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Old Thursday, September 26, 2013
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Problems of ethics in journalism - CE-2012

1.Historical background and starting points for a discussion on ethics
I consider it particularly appropriate for a German communications scholar to be writing an introductory essay on the ethics of journalism in an international context, for the ethical debate had already begun in Germany in the 17th century. In 1676 two publications, by Ahasver Fritsch and Christian Weise, dealt with the pros and cons of the new periodicals of the time. Ways of distinguishing what is true from what is false were already being discussed then. Addressing the issue of news selection in 1688, Daniel Hartnack argued that the regular publication of newspapers would create a need for news independent of world events. This writer not only saw the problem of portraying life through journalism, but also pointed out that newspapers appearing regularly were going to have to be filled with information. Finally, in 1690,
Tobias Peucer discussed what was newsworthy for a newspaper. Specifically, he asked about news selection criteria and made a list of newsworthy events, wherein the unusual was seen as especially newsworthy, and not so much the regular and the mundane as that which was private. In a 1695 book about "the pleasure and usefulness of newspapers" ("Zeitungs Lust und Nutz") by Kaspar Stieler there was similar discussion about what was newsworthy and a good read. One can trace this discussion in Germany even further back in time, for already the lyric poet, Freidank (circa 1215-1240), recognised what made for interesting news: "Bad news gets louder and louder. Good news dies quickly away."
A discussion about ethics first became urgent the moment journalists became aware of the power they wielded. Ineffectual journalism needs no ethics. And yet surveys done in Germany showed that journalists themselves are more likely to believe that they are relatively lacking in power and influence. This (wrong!) opinion makes absolute sense, for behaviour that has no effect does not need to be subject to public control.
The question of ethics poses itself further at the point when there is no longer any strict censorship, for ethical behaviour presupposes freedom of choice. Only those who can freely influence their own behaviour, and who demonstrate responsibility for it, can be judged according to ethical standards. The legitimacy of newspaper censorship was in general not called into question until the 18th century. Rather, the theorists of the absolutist state legitimised censorship on the grounds of raison d'état. Criticism of the head of state was dangerous. The king of Prussia, Friedrich II (the Great, 1740-1786), to get better press coverage had journalists thrashed (among other things) if they did not report the way he wanted them to. Even now in many countries criticism of leading politicians is forbidden, and at times highly risky. Journalists are still beaten, too. In 1995, Abou Sangare, an editor in the Ivory Coast, published an article attacking the security minister, Gaston Koné. TIME (August 14, 1995) gives the following account: "Soon after the story appeared, Sangare was summoned to Koné's office and ordered to drop his trousers - whereupon four policemen took turns pummelling him with truncheons while the Minister looked on." Cabinet minister Laurent
defended this treatment of a genuine democrat, as follows: "The opposition press degrades us. They need to be more mature." A president of the court in the Ivory Coast who had just sentenced a journalist to a year in prison for an "attack on the honour and dignity of the president," said, "we have a culture which obliges us to honour the head of state."
This kind of arrogance has unfortunately spread worldwide. In many parts of the world there has never been freedom of the press and in many countries where it exists in law journalists making an effort to write the truth are murdered or hounded like criminals.
The functions a society assigns to the press or mass media are also decisive to journalistic ethics. Many politicians want the press to be an instrument functioning as a government-controlled transmission belt, so to speak, helping to carry out important processes of social change. Many ideas about a development journalism have come from this type of assumption. But to be effective development journalism can in no way be "government-say-so-journalism" - journalism has to be critical. Critical does not mean destructive, but positive about development, for no planning and no government is infallible. There is corruption and mismanagement everywhere and in the interests of the public they must be exposed.

