Media coverage ethics for a changing media landscape


‘Applying the old ethical standards in competition with blogs and social media … may simply be commercial suicide. But to let standards slip will lead to irresponsible journalism, and to the public questioning the legal and other privileges that are enjoyed by journalists.’
Damian Tambini, London School of Economics
Journalists are an edgy lot—and no wonder seeing how everything we do has to be beautifully written, perfectly accurate, and up-to-date to the last millisecond. Technology helps us find, present and update our stories but it also raises the bar on expectations, to neck height for most of us, on quality and timeliness.
Squeezed by a combination of old and new pressures, we’re a bit like Han Solo watching the ceiling coming down and praying for a miracle. Jeff Jarvis could be our Luke Skywalker, but he won’t save us from the predators out there in Russia, Italy and beyond. These are our real enemies.
Some problems are old, like commercial and political interference. Some are new, like having to compete with rampant bloggers from around the world or seeing the web drink our revenue streams from advertising and classifieds.
For the old problems, we have to keep on fighting. We can kiss goodbye to liberal democracy if we lose our crutches of press freedom and media pluralism. Europe is far from perfect, but there’s little such freedom in neighbouring countries. If we take that route we’re no longer journalists, just hired hands.
With the new problems, the writing’s on the wall. Bloggers are more than rabid graffiti artists, and journalists who pedal this drivel are either arrogant or in denial. Ranting at a festival in October 2010, the BBC’s Andrew Marr lumped together all the dedicated, thoughtful bloggers out there with the idiots who leave nasty comments at the bottom of articles. There’s a huge difference; and it’s hypocritical given all the journalists who are happily blogging on the side.
Take, for example, racist remarks made by former US Senator Trent Lott at a colleague’s birthday party in 2002. As Michael Schudson points out: “Thanks to the ‘blogosphere’, the party that Senator Lott and nearly everyone else present regarded as an insider event was available for outsider news. Moreover… the bloggers succeeded in getting the ‘dump Lott’ bandwagon moving not simply by pointing out an indiscreet remark but… by persuading mainstream journalists that Lott’s remarks were not casual and thoughtless but representative of a racism Lott had repeatedly expressed and acted upon.”

How many journalists are ‘pure-bred’ anyway? It’s always been a hybrid role: part investigator, linguist, storyteller, techie, photographer, even part freedom fighter. So what defines us? A certificate, a press pass, or what we do: our probing, our courage, originality, our ability to move public opinion, challenge the powerful and sometimes even keep them in check?
Some of us are ‘martyred’ for what we do. So does ‘Reporters Without Borders’ only focus on journalists who are killed or imprisoned? No, in their Press Freedom Barometer they give equal space to journalists, media assistants and ‘netizens’. In turn, who deserves more respect: a tabloid hack or a Nobel cyberdissident?

Losing the way

Over the last decade, the web has changed the information landscape, turning a desert, where newsrooms were the main oases, into a pulsating jungle with millions of vines fighting for the limelight. It’s a whole new ecosystem. Old names like the Economist, Spiegel, and BBC still rise above the hoi polloi, but they rest on their laurels at their peril.
And isn’t that the problem? Journalists are edgy but we also take a lot for granted. We’ve had decades of protections and privileges, of making and breaking careers, of telling our stories – and being paid for it! What a job! Now we stand at a crossroads, waiting either for directions or a ritual burial. In fact it’s more of a double crossroads, which looks a bit like this:

So where do we begin? We’d be mad to forget our local audience, which is usually our main source of income. But as more of our work is carried on the web, our audience is increasingly global. Publishers who ignore this fact, no matter how large, are swimming against the tide. One example: when News Corp. erected pay-walls around its websites, charging a small amount for the average American ($3 per week), it locked out millions of Indians for whom this ‘small amount’ is actually rather large.
It’s one thing being edgy, but commercial pressures are pushing journalists across Europe to do stupid things. Like hacking the phones of public figures (Britain) or informing parents of the death of children on live TV (Italy). All this matters in our attention economy – but it can also backfire on our bottom line. De Telegraaf reportedly lost 1000 subscribers after interviewing and printing photos of a 9-year-old survivor of a plane crash in Libya. It’s basic bad ethics (see 2.d in the code below) and it cost them readers.
These examples dent the argument that only journalists can be trusted to act professionally and that only bloggers are irresponsible. They’re also ammunition for politicians and judges who may want to stop public interest defences and the right to protect sources.

New world, new rules

Bloggers’ influence is growing collectively, and in countries like Canada they now share protections afforded to journalists “if they can show that they acted responsibly in reporting on a matter of public interest”. The more bloggers self-regulate, the more protections they will be able to claim.
In September 2010, the European Parliament floated the idea of “drawing up a code of ethics applicable to new media”. We at EJC welcome this, so long as it promotes free and responsible reporting. Self-regulation, not self-censorship.
The point is not to ‘upgrade’ bloggers into journalists. Most would probably want to remain a different species, marked by their independence and innovation. The point is to nurture quality journalism and quality blogging. In this vein, our TH!NK series appears to be getting the balance right: it even won an award in 2009.
But for the EJC, such a code needs two axes:
- one that reconciles old and new media;
- one that links journalists working in different countries.
It’s not just that new media is a global phenomenon. It’s also that people are learning and working in different ways, under varying conditions – and this shapes the media landscape. Across Europe and beyond, diverse training and traditions may lead to gaps or contradictions in the quality of journalism. Different countries have different training curricula and social structures.
In Italy for example, special care is taken not to identify police and legal teams when reporting on mafia cases (see 5e below). Since organised crime has gone global, shouldn’t the same care be extended to other countries?
Meanwhile, news sites in Germany are sharing articles with ‘partners’ in Denmark, Italy and the USA. Do all these writers follow the same journalistic standards? (Probably not.) Should readers demand the same quality of reporting? (Why not?) And does it really matter if the trend is toward tabloidisation anyway? (YES, if you value quality journalism.)
Bloggers and foreign journalists are not our enemies. Our real enemies are the ‘media predators’ who subject us to intimidation or violence and stop us from doing our job. But we become our own worst enemies when we ignore basic ethics and fail to provide the social benefits that justify our privileges and protections.
We need to accept that we’re in this together: journalists, bloggers, Brits, Germans, Italians, etc. We’re in a media melting pot and we need clarity. A code of media coverage ethics can help define our joint priorities while creating a level playing field. For bloggers, it means stepping up to the mark; for reporters it means sharing a space with foreign and citizen journalists.
The draft code below is not designed to be enforced by an external authority, but to be used as a reference for training and editorial decision-making. This, our version #3, incorporates the national codes of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom from Ethic Net combined with the Bloggers Code of Ethics from Cyberjournalist. It’s a work in progress. Some aspects may be too restrictive for bloggers, some too loose for journalists.
Can you help the EJC develop this code, to find the right balance? Going further, should it cover just Europe, be extended to the EU Neighbourhood, or apply globally (with a different title of course!)? For this we need your help. With the support of the Association of European Journalists, EJC plans to roll out a community page and wiki, inviting trusted journalists and bloggers to shape a unique code to fit our evolving industry. For example, each article needs to be supported by a rationale and case studies. Constructive suggestions are welcome, indeed crucial to this project, especially from countries not yet represented.