The Media and Ethics

May 13, 2012 4:56 pm

Today, I’ve spent my free time revising for my impending end of year exam at university on Media and Ethics. I often find revision a rather boring and tedious exercise, but current developments in this specific area have made this a rather interesting time to be studying the ethics of the media. The Leveson inquiry has opened up a whole wealth of questions and debates regarding the current nature of British press. Of course there has always been the question of how far a writer should go when sourcing out that potentially life-changing, career-propelling story, but these questions have been illuminated even more so by the recent enquiry by Lord Justice Leveson into the practices, culture and ethics of the press in the United Kingdom.

So, just how far is too far? Of course, some may argue that the wonderful thing about British press, like much of the Western world, is its sense of independence from power, control and censorship. Indeed, the last notable example of media intrusion by a form of government power was the shutting of some war-criticising newspapers around the time of World War Two by the government of the time. Ever since then, British journalism has, on the whole, been free of direct control from the government and has had the ability to exercise the democratic right of protest and criticism of those whom are democratically accountable to the readership – the electorate. However, some have suggested that the lack of control that the British press in particular have had, has resulted in  sloppy, ill thought-out and unethical examples of writing. As writers, it is of the upmost importance that certain rules and regulations are kept to, however, the Leveson enquiry has painted a picture of negligence and inefficiency when it comes to ensuring that journalism is supported, researched and written fairly, effectively and in an ethically sound way.

However, the key issue here is the very subjective nature of what we can classify to be in the public interest. Whilst I may not view the marital problems of a famous footballer and his TV personality wife something I have the right to know, others may view this to be so. After all, they are only in their position of wealth and privilege as a result of their public support. Conversely, I may believe that I deserve to know about the questionable financial claims of my local MP, whilst the MP himself may claim he has a right to privacy that should not be ignored. As such, the question of media and ethics boils down to one key sentiment; ethical standards in journalism can only truly be upheld if the ethical guidelines in question are defined on a case by case basis. It is near impossible to continue our current system of adopting a blanket set of procedures that simply cannot be applied for every circumstance. Indeed, this has landed our media in the mess it is in at the moment; a profession dogged by confusion of what the rules are, a culture of ignoring the ethical guidelines set out due to the highly unlikely possibility that they will be caught and punished, and the culture that places the importance of a successful and controversial story over anything else.Of course we should not expect journalists and writers to eradicate any form of risk or controversy from their work. Some of the most interesting and eye-opening pieces of work in modern journalism have been a result of journalists taking risks and adopting a unique viewpoint on the issues being discussed. However, the issue here is based around the age-old problem of how far we can say a bad means to a good end cancels out any negativity associated with the piece. For example, no-one denies the fact that when a journalist conducts an expose on, for instance, a government scandal by covertly acting as an employee of the Home Office that they are doing it for the right reasons; to create a piece of journalism that is informative and well-researched. However, how far can we justify acting unethically for the sake of the public knowledge and right to the truth? Indeed, many journalists believe journalism to be the ‘pursuit of truth’. But this ‘pursuit of truth’ for the greater good depends on what can be classified as something that is revealed for the ‘public interest’. How do we define what the public interest is? Some would argue that the tapping of celebrities’ mobile phones was in the public interest as the public buy into brands championed by celebrities that may not be everything they claim to be. For example,a celebrity who is promoting a family guidance guide whilst engaging in an extra-marital affair, or the celebrity cook who champions organic produce on television and in their cookery books, whilst buying bargain supermarket brand products for the restaurent she runs to cut costs. These are both examples that some would suggest justify unethical means of pursuing the truth.

Therefore, to prevent any more widespread controversial breaches of ethical standards in journalism, writers and those who control journalistic output should attempt to view each case within the context in which it was written. If we fail to do this, we risk transforming our journalistic output into mere press release regurgitation and party-line towing nonsense. To retain journalistic integrity, we must not be afraid to allow journalists to take risks. These risks however, must be justifiable under scrutiny from those who question the controversial methodology and subsequent intentions of the writer. This ability to justify the actions as a writer clearly separates those who use press freedom to write presumptuous, biased and inaccurate journalism, and those that take risks for the unadulterated pursuit of truth.

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