In Germany, journalism has a public purpose in a legal sense. It is to obtain and distribute news about events of public interest, take a position on them, apply criticism to them, and so contribute to shaping public opinion. Through this, journalism takes on an especially meaningful task in democracy, for which it has special rights (the right to refuse to divulge sources; a right to claim information from authorities), but also special duties. The most important duty is to report fully and correctly, which involves making sure that all news is checked over before it is distributed, with attention paid where necessary to truth, content and also background information. In Germany, a tension is drawn in the field of journalistic ethics between freedom of speech on the one hand, and the individual right to privacy and freedom from media harassment on the other. The communications scholar Wolfgang Donsbach pinpointed this: "The ethic of journalism consists of the seriousness of its efforts to represent the truth. This seriousness, on the other hand, depends on the ability and readiness to exhaust the possibilities for discovery, and to use them in a neutral way. A journalist who does not research certain aspects of a conflict, depriving a few odd people involved of the chance to offer their perspectives, or who chooses certain figures from a set of statistics which support his or her point of view, is not only behaving unprofessionally, but also unethically". If you take this thinking further, you come to a central theme of the ethics of journalism: the distinction between news and opinion, as well as the problem of a possible mixture of the journalistic role with one that is political. Journalists, like any human being, have a particular view of things. They do not see the "truth." They can only attempt to report as objectively as possible, and in doing this, indicate their personal opinion as such. A journalist or an editor who starts the day's work asking, "What can we do today for the government or the opposition?" deserts the field of journalism and becomes a political actor himself/herself.

There are further aspects of journalistic behaviour that require ethical judgement. Specifically, tact and fairness are needed in gathering and using information. In reporting a crime or catastrophe, for example, there is the danger of the victim being victimised a second time through the media coverage. Or certain forms of reporting - for instance, depiction on television news of acts of violence in social conflicts - might intensify those conflicts. Mass media have also driven branches of industry or businesses into near or complete ruin. This happened in Germany with reports about canned fish being allegedly contaminated by worms and noodles produced with allegedly polluted eggs. Whereas in these cases the journalists were confronted with the consequences of their actions, most times journalists remain ignorant of the effects of their reporting.
Journalists are, firstly, reporters, who should report as objectively and neutrally as possible, but without simplifying matters too much in the process. They are, secondly, opinion formers, offering an interpretation of events. This raises the question as to how far they distinguish between news and opinion, and as to how far the reporting is rational, or emotional. Lastly, they work, at least in a few countries, as the "fourth estate."
"The Fourth Estate" is a messy expression and it is not clear who gives journalists legitimacy to control government. Without the fulfilment of this role, though, several cases of abuse of power and of corruption in Germany and other countries would not have been exposed (e.g. Watergate in the US). A democracy needs journalists as watchdogs, even though the journalists are not above the state. But that begs the question: who’s watching the watchdogs?

2. Journalistic ethics: Individualistic aspects

Already highly topical in his time, Kaspar Stieler, referred to above, addressed the unintentional effects of portraying violence in the mass media. He argued that descriptions of crimes can trigger copycat repetitions of them. Here he demonstrated quite the most important problem of an individualistic journalistic ethic: must the journalist take responsibility for the positive and negative consequences of his or her actions, or not? The sociologist Max Weber took up and developed this topic again in 1920. Weber differentiated, as ethical positions, between the ethic of responsibility, in which the correctness of an action is judged primarily according to its foreseeable consequences, and not according to the motives which are the basis of the action, and the ethic of conviction [ In an existing US translation of Weber, Gesinnungsethik is translated as ethic of ultimate ends . This was felt to be unsuitable in the context of this article and there fore I have offered another expression: the ethic of conviction .], in which the correctness of an action is judged primarily on the conviction motivating it, and not on its expected consequences. Consequently, all ethically oriented actions can be seen under two fundamentally different and contrasting maxims. Weber, however, does not interpret the ethics of responsibility and of conviction as absolute opposites, but sees complementary elements which only together really constitute a genuine human being.

