In terms of journalistic responsibility, perhaps the subject of ethics is best seen through the lens of function. Any ethical code for journalists cannot be idealistic; it would have to be functional and hence realistic. If the bar were raised too high, it could deter journalists and editors from ethical practices. Sometimes, avoiding ethics may just be an exercise in ‘how far can we go before we get caught?’.
Journalists can be trained to work and exercise their right of freedom of expression ethically, without causing harm and offence, or intruding into the privacy of someone else. However, as mentioned above, it is not always the name on the by-line who is to blame.
The main problem with the Leveson report is that many of the issues at hand were recognised as ethical issues, and not legal issues. The phone-hacking part of the scandal can be dealt with in court, as it is illegal. However, the underlying ethical (or unethical) choices make it difficult to legislate for preemptive measures to regulate the press. It is assumed that the law is just and certain but ethics are fluid and situation-driven, thus reasonably difficult to build into legislation. It is clear that Leveson recognised this; for example, with regards to the definition of public interest as seen in the statement below.
“The regulator, when applying the Code, will have to adopt a consistent interpretation of the public interest. If an editor can create his own definition of the public interest without any constraint then the standards will be meaningless”. [part K, chapter 7, par.4.24]
An example of this can be seen from clause 10 ii) of the PCC code referring to subterfuge:
“Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.”
With public interest changing meaning from one case to the next, it is difficult to say where the line would be drawn.
The public interest defence is vital for the freedom of the press and must become clearer. Legislation up to this point has tried to balance the right of freedom of expression of the journalist against the rights of privacy of the person who is the focus of the story. Even so, it is not entirely supported by an ethical backdrop as most legislation relating to privacy has been written on a case-by-case basis.
As guardian of the public interest, the press clearly has a great responsibility to provide the public with accurate information. If the press becomes compromised, it becomes untrustworthy.
On the flip side of this, Jack Shafer recently pointed out in a blog post that, as a society, we have become obsessed with press critique:
“As my Reuters boss, James Ledbetter, noticed ay back in 1998 as he was exiting the press critic profession and just as the Web was reaching escape velocity, we’ve all become critics of the press.”
Everyone has an idea of how a journalist is supposed to behave, but very few consider the awkward or uncomfortable situations journalists are put in on a daily basis. For example, no one – aside from maybe a medical professional – would have to face a family after the death of a daughter, or son, or a sibling. Journalists also follow soldiers into war, in order to bring updates on the situation to people back home.
Even so, the very concept of what a journalist is has been challenged by the presence of bloggers and digital journalists. With the ease of accessibility to information, and individuals being able to publish it easily online, the status of exclusive information has changed radically. Furthermore, the act of putting up links and videos on a news website is governed by a completely different set of ethics. This is because the consumption of news online is completely different.
Buying a print newspaper or picking up a free copy of the Metro is an active act of acceptance – the buyer consents to being exposed to the ethics of the newspaper. However, online, news is everywhere; on social media sites, on Google, Flickr, Youtube, and all just a few mouse clicks away. When the consumer is not satisfied by one site, it is very easy to move on to the next.
It must be said that Leveson’s analysis of ethical codes and, by extension, his recommendations were mainly directed to the print media. As specified in his report, however, “Ofcom estimated that 41% of people today use the internet for news and current affairs coverage, and that the internet accounts for 21% of news and current affairs consumption; this compares with 53% of adults using a newspaper, but newspapers account for only 11% of news and current affairs consumption.”
The desire to establish a regulatory body to cover both online and print publications triggers a multitude of questions. For example, who would be liable if an offensive video or picture was attached to a news article? With content management systems as developed as they are, need for a sub-editor has been diminished and journalists can publish their material directly onto the web. Is this wise?
What’s more, at the faster pace of consuming news, journalists are pressed hard to find a new story as soon as they finish one. How cautious can they afford to be? Also, in the case of blogging, are bloggers then to be held accountable for what they write in their blogs?
On the other hand, in terms of freedom of the press, online routes are most liberating. Publishing things online is extremely easy; the main ethical issues with the internet are entangled with social media. Most recently, Paris Brown, 17, was held liable for offensive tweets and had to step down from being Kent’s youth police and crime commissioner. However, if she had been a journalist, what would the price have been? Thus far, ordinary people have been held responsible for their tweets and taken to court, but journalists appear to be particularly careful.
Furthermore, the presence of social media allows journalists to access a great deal of personal information about people. While no law has yet clamped down on what can be used from a person’s profile, the ethics of the situation are dodgy at best. Even if a person consents to a picture being used, they may change their mind once it an article is written. Sometimes the person affected is not around to give consent – for example, tribute groups on Facebook for someone who’s died.
