“…public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”
–The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
The purpose of news is to present information of the world to the masses. The masses can do with this what they will, but the hope is that they will use it to make informed decisions during elections, have opinions about the world they exist in, and a basic knowledge of it. To ensure that all of this goes as planned and we can live in a healthy, engaged country, both sides of the equation need to actively participate. Although there are issues on either end, the sending and the receiving, for the purpose of this blog post we will discuss the role which the media plays in portraying information.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is a 9,000 member strong organization of journalists. Their purpose is to defend free speech and freedom of the press while simultaneously promoting ethical standards amongst journalists. Everything about this organization is ideal; it matches their mission statement perfectly. The Code of Ethics which the SPJ provides as a resource, if followed, would lead directly into this “public enlightenment”. The form of journalism they strive to create is one in which events are presented without bias for an educated and informed public to build off of, and democracy runs smoothly.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of the points in this Code of Ethics for journalists:
“Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”
“Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”
“Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”
“Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.”
If all journalists stuck to these, the news would be presented as such that it would be unbiased, informative, truthful, and a great base for people to think critically and derive their own opinions from.
However, this code of ethics is not some sort of law, but guidelines. It is not enforced. Even though it may seem like a wonderful solution to simply start forcing these rules upon journalists, there are issues with forcing ethical decisions on anyone. Who is deemed the person who gets to decide what is ethical, and what is not? Someone may argue that violating the privacy of an individual for a story is fine, if the perceived benefit given to society outweighs the potential harm to that person. Others would argue that violating an individual’s privacy is wrong at all times, under all circumstances. There is no definite “right” answer, so a solution was found in the form of a set of generally agreed upon guidelines, the hope being that the consumers of news and fellow journalists would be critical enough about the information they received that a bar would be created by society to which all news would be judged. That which did not pass this bar as ethically acceptable, would not be successful.
This is all done to ensure that there is still complete freedom of speech. There are not restrictions bound by law because this would allow government courts the ability to restrict what is said, and what is not. Although possibly functional in theory, this creates a contradiction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which any form of communication or sharing ideas or information is allowed, save for certain restrictions including slander, racism, infringement upon copyrights, or spreading information which is classified. The right to free speech does not cover topics such as public vs private people, distorted information, out of context information, or bias.
It is understandable that such a code of ethics cannot be made law, yet this raises intriguing questions as to what journalism should be held accountable for, if anything at all.
This isn’t to say that the media is held accountable for nothing. There are laws which they must abide by, such as copyright laws, access to information laws, and the criminal laws. Despite “Freedom of the Press,” the media does not have some sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. Yet without strict ethical boundaries, the media is able to push what they are able to do for increasingly tantalizing stories. It’s better for them—A snappy headline, although possibly slightly out of context, will draw in readers—and you could even argue that it is better for readers. If it draws more people in to learn about the world around them, isn’t that a good thing?
It’s a double edged sword, in a way. We desire the media to be entertaining because in hectic lives, people do not waste time with that which bores them. We live in a fast paced world and we expect our news to be equally so, we want bites which we can swallow easily, which we understand. Yet one aspect of the code of ethics is to “Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.” Newspapers and televisions shows rely on popularity to remain in existence. It’s all fine to say that this is how journalism should function, that this is how we would reach social change and awareness, but to risk it all for this is unlikely.
It’s clear that the media does not always follow this code, and thus is not necessarily the “forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy” which it desires to be. With scandals cropping up across continents, from phone hacking to plagiarism, we do not live with an ideal media. It may be how information is spread, upon what we base world decisions and opinions, yet in no way does this alone automatically make it reliable. In the end, it is all created by humans, who are unfortunately prone to flaws. The media may be the “foundation of democracy,” but foundations can have cracks. In the end, every individual is left with their personal judgments.
So our questions for you:
-Should the media have enforced ethical rules?
-Is it okay to break the current ethical guidelines or should it be more readily discouraged against?
-What would be adequate repercussions for members of the media who actively break the ethical guidelines?