In Politics as a vocation (Politik als Beruf) Weber uses this typology in the analysis of political and journalistic actions. A pure follower of the ethic of conviction refuses responsibility for the consequences of his or her actions (1964 p.183): "It is the world which is stupid and mean, and not I; responsibility for the consequences does not affect me, but the others, in whose service I work, and whose stupidity or meanness I will eradicate." The cost of the consequences of the action need not be paid for by the follower of the ethic of conviction (nor does he or she want to pay). If the consequences of an action flowing from pure conviction are detrimental to others, then the follower of the ethic of conviction holds not the perpetrator of the action responsible, but blames either the world for the stupidity of other people, or God's will. The perpetrator is duty-bound to strive with all his or her might for the absolute value, regardless of consequences.
Characteristic of the ethic of conviction is the absolute duty to tell the truth. Here it should be observed that the ethic of conviction has nothing to do with irresponsibility, just as the ethic of responsibility has nothing to do with a lack of conviction. To act according to the ethic of responsibility means not only to deal with the choice of the means to achieve an objective, but also comprises the weighing up of respective goals and values against each other. One must not only consider the direct effects of an action, but one must also calculate the indirect effects, for instance on other goals and values. The person whose actions are motivated by the ethic of responsibility assumes responsibility for the intended and unintended consequences of their action. In contrast to the follower of the ethic of conviction, the follower of the ethic of responsibility does not believe that the negative consequences of his or her action can be off-loaded on to others.

In Politics as a vocation, Max Weber asks how far politicians and journalists are prepared to assume responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Politicians, according to the essence of Weber's analysis, behave according to the ethic of responsibility, and they act in a calculated and rational manner. Politicians assume responsibility for their actions and weigh up the aims, means and possible consequences. Journalists, on the other hand, behave in accordance with the ethic of conviction, in that they strive for truth and shun responsibility for the consequences of their action - although it remains generally unclear what "assuming responsibility" means.
The amount of activity motivated by the ethics of conviction or responsibility among German journalists was researched by Hans Mathias Kepplinger and Inge Vohl (1979). Television journalists were asked whether they were prepared to assume responsibility for their professional activities. A distinction was made between responsibility for the accuracy in reporting and responsibility for the consequences of reporting. With regard to responsibility for accuracy in reporting, more than 80% thought that a journalist should be made responsible, should his or her reporting prove afterwards to be false or untrue, owing to insufficient research. This readiness to assume responsibility increases according to the degree of professional experience. Regarding responsibility for the

consequences of reporting, a distinction was made between positive and negative consequences. More than 85% of the journalists questioned took the view that morally a journalist has rendered outstanding service if positive consequences result from his or her reporting. Conversely, however, only 25% of the journalists held the view that journalists were also morally responsible for the negative consequences of a report.

Following Weber’s tenets, one can argue that if only 25% of journalists are prepared to assume responsibility for the unintentional, negative consequences of journalistic activity, then journalists tend to act according to the ethics of conviction. On the other hand, though, journalists are prepared to assume responsibility for false reporting. According to this study, journalists act according to the ethics of conviction when it involves assuming responsibility for the unintended consequences of a report. Whoever takes responsibility for the accuracy of his or her report is in no way obliged to take responsibility for its unintended consequences. Kepplinger argues that because the absolute duty to tell the truth is characteristic of conduct which follows the ethic of conviction, he has discovered in journalists a behaviour oriented to the ethic of conviction.

In a second German study, Mühlberger (1979) carried out research on local journalists, whose most important task was to expose social conflicts and injustices and keep a check on those holding political power. Mühlberger checked whether criticism produced by journalists in the course of their work is motivated by the ethic of responsibility, or whether they are more likely to produce unconsidered criticism, even if the consequences cannot be seen clearly. So, by way of example, the journalists were asked whether they would report on a doctor's professional error if the doctor might have to stop practising as a result and if the doctor’s departure might mean a loss for the patients. To act according to the ethic of conviction would mean publishing without consideration for the doctor and the patients. To act according to the ethic of responsibility would mean sacrificing the report in consideration of the patients. Fifty-four percent of those asked chose to act according to the ethic of responsibility, 34% opted for the ethic of conviction. Fundamentally, though, actions following the ethic of responsibility and actions following the ethic of conviction are not mutually exclusive. To take further the example of the doctor: should the fictitious doctor be "caught out" by a second or third professional error, then the share of journalists whose behaviour is oriented around the ethic of conviction would surely increase. From case to case, there are obviously different boundaries, which shift between the ethic of responsibility and the ethic of conviction, or from which an orientation toward the ethic of responsibility or to that of conviction might lead to identical behaviour.

