A very, very early draft of the first few lines of the first chapter of this introductory submission thing. 

It is not exactly controversial to say that journalism is as capable of doing harm as it is of doing good. Indeed, it is essentially impossible for a conscientious journalist to avoid doing harm; as Beauchamp and Klaidman[1] point out, the disappointed theatre critic harms “the author of the play, the actors, the director, producer, investors, and many others connected with the production”, yet we would not wish him to lie about the play to avoid this harm. The ethical journalist, surely, is one who honestly weighs up both the potential for harm and the potential for benefit of whichever story he or she is writing and proceeds only if the good is likely to outweigh the harm. 

Of course the terms “good” and “harm” are loaded with meanings that need unpacking. For a start, it is worth asking: what is good, and good to whom? After all, the recent story in the Sun regarding a sighting of a great white shark off the coast of Cornwall[2] certainly did good for the proprietor of the Sun – sales of the paper that day skyrocketed – despite the picture upon which the story was based being exposed as a hoax within days (it was in fact taken in South Africa). Does that qualify as a “good” that the ethical journalist should weigh against the potential harm of needlessly scaring people away from Cornish beaches? Few would say so; the Sun’s continued lack of apology or even acknowledgement by the time of writing (27th August 2007) is inappropriate. 

Our understanding of what “good” is from a journalist’s perspective hinges upon what our understanding of a journalist’s role is. Is a journalist an entertainer, a public defender, a teller of stories? Belsey and Chadwick[3] suggest the following: 

Journalism… has an honourable aim, the circulation of information, including news, comment and opinion. This is an honourable aim because the health of a [democratic] community… depends on it. There is no reason why journalism should not have further aims as well, such as entertainment, so long as these are subordinated to the overall aim of the circulation of information. 

This seems a fair assessment. Newspapers are allowed to have cartoons, as long as the cartoons do not distract from or supersede the newspaper’s main purpose of providing the public with information. If this is their main purpose, then surely its achievement is the main criterion by which we shall measure their success – so the good for which a newspaper strives is the provision of information, and the intended recipient of that good must always be the public. There is no problem if in the dissemination of this information the proprietors grow rich or the journalist makes a name for himself as a talented and hard-working writer; however, these goods do not act as counterweights to any harm a story may cause. 

The possible victims of “harm” must be a wider group – the journalist cannot worry solely about the general public, although they must be considered, but also about the subjects of the piece, as well as any sources he or she may have consulted. If the journalist values their job, they would also do well to consider their proprietor’s and any advertiser’s interests as well; this could be considered an ethical consideration (it is hardly ethical to bite the hand that feeds), but most would probably think it secondary to the others. We saw above that a story’s sensational appeal (sharks in Cornwall, for instance) does not compensate for its inaccuracy, no matter how many papers it sells. 

Similarly the definition of what constitutes harm is not as narrow as that of good. A newspaper only has one chief good it can strive for, the purveyance of information, but it has many ways in which it can hurt. A good common-sense definition of harm is found in Feinberg[4]: 

One person harms another… by invading, and thereby thwarting or setting back, his interest. The test… of whether such an invasion has in fact set back an interest is whether that interest is in a worse condition than it would otherwise have been in had the invasion not occurred at all… 

Feinberg rightly points out that not all harm is unjustified – the unswerving honesty of the sports correspondent’s appraisal of a poor performance by an athlete, for instance, may harm that athlete’s career – but it is still harm. 

How then does all of this apply to science journalism? In one sense it applies in exactly the same way. It is the job of the ethical science journalist to weigh up the harms and benefits that a story may cause before running it, just as much as it is the job of his colleagues on the news, sports and arts desks; it is still the public to whom he owes his primary loyalty, and that loyalty is still expressed through the honest dissemination of information. However, a key difference is that their potential for doing harm is, compared to most of their colleagues, generally confined to the general public. This is not uniformly true: a key researcher in a story could be wounded by allegations of sloppiness or unethical behaviour, or the source of prematurely leaked research might be hurt were their anonymity not protected; but on the whole, the subjects of science stories are concepts, theories or groups rather than individuals, and the sources tend to be press releases or named individuals rather than anonymous whistleblowers. 

How might this harm to the public manifest itself? To refer back to the shark story mentioned above, the harm it might theoretically cause is obvious – people who have paid to go on holiday by the sea could be too scared of jagged-toothed death from below to go in the water. On Feinberg’s definition, the holidaymakers’ “interests” of rest and relaxation have been thwarted by the story; and if it leads to a drop in tourism, then the financial interests of local industry have suffered too. 

An analogous case in science journalism might be a health scare. The MRSA bacterium has made headlines several times over the past few years, including several undercover “stings” by tabloid newspapers that purported to find dangerous levels of the antibiotic-resistant “superbug” in all sorts of worrying places – notably on a cleaner’s broom-handle[5]. Whether or not this story was true, if it worried people into not going in to hospital, or if it makes their stay in hospital more stressful due to worry, it has harmed their interests; the question is whether the information it disseminated was accurate and worthwhile. As it turned out, while MRSA itself is a serious issue, all of these “stings” were based on highly dubious foundations; but that is a separate point. In the MRSA case, it could be suggested that the misleading information given causes actual physical harm as well as harm to “interests” – after all, a missed hospital appointment is unlikely to be good for health. It is my belief that this is a risk with many scientific stories – for example, the media controversy over the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine was simultaneous to a drop in vaccination levels in Britain from a 1995/96 high of 92% to a mere 80% in 2003/04, and as low as 62% in some parts of south-east London[6], which was in turn linked to the first measles death in Britain for over a decade – it seems implausible at best to suggest that the media coverage was not a factor. That said, it is notoriously hard to prove the effects of media on behaviour. For our purposes, it is enough to say that people’s interests include an ability to make informed decisions, and that ability is weakened through the provision of misinformation. 

I intend to pursue this investigation through a series of case studies, each examining a single article on a scientific topic in a national newspaper and using them to raise issues that are particular to scientific stories. These articles are:  

1)      “New health fears over big surge in autism” (Duncan Campbell, The Observer, 8th July 2007), an article claiming that new research has shown a dramatic rise in British autism cases and suggesting that the authors of the research believed it to be due to the MMR vaccine

2)      “Warming is down to sun, says Irish prof” (Lisa O’Connