Wide Angle

Ethical journalism: back in the news

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“Tech giants that dominate the public information space, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon
and Twitter circulate information in a value-free environment,” says Aidan White.
© Jugoslav Vlahovic
The core values of ethical journalism are more important than ever today, as we fight for quality and democracy in the media in the digital age. While new laws might lead to potential censorship, a commitment to ethics is essential to build public trust.  

By Aidan White

Journalism is on the move like never before. Today the news business is faster, more pressurized, and infinitely more complex. The media have learned the hard way how the information revolution − for all its liberating qualities − is a double-edged sword.

While news media can deliver stories around the world in seconds and communications have the potential to build stronger, more informed and more engaged communities, the business models that paid for journalism in the past are broken, and in many cases, beyond repair.

With less money to pay for public-interest journalism, newsrooms struggle to maintain their ethical base. Problems that have always been on the radar − political bias, undue corporate influence, stereotypes and conflicts of interest − are now magnified.

The past fifteen years have seen a dramatic decline in news journalism, as technology has changed the way people communicate and the way the media business works. Today, most of us get our news through mobile telephones and from online platforms that have grown rich by exploiting people’s personal data, while at the same time, draining lucrative advertising from traditional media.

Resonating with journalists worldwide

Thousands of news outlets, mainly newspapers, have closed. Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. People’s access to reliable and trusted sources of news has narrowed as traditional news sources – particularly at the local and regional level – have contracted, even though the space for free speech has expanded dramatically.

The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) was created five years ago, to strengthen journalism in the face of this crisis.

As a coalition of more than sixty groups of journalists, editors, press owners and media support groups, EJN promotes training and practical actions to strengthen ethics and governance. Its work − whether it is developing a test for journalists to expose hate speech, guidelines on reporting conflict or producing reports on covering migration − resonates with journalists around the world.

Because the network has its roots within media, EJN’s multi-country reports and even those that lift the lid on the untold stories about the realities of how media work and the challenges of self-regulation, have credibility inside journalism.

The EJN’s soundings in this period of uncertainty are that despite the increasingly hostile economic and political climate, journalists everywhere − from Turkey, Syria and Egypt to Pakistan, China and Indonesia − remain committed to truth-telling and ethics.

Building public trust

This commitment is a golden asset at a time of social transformation, when the global communications culture is in chaotic transition. To people inside media and anyone striving for the key to safe and secure communications in future, the defence and promotion of ethical journalism has become more important than ever.

Fake news, political and corporate propaganda, and shameless online abuse threaten democracy and open up new frontlines for free-speech defenders, policymakers, and media professionals alike. A toxic mix of digital technology, unscrupulous politics and commercial exploitation of the new communications landscape is creating stress fractures across the wider landscape of public information.

With this in mind, EJN has promoted a new debate about the need to recognize why journalism, which is constrained by its framework of ethics, is essential for building public trust.

We find that there is no widespread yearning for a new code of ethics among the media or the public. The core values of accuracy, independence and responsible reporting – which have evolved over the past 150 years – remain as relevant as ever, even in these digital times.

What is needed, says EJN, is a new partnership with media audiences and policymakers to persuade them that ethical journalism should be strengthened, and that it can be used as an inspiration for new programmes to promote information literacy.

Cardinal principles

Today, it’s not just journalists who need to watch their language and show respect for the facts; everyone with something to say in the public information sphere needs to show some ethical restraint.

The EJN argues that ethical values of journalism – such as fact-based communications, humanity and respect for others, transparency and owning up to errors  –  are cardinal principles which should guide everyone, including social media users and citizen journalists. But this should be a voluntary process and not driven by law.

Worried by online abuse and fake news, some governments, even in democratic countries, have threatened to fine technology companies that don’t act to remove malicious and dangerous information when it pops up on their platforms. This could limit legitimate dissent and free speech − this is increasingly more likely to happen, unless these companies act to support ethical communications.

The problem is that the tech giants that dominate the public information space, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter, circulate information in a value-free environment. They give no priority to information as a public good, such as professional journalism. For them, journalism competes on an equal footing in their marketing with other information, even if it is malicious and abusive.

Using algorithms to attract clicks

Using sophisticated algorithms and limitless databanks that provide access to millions of subscribers, this business model is driven by one simple objective – to encourage “viral information” that delivers enough clicks to trigger digital advertising. It matters not whether information is ethical, true or honest; what counts is whether it is sensational, provocative, and stimulating enough to attract attention.

No matter how sophisticated they are, digital robots can’t be encoded with ethical and moral values. The best people to handle ethical questions are sentient human beings –  well-trained, informed and responsible journalists and editors.

After recent scandals – like the outrage over censorship of iconic photographs, the live-streaming of torture and murder, and major corporations complaining about their advertisements being placed on websites preaching terrorism, hate and child abuse – the technology companies have promised to act. But will it be enough?

On 3 May 2017, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised to employ 3,000 content reviewers (to add to the company’s 4,500-strong “community operations team”), following outrage over the broadcasting of a spate of violent videos of murder, suicide, and gang rape.

Facebook has a subscriber base of two billion, which means that there is one content reviewer per 250,000 or so, users. It’s a fraction of what is needed to monitor and control the growth of unethical, abusive content and the dangers posed by propaganda and fake news.

Exploiting people’s privacy

One simple answer would be for tech companies to accept their role as publishers in the digital age and to draw upon the vast pool of informed and ethical journalists currently displaced by the information revolution. We know they can afford it – in early 2017, it was reported that Facebook was worth around $400 billion, and Google more than $600 billion. These are among the world’s richest companies.

While policymakers and technology moguls wring their hands over these issues, the use of technology by unscrupulous politicians to undermine democracy and to interfere in elections is growing. And fake news laced with malicious lies is all part of the strategy.

The crisis was recently highlighted by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. The British scientist and academic warned that the online world is being overwhelmed by governments and digital corporations and that the exploitation of people’s privacy is squeezing the life out of the internet.

His criticism highlights the disruptive and pernicious threat posed by the marketing of false information in politics.

In an open letter (on 12 March 2017, the web’s 28th birthday), Berners-Lee wrote of the 2016 election in the United States: “... as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor. And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls. … Is that democratic?”

Exposing fake news

It’s a good question, and one that was also asked in France on the eve of the French presidential election in May 2017, when online hackers dumped thousands of confidential email files, many of them fake, concerning Emmanuel Macron, the eventual winner.

This information mountain couldn’t be examined, verified or debunked by journalists, because French law forbids public discussion of election information in the last hours before people vote. But it circulated freely on social media.

News reporting can be rough and ready, but ethical journalism owns up to its errors. More importantly, because it is fact-based and has civic purpose, it also provides a road map for policy to build a safe and reliable public information space.

Aidan White

Aidan White (UK) is Director of the Ethical Journalism Network, and the author of a book, To Tell You The Truth: the Ethical Journalism Initiative, a global review of ethical issues in the news (2008). He is the former General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, which he led for twenty-four years until March 2011. He is a founder of the International News Safety Institute and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX).