Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision making in context There is indeed a grain of truth in the above statement, journalism ethics does require careful decision making. However, it would have been ideal if conscientious decision could be applied to all contexts. Journalists can be said to be the moral agents of societies. They act as watchdogs or ‘newshounds’, as well as active collectors and disseminators of information (Deuze 2004). Moreover, their job entails certain obligations and their goal, which is the seeking of truth and communicating it to the world can be a difficult one.
As stated by Shriver (1998, cited in Starck 2001), “journalists wrestle daily to give order and meaning to the endless and confusing flow of human experience. ” It can be very challenging for journalists to make the right decisions in the right situations, due to both internal and external factors affecting them. The aim of this essay, thus discusses whether or not it is possible for ethical journalists to make conscientious decisions in all contexts.
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It is said that decision making does not arise solely due to motivational factors (Brehmer & Hammond, 1977, cited in Valenti 1998); there are many internal and external factors that can influence decision making. Some of the internal factors that can affect journalists’ perception of situations and the way they ultimately take decisions could be the values, attitudes, and beliefs, as well as religious and moral beliefs instilled in them (Granberg, 1982, cited in Valenti 1998).
Besides, internal factors are deemed important in decision making since, researchers have reported about the “dependence on internal thought processes by editors and reporters to resolve ethical dilemmas” (McAdams 1986). Nonetheless, can journalists solve ethical problems in a social vacuum, relying only on internal moral reasoning? This is certainly not possible. There are many external factors that influence journalists’ decisions, for example codes of ethics, competitive influence, organizational environment, newsroom socialization among others that can have decisive imprints on certain ethical decisions.
These external factors sometimes act as significant guidelines that journalists follow while shaping their news and it can be very challenging to report under such pressures. As stated above, the profession of journalists requires truth seeking and truth telling. It is often believed that to be able to tell a story accurately and objectively, there is the need for journalists to abide by the codes of ethics. Ethics is one of the most researched and debated issue in journalism due to its controversial nature.
While some believe that codes of ethics are “unneeded constraint on freedom” (Merrill, 1989, cited in Boeyink 1998), others, believe that it promotes “consistency and fairness, to minimize harm to sources, and to promote truthfulness” (Boeyink, 1990). However, in this case, the pertinent question that arises is whether or not these codes of ethics can be applied to all situations and at all time. Scholars like, Starck (2001) criticize the expanding volume of research in journalism ethics, particularly for its “lack of cross-cultural perspective”, and lament the “apparent gap between theory and practice in the field” (Deuze 2004).
In the same line of thought, the managing editor of The Courier- Journal, Stephen Ford, argued that code of ethics “help us focus on what we are doing and why we are doing it, however, I don’t think they’re absolute Bibles of right” (Boeyink 1998). This shows that ethics can be subjective and we also understand that codes of ethics are not the ‘be all and end all’ of journalism. They do help journalists make decisions about what to report and how to report without bias, however, the code of ethics do not help in answering all questions and it does not solve dilemmas in all contexts.
It is a fact that the media is a fast-paced, deadline-oriented profession where the “right here, right now” credo of journalism is challenged by never ending pressures (Deuze 2004). The decision making process can be tedious if a journalist autonomously and solely rely on his own values. Each person has the capability of judging according to different sets of values, ingrained in them, for instance aesthetic values, logical values or moral values. However, newsroom socialization as an external factor has been found to be a very helpful for journalists while they make decisions (Voakes 1997).
Newsroom socialization is mainly about, group discussions among peer, editors, and co-workers. In an interview, a journalist from The Courier-journal, stated that while covering news, “I try to recall whether my co-workers have done something similar in the past” (Voakes 1997). For example, if a journalist has to cover a story on the aborigines in Australia, he will try to recall whether his colleagues have covered such a story before, and if they did, he will immediately recall that the mentioning of the name and images of deceased people can cause great distress among their community (Stockwell & Scott 2000).
Moreover, journalists are always on the run due to their deadline-oriented profession. These deadlines do not allow journalists to invest time in knowing different communities, and cultures before they can actually write their news pieces. Hence, faced with tricky decision and tight deadlines, decisions are made on the fly. On the other hand, no one likes to be considered unfair or racist, and media workers who inflict unfair treatment are rarely aware of the harm their work may cause. They are surprised, and sometimes offended, by community criticism.