Either way, the ethics of the media were driven towards change after Leveson’s report. He specifically stated he did not wish the report to sit on a shelf and gather dust. Prime Minister David Cameron rejected the report at first, but has agreed upon a Royal Charter establishing a recognition panel that will preside over the independent self-regulatory body. In Scotland, the government went further by drafting up a potential bill as per Leveson’s and McCluskey’s reports. Part of this bill is expected to be incorporated into the Communications Act. While the legal side may have proceeded faster than expected, there is still much work to be done before the British media are vindicated and their ethics up to scratch.
[This is part 1 of a media ethics assignment for university. I had to split it up because it was about 2200 words. Admittedly, I’m not too strong on academic writing, but I thought that it would be an interesting starting point to get conversation going.]
On July 13 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron announced an inquiry that would investigate the role of the press and the police in the phone-hacking committed by editors and reporters at the News of the World. 337 witnesses gave evidence in person, and the statements of 300 others were read into the record.
However, the scope of the Leveson inquiry was much broader than a simple analysis of the criminal breaches committed. Lord Justice Leveson and his committee examined the cases and evidence given, then proceeded to formulate recommendations to alter the behaviour of the British press. These were compiled into the four volumes of the Leveson report that was released on November 29, 2012.
When announcing the release of his report, Lord Leveson stated:
“I know how vital the press is – all of it – as guardian of the interest to the public, as a critical witness to events, as the standard bearer for those who have no one else to speak up for them.”
While the report was described as two-fold, because it dealt with the failings of both the press and the police in the phone-hacking scandal, it could be seen as three-fold with regards to its analysis of the press. It could be split into three broader themes: factual examination of the situation up to this point, a critical review of the current situation, and recommendations for regulation in the future.
He was very cautious with his recommendations, and yet very persistent that they should be heeded.
Leveson’s report suggested the best way to ease the press into change was through an independent self-regulating body. This body would encourage higher standards of journalism through a code of conduct and offer incentives to newspapers to become part of the system. It would also have to be capable of providing advice and dealing with complaints regarding its members, including those relating to civil and criminal law, in order to protect the public.
This is a precaution in order to maintain the freedom of the press. If this body were to be state-regulated, the validity and legitimacy of the press – and of modern democracy – would be completely undermined. The purpose of having a free press is captured very well in Chris Frost’s witness statement for the inquiry, submitted on behalf of the National Union of Journalists:
“Journalists are simply carrying out, as a profession, the right of all citizens to freedom of expression. Registration [to a professional body, much like doctors] runs the risk of limiting access to the media, preventing the wide range of different voices that is vital in a free society.”
The existence and maintenance of a free press is not only an ethical issue, but also a legal one: article 10 of the Human Rights Act of 1998, incorporating text directly from the Charter of Fundamental Freedoms of the European Convention of Human Rights states that:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”
The aforementioned article provides the fundamental legal platform for journalists to do their job. With state regulation out of the question, the other option is self-regulation, which Leveson described as “the press marking its own homework”. However, setting up an independent self-regulatory system would mean that a certain standard and code of behaviour could be guaranteed.
As Frost mentions in his statement, any such regulation of the press would require statutory underpinning. This would supply enough legal support to be able to exert authority and relevant sanctions against culpable journalists or publishers.
Lord Leveson’s report was examined closely by a Scottish group of experts led by Lord McCluskey, to see how implementation of Leveson’s recommendations would work in Scotland.
Lord McCluskey’s report considers one of the systems of regulation proposed: opt-in, opt-out for publishers. This would, in theory, not be compulsory, and relies on the hope that incentives could be given that publishers would find beneficial. Beyond the structural and legal difficulties of setting this up, the ethical implications of coercing publishers to do ‘the right thing’ or letting them choose would amount to the perpetuation of the current situation.
Of course, doing nothing at all after Leveson’s inquiry would not change anything either. If self-regulation were to be adopted, it would suggest that somehow journalists would suddenly become more ethical. While such a body might not impose upon the freedom of the press, expecting ethical journalism to suddenly come from journalists whose practices were at the very least questionable would not be realistic. Not building ethics into the system would ultimately defy the entire purpose of freedom of speech. Of course, had this report had been released in the USA, where the First Amendment offers more leverage.
Throughout the inquiry, various persons have pointed out that the majority of journalists are ethical most – if not all – the time. However, we cannot ignore that there is a serious lack of distrust from the public and murky decision-making methods in the industry. The absence of ethics in practice could come from two things – the journalist or the editor.
It could be that the journalist’s ethical compass is not sound, meaning that the responsibility for action taken would lie with the journalist. The industry still remembers the case of Stephen Glass, who fabricated most of his articles without batting an eyelash.
On the other hand, some journalists are driven to unethical behaviour by others; editors have been known to intimidate journalists into unethical deeds for the sake of a story. This could range from simply modifying the focus of an article – such that it tells a completely different story – to threats and coercion into illegal activity, such as phone-hacking.
