Reflection on professional issues in journalism: Ethics

Reflection on professional issues in journalism: Ethics

The profession of journalism often has negative connotations attached. When presenting oneself as journalist, one can be met with feelings of interest and respect by others, or ambivalence and distrust. Ethics are at the centre of journalism as a career and a mind-frame, dictating a journalist’s responsibilities and boundaries. But when there is no law to impose a set of rules on a journalist, what are their limits?

Journalism as a profession relies on a set of moral codes which separates it from any other career. In Australia, this set of codes is not legally binding as there is no written law to protect media freedom as is in the USA. An organisation exists known as the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) which outlines a code of ethics that journalists and other industry professionals should comply with to ensure they do not bring the profession into disrepute, nor harm the vulnerable. Their code of ethics outlines that a journalist should maintain honesty, fairness, balance, protection of the vulnerable, sensitivity and full disclosure. Immediately, even at the bottom of the code of ethics in the guidance clause it says “basic values often need interpretation and sometimes come into conflict”. Here lies the inherent conflict a journalist has. How can one maintain “do not harm” and freedom on the public sphere while providing full disclosure? A philosophical ideology that is almost impossible to put into practice, journalists struggle to do their job in a way that is ethical.

Australian journalism was founded on work deemed unethical by society. Journalism reached Australia later than it did in Europe, Asia and the USA ‘officially’ beginning in 1803. The 19th century saw the rise of journalists and reporters as they are known today. In colonial Australia, journalism was deemed a “disreputable” profession, as Denis Cryle said in his essay ‘Colonial journalists and journalism: an overview’. There was this idea of the ‘convict press’ where magazine type newspapers were secretly published without knowledge of the government, for the overall readership of convicts. Figures such as Andrew Bent, who published the first free publication in 1816, or William Wentworth and Robert Wardell who were the first to publish a newspaper without authority, were the forefathers of Australian journalism. There was an idea of a “larrikinism” in early Australian journalism, where the profession was deemed aggressive, criminal, defiant and anti-authoritarian.

In many ways society holds this same view of journalists nowadays as previously. Journalists are people who cannot be trusted, who will twist and manipulate quotes and information for their own benefit. It is a selected few journalists that gain their own media attention who taint the profession. In Stephen Lamble’s News as it Happens, he explores the relationship between journalism and the law. He said their is a mutual “dependency” between both the professions, where “journalists play an active role in helping law maintain legitimacy”. There is a clear difference when journalists become the centre of a legal battle.

Modern journalism in Australia reflects early struggles in many ways. Edward Smith Hall, born in London in 1786, became the editor of The Monitor. This was a newspaper where Hall explicitly challenged government authority, sending him to jail for 15 months for serious libel. While in jail, Hall continued to write for the newspaper which left him with a lengthier jail sentence. Peter Greste,  an Australian journalist, was sent to jail for 400 days in an Egyptian prison on the claims of terrorism and providing false news. In an article published by The Age on December 22, 2014 Greste wrote a Christmas message from his jail cell. Greste said journalists must “fight for the most basic of rights: the right to know”. He described journalism as “sordid” at times, but also “unfettered”. He said the journalism profession must remain and be maintained, that journalism and “a free press is an indivisible part of a free society”.

Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive officer of News Corporation, came into trouble when news of phone hacking came about in 2005. The scandal questioned the ethical practices of an entire empire. In July 2011 it was revealed that the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked, making her parents think that she was still alive. Not only was this a breach of privacy but it placed extra trauma on the vulnerable.

In a modern world, social media has simultaneously benefited and compromised journalism. While Twitter remains an outlet for users to share current events, thoughts and opinions, there is also a fine line between a personal tweet and a news tweet. Scott McIntyre, an ex SBS journalist, was sacked by the company for publishing a discriminatory tweet relating to Anzac Day. It appears that ‘twitterers’, especially those that are journalists, forget their ethical considerations when tweeting. Though a tweet is a short update that exists online, the same processes used in hard news writing must be maintained.

In a more subtle case, an element of seduction and betrayal exists in journalism which journalist Mayhill Fowler explores on The Huffington Post. A journalist can never become friends with their sources to avoid a conflict of interest, and there is always an agenda a journalist has when interviewing a source. This agenda is of the public interest and benefit, and is important in their career.  Janet Malcolm published a book titled ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’ where she said “the journalist must do his work in a kind of deliberately induced state of moral anarchy”. It is this awareness of the moral state of a journalist that allows them to conduct their work. While not pertaining to a journalist being immoral or amoral, it suggests that journalists must be ethically and morally mindful.

Eventually for most journalists, moral principles become engrained and are a natural subconscious process. For those beginning in journalism, self-reflection and an attentiveness to these issues is paramount in creating a stable career. Though met with some criticism, journalism done well and ethically is paramount to the functioning of society.

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