Usually, journalists do not set out to deliberately malign people or damage their lives, however, with the pressures of deadlines, inadequate resources sometimes short cuts are taken while making decisions (Stockwell & Scott 2000). For instance, journalists usually make the mistake of linking ethno-specific data or images with general criminal activity (Stockwell & Scott 2000) or they often associate the number workers or immigrants to crime rates. These types of unethical and unthoughtful decisions can cause great distress between communities and make journalists lose their credibility.
Thus in these contexts, conscientious decision making is pivotal. So much so, another external factor attached to decision making is competitive influence. Nowadays, due to rising competition in the market, organizations prefer news that sells. Tabloidisation of news as defined by McLachlan and Golding (2000) is characterised by, “fewer international news stories, more pictures, less text, more human interest and entertainment news stories and less political or parliamentary news. Tabloids media that dominate popular culture are replacing hard news and the distinct line between what people need to know and what they want to know are blurring out. Increasingly, due to competition, newspapers want to be the first to publish certain news. Thus, added pressure is laid on the back of journalists. Usually, in trying to report news first, stories are poorly researched, opinionated and biased since journalists do not have time for conscientious decision making.
In addition, tablodisation of news can also cause a problem to ethical journalists who are around to report news for the greater good of the society. For instance, a few journalists may feel compelled to inform the public about the importance of boiling water after torrential rain since it is for the greater good of the society. However, when editors reject these types of news pieces and opt for the publishing of tabloid news instead, it can be extremely frustrating for journalists who want to do their jobs ethically; but, due to the tabloid trends and commercial motives, they have to go against their own personal ethics.
Therefore, as a result, journalists are torn between having to serve the goals of personal artistic expression, staying employed to make a living, besting the competition, and serving the public interest (Callahan 2003). Then again, there are several other instances where journalists are faced with having to make ethical decisions, like for instance in the reporting of suicide cases. Suicide cases can be very tricky to report due to repercussions.
The journalist may be faced with the predicament of having to choose between whether or not to disclose the identity of the deceased, mental conditions, the way in which the person attempted the suicide or talk about the issue in general. The ethical way for a journalist to report such a case is certainly by covering, what and why is the cause of the issue in the country as well as providing solutions to it. However, due to commercial motivations, often, the detailed description of suicide methods, the dramatized death, the deceased’s photo are shown in full and headlines are blown (Preliminary result of Prevalence Study 2004).
The Hong Kong Press Council’s web page, the Council denounced certain newspapers’ way of reporting three students who burned charcoal to commit suicide and criticized several newspapers for publishing photos of two deceased, a mother and her son, who died after falling from a building (Preliminary result of Prevalence Study 2004), since soon after the numbers of suicide cases increased drastically due to copycats. Hence, in these cases, if journalists are doubtful about the correct way to tackle the reports, it is necessary that they abide by the code of ethics or seek help from co-workers o that they maximise fairness and cause less harm to the society. All in all, after analysing the different contexts in accordance to the various internal and external factors that influence journalists’ decision making, we conclude that remaining ethical in this era of moral decadence is easier said than done. While scholars are debating extensively on code of ethics and pressurising journalists to adhere to it, simple money factors are swaying all the good values away. Thus, how can we expect journalists to remain ethical? Reference: )Boeyink, D 1998, ‘Codes and Culture at The Courier-Journal: Complexity in Ethical Decision Making’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 165-182. 2)Boeyink, D 1990, ‘Anonymous sources in news stories: Justifying exceptions and limiting abuses’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 233-246. 3)Callahan, S 2003, ‘New Challenges of Globalization for Journalism’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 3-15. 4)Deuze, M 2004, ‘Journalism studies beyond media: On ideology and identity’, Ecquid Novi, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 275-293. 5)McAdams, K 1986, ‘Non-monetary conflicts of interest for newspaper journalists’, Journalism Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 1, pp. 700-705. 6)McLachlan, S, Golding, P 2000, ‘Tabloidization in the British press: A quantitative investigation into changes in British newspapers’ in Tabloid tales: Global debates over media standards, eds C. Sparks & J. Tulloch, Lanham, pp. 75-89. 7)Preliminary result of Prevalence Study 2004, Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, viewed on 10 June 2008, . )Starck, K 2001, ‘What’s Right/Wrong with Journalism Ethics Research? ‘, Journalism Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 133-150. 9)Stockwell S, Scott P 2000, All media guide to fair and cross-cultural reporting, Australian Key centre for Cultural and Media Policy, Queensland, Australia. 10)Valenti, JM 1998, ‘Ethical Decision Making in Environmental Communication’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 213-231. 11)Voakes, PS 1997, ‘Social influences on journalists’ decision making in ethical situations’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 18-35.