The latter is why the National Union of Journalists is striving to include some form of conscience clause in the new Code (or, as Frost suggests, in the new Communications Act) ,whereby a journalist will be able to object to performing certain activities altogether on ethical grounds, without jeopardizing his or her job. Unfortunately, with ethics and morality varying from person to person and a non-absolute, it is hard to determine how this would be verified.
Imagine going to work every day and at the start of your day, with your first cup of coffee, you sit down to glance at beheadings, children in the process of being raped, human bodies in various stages of decomposition, the living and dead results of domestic violence, hanging bodies of 10 year old boys accused of being gay, real-life snuff films and bloody dog fighting rings and their subsequent results. Can you think up a human horror? I’ve probably seen it or a picture or video of something very similar. It’s fair to say that some of the people who work around me do not fare so well. Often they end up suffering from the endless barrage of horror they witness 8 to 12 hours per day. Did I share that *most* of these people make around a dollar per hour to do this job? That’s the truth. Not…
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Among other things, I am a regular co-host on The Vile Arts radio hour. This is a two hour show about the Glaswegian (and, by extension, Scottish) arts and culture scene. Just yesterday, we spoke to amazing performer Amanda Monfrooe about her new show ‘Poke’:
Just keep moving.
Don’t look back.
Don’t worry about the hunched figure crying in the dirt.
Don’t concern yourself with the bruised or wounded. Don’t think about the ones you hurt, or the ones who hurt you. They don’t matter.
Just keep moving and you won’t have to look in the mirror.
Keep walking and they’ll catch up.
It’s their fault, after all.
Their fault you haven’t spoken in weeks. Their fault you stand alone. Their fault you were pelted forward to perpetuate existence in this box. Their fault you couldn’t break out of the box – more a coffin than a box.
Keep walking. Don’t take off the blinkers.
Don’t look back.
[I shamelessly used this on my performance reviews blog earlier today, thought I might as well plug it on here too]
Glasgow-based filmmaker Erica Von Stein is currently seeking support for her latest short film.
With a portfolio of experimental short films that tackle various issues of modern society, Erica Von Stein’s next project could seem like a natural progression. The Eyes and Ears of Van Gogh is – yes, you guessed it – a short film about Van Gogh. While it is based on his life, it is mainly fictional, and aims to raise awareness of mental health issues through its representation of the famous artist.
Van Gogh is a name that often brings to mind two contrasting images: a painting of sunflowers and the man behind the art who cut off his left ear. Many people often wonder what could lead a person to do such a thing, and many attempts have been made to understand what Van Gogh went through. Research into his life has shown that he suffered through frequent bouts of mental illness.
Mental illness and the idea of mental wellbeing appear to be umbrella terms for the things we rarely share with others, ranging from depression – mild or intense as it may seem – to bipolar disorder, to a list of many other symptoms and diagnoses (that I personally don’t know enough about to properly name).
The Eyes and Ears of Van Gogh is more than just about Van Gogh and his life, but rather could be viewed as various, intertwined themes. Raising awareness about mental health and illness issues is one aspect of it. Examined from another angle, it could be about the therapeutic properties of art and the value of creative self-expression.
Admittedly, the film has not been made yet, but auditions are on Tuesday and money is required to feed the cast and crew. While Erica prides herself on making artistic low-budget films, she pointed out that any money invested in the film would only be for the actors. In order to get the film out there and draw attention to the issues tackled in it, the best bet would be to get established actors. However, being established in an industry would mean being paid, and hence requires a certain capital which she herself doesn’t have.
“I’m not in it for the money. The money is all for the actors.”
38 days left to finance this. Can you help?
Let Erica tell you about it herself here:
Nice ‘N’ Sleazys in Glasgow has generously offered a space for auditions and what could become a fundraising event or two, while the Tiki bar has also been kind enough to allow for filming on location.
[Not finished, but I can’t think of an ending just yet]
He entered the room hesitantly, his back to the wall, like some frightened wild animal.
People stared, or so he thought. In fact, no one paid him any mind. All they saw was a flash of black moving along then edges of the room.
He wanted to cry, but someone had once told him it was “unbecoming” for a man to cry. At least, in front of others. The tears wouldn’t come, but he felt the knot tightening in his throat.
Cautiously, he made his way to the counter, holding his breath as the barista gazed at him expectantly.
“How may I help you today?” The stranger asked. In his mind, he came up with so many replies to her, ranging from “buy me a ticket out of here” to “leave me alone”.
“Could I get a caramel latte, please?” He mumbled, knowing he was barely audible over the music. Why his legs had dragged him here, he didn’t know. It was certainly better than sitting at home, he told himself.
Within minutes, the coffee was ready. It tasted bitter – clearly the barista had forgotten the caramel. Or maybe it was just his mood that turned the taste sour. After all, taste was partly psychological. He didn’t want to complain, especially if it was his fault for being in a foul mood.