditions for quality journalism is important. It's no use agreeing on a pompous statement of good intentions without creating a practical system for resolving problems, building a trusting relationship with the audience and giving journalists the confidence to work ethically.
How does the EJN use media audits to improve ethical conduct in the newsroom?
The media audits being developed by the EJN in Pakistan and elsewhere are designed to help media help themselves. They are a way in which media can review their own performance and establish benchmarks for improving how they do their journalism and their own forms of governance.
They involve a simple questionnaire in which the company asks itself the relevant questions about how it works and how it carries out its journalism. The answers can be analysed to indicate strengths and weaknesses. The company can then see what it needs to do to improve its performance in future. The audits can be carried out on an annual basis and can help companies to set targets for the future, both in management and journalistic terms.
Importantly, these audits are not carried out externally. They are for internal use. A company may want to use the results to promote its business — by promoting its own ethical qualities to encourage more advertising, for instance. Or it may choose to keep the information confidential and use it for internal purposes. It's their choice.
After Leveson, do you think new rules need to be put in place to keep journalists honest?
There should always be rules in place that keep journalists honest. The question is should they be legally binding or not? My view is that the media response to Levenson is overblown. In fact, his Lordship made some modest proposals that call on the newspaper industry to get its act together and create a proper system of self-regulation that will be credible with the public at large.
Some form of legal underpinning on the appointment of who sits on the regulator is no great threat, certainly not in Britain, where democratic traditions are long and well-established.
I remain committed to the notion of self-rule in the media, but we have to make it work, so far in Britain the press has not done itself any favours by using its special position to defend its own interests rather than the public interest. If the press can change then Leveson will have worked.
In your opinion, what are the major threats the Internet poses to ethical journalism?
Clearly the fragmentation of the information space – many, many more outlets and the influence of social media – has given a boost to pluralism. We have more opinions and ideas available than ever before and the audience is part of the news gathering and news dissemination process.That's good, but there's a downside. Unfortunately, the ethical protections that guard against inaccuracy, rumour, speculation and offensive speech are weakening. The rush to publish inevitably means problems over verification of news, images as well as external comments on journalistic work.
Social networks and free range blogging are no substitute for verifiable and considered journalism which today is less about news reporting and more about providing context, background and thoughtful analysis of the impact of events on the world around us. But the mixing of free-range commentary and journalism threatens the ethical base of journalistic work, so how do we get the balance right?
Today traditional media outlets remain the most trusted online. People still yearn for information that they can trust. So how do we satisfy the need for ethical journalism with the understandable desire to get information as fast as possible? The EJN exists to promote media literacy campaigns, independent journalism and a responsible information landscape that is not hidebound by political interference and legal constraints.
Given new technological advances, what are some of the struggles that exist in reporting during elections?
Election reporting is the biggest challenge for independent, impartial political journalism, that's why the EJN has developed an election reporting code and guidelines for journalists and media. this was done for Pakistan, but it can apply anywhere.
At election time politicians will say anything — yes, anything — if it will get them headlines are garner votes. Journalists have to put their high-flying promises and claims to the test. Sometimes they don't do that as much as they should.
In the last US Presidential elections, for instance, some media just abandoned their responsibility to challenge the lies of politicians. Normally you would expect probing questions from reporters, but instead they turned to twitter and emails to frame the questions that exposed distortion and exaggerated claims. The reason this happened is that politicians accuse media of "bias" when they ask tough questions or make negative comments.
In countries like Pakistan or Russia, the threats are even worse and sometimes media and journalists face the threat of violence if they are too critical of powerful politicians. In other countries — India, for instance — some newspaper completely abandon any pretence of impartiality and just sell themselves and their space to politicians for the highest price. Some even accept payments to write negative stories about political opponents!
In the age of Twitter and Facebook and instant email response media savvy politicians, particularly unscrupulous groups, use every information trick they can to get their message across. That's why ethical journalism at election time is not just desirable, but essential. If we don't get it, democracy will be fatally undermined.
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