Mühlberger (1979) also researched behaviour with respect to information sources in a case study. The journalists were confronted with the problem that a good and important informant has come across a wrong decision, which would be of interest to the public. The following options were available as responses: publishing the wrong decision with no consideration for the parties involved, no matter what the consequences (ethic of conviction); the wrong decision is published in a toned down form, as gently as possible for the informant involved (ethic of responsibility). It was found that journalists who tend towards acting according to the ethic of responsibility with respect to the public would also sooner act according to the ethic of responsibility with respect to informants. Local journalists are therefore motivated, according to Mühlberger's interpretation, by the ethic of responsibility because they are confronted by the consequences of their actions directly and enduringly. Geographical and social proximity allows the local journalists, at least within certain limits, to calculate the consequences of their actions. Hence it is possible that the ethic of conviction is not an inevitable attitude of journalists, but a consequence of their specific professional situation. In other words, lack of information on the consequences of reporting is a big influence on behaviour. As soon as the journalists have this kind of information, they will be motivated by the ethic of responsibility. [ It could be objected in this context that Mühlberger has not quite succeeded in operationalising ethically responsible behaviour. If journalists did not go easy on informants, the sources would probably dry up. In other words, it is in the self-interest of the journalists to go easy on the informants.

In discussing the question of the ethics of responsibility and of conviction, one must distinguish between different journalistic roles, which make different demands on ethical orientation. Thus, from publishers, managing editors etc., who bear responsibility for the welfare of their media organisation, behaviour more motivated by the ethics of responsibility can be expected. The same goes, surely, for information gatherers who must maintain contact with the information sources. Orientation based on the ethics of conviction can be found more in journalists who have no commitment to colleagues and informants, or who, according to their professional self-image, see themselves as a kind of "fourth estate" or as an organ of control over the government.
In the context of the above, it should certainly not be forgotten that journalistic actions which in general cannot be categorised under the ethics of responsibility or of conviction are not uncommon. There is a kind of journalism which is foul and simply morally reprehensible. This includes false reporting, lies and war-mongering. In 1994, Rwanda's Radio Milles Collines actively stirred up the civil war and genocide by calling on the Hutu majority to rise up against the Tutsi minority. There are several examples of this kind of behaviour, which will not be listed here. Without any doubt, though, this kind of behaviour, undeserving of the name "journalism," brings journalists into disrepute, for their reputation is very often judged on the actions of the worst among them.

In my conviction responsible journalism presupposes that journalism assumes the characteristics of a profession. In other words, it should have expertise in the sense of a technical skill, and autonomy in the sense of self-regulation through a professional body. The question whether or not journalism has the characteristics of a profession is also at the heart of the discussion on ethics, for professions define themselves through self-regulation, as well as with regard to the norms which regulate professional life, and their interpretation in exceptional cases. Technical expertise (writing, editing, researching, dealing with technology, etc.) is quite uncontroversial here. On the other hand, there could be considerable difficulties in bringing about journalistic autonomy (that is, independence from state control), for politicians strive to control journalism to obtain favourable coverage of their activities. A further controversial point is whether the journalist should be a generalist or a specialist (e.g. science journalist, business journalist, etc.).This is still very close to the as yet unresolved argument as to whether or not one must be born a journalist (in other words, to possess certain character traits, such as the ability to endure clashes with politicians).
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