Media ethics and good governance

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Situationer

M. Ziauddin

In the face of a growing global information crisis and collapsing public confidence in journalism one of the world’s leading media development agencies this week (October 16, 2017) adopted a ground-breaking strategy to put ethics and good governance at the heart of its multi-million global programme.
According to the Ethical Journalism Bulletin, a publication of Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), the Denmark-based International Media Support, which spends more than 16 million Euro a year to strengthen media in some of the poorest and troubled corners of the world, has launched a global standard for quality journalism drawing upon policies and strategies pioneered by the EJN.
This new strategy is said to be designed to respond to increasing concerns over so-called “fake news” and the rise of technology-driven propaganda which have blurred the lines between reliable journalism and misinformation. It is also said to be aimed at putting a brake on the trend of digital media to produce sensational content as “click-bait” to increase traffic and thereby generate advertising revenue. Also it is expected to act as a deterrent to new laws designed to clean up the Internet, which many free press advocates warn may lead to new forms of censorship.
For decades media development groups have taken for granted the familiar values and principles of journalism, but turbo-charged propaganda from a new breed of authoritarian politician; a rapid decline in journalistic capacity; and the emergence of Internet business models that make no distinction between abusive content and reliable public information have prompted some radical rethinking.
IMS sets out a challenge that should resonate with media development groups across the globe: “The need for reliable and relevant journalism has never been greater, prompting IMS to put even more emphasis on the production and distribution of journalism that is ethical and professional, and in the public-interest. This requires us to be clear about the standards of journalism we subscribe to, and how we want to uphold these standards in the work we do, so that the public can trust, rely on and relate to the journalism we promote.”
Ethical journalism, says IMS, enhances the credibility and transparency of news media and has become more relevant now that people have digital power and the capacity to produce and distribute information at breakneck speed to mass audiences, and to access this information using widely-available communication technologies.
IMS proposes to discuss its new approach with local partners to reach voluntary agreements that will promote newsroom respect for ethics. These agreements will ensure that assistance projects designed to promote news and current affairs reporting on all platforms are carried out in line with the five core principles of journalism: accuracy and fact-based communications; independence; impartiality; humanity; accountability and transparency.
“These principles,” says IMS, “come from a variety of cultural, political and belief systems, but they all reflect a common set of well-recognised core values that have evolved throughout 150 years of ethical journalism worldwide.”
These core values are at the heart of EJN campaigning, and are particularly relevant in the frontline work of IMS in countries where armed conflict, natural disasters and rapid political change make the issue of access to quality information literally a matter of life and death.
IMS program leaders are conscious that reporters and editors in political hot-spots often live and work in a twilight zone where corruption, conflict and political oppression are barriers to media freedom; so their new strategy will be fine-tuned to match realities on the ground while laying out aspirations for the future.
Alongside agreements on newsroom ethics, IMS also plans to develop good governance guidelines for the owners and managers of media. These will be in line with the EJN’s ethical media auditing program, which is currently being promoted in the countries of the Western Balkans in a three-year project, Building Trust in Media in the Western Balkans and Turkey, supported by the European Union and UNESCO.
At the heart of the strategy is a conviction that independent media and ethical journalism can inspire more civil discourse in the public sphere, simply by following long-established ethical traditions.
Without becoming hostage to specific groups or campaigns, journalism can promote dialogues, strengthen pluralism and make a positive contribution to building trust in democracy.
Media development groups know better than most that the harsh realities of reporting in dislocated and politically-charged regions comes at a price with a sharp reduction in the scope of risk-taking journalism, but recent actions by the EJN to support dialogue between journalists from countries divided by conflict, show that ethical journalism can provide a bridge to mutual understanding.
The core principles of ethical journalism set out below provide an excellent base for those who aspire to launch themselves into the public information sphere to show responsibility in how they use information.
There are hundreds of codes of conduct, charters and statements made by media and professional groups outlining the principles, values and obligations of the craft of journalism.
Most focus on five common themes.
Truth and Accuracy: Journalists cannot always guarantee ‘truth’, but getting the facts right is the cardinal principle of journalism. We should always strive for accuracy, give all the relevant facts we have and ensure that they have been checked. When we cannot corroborate information we should say so.
Independence: Journalists must be independent voices; we should not act, formally or informally, on behalf of special interests whether political, corporate or cultural. We should declare to our editors – or the audience – any of our political affiliations, financial arrangements or other personal information that might constitute a conflict of interest.
Fairness and Impartiality:Most stories have at least two sides. While there is no obligation to present every side in every piece, stories should be balanced and add context. Objectivity is not always possible, and may not always be desirable (in the face for example of brutality or inhumanity), but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence. Humanity: Journalists should do no harm. What we publish or broadcast may be hurtful, but we should be aware of the impact of our words and images on the lives of others.
Accountability: A sure sign of professionalism and responsible journalism is the ability to hold ourselves accountable. When we commit errors we must correct them and our expressions of regret must be sincere not cynical. We listen to the concerns of our audience. We may not change what readers write or say but we will always provide remedies when we are unfair. We need to add new rules to regulate journalists and their work in addition to the responsibilities outlined above and; we need a legal and social frame-work that encourages journalists to respect and follow the established values of their craft.
In doing so, journalists and traditional media, will put themselves in a position to provide leadership about what constitutes ethical freedom of expression. What is good for journalism is also good for others who use the Internet or online media for public communications.
This collaborative project aims to be the world’s largest collection of ethical codes of conduct and press organisations. The AccountableJournalism.org website has been developed as a resource on global media ethics and regulation systems, and provides advice on ethical reporting and dealing with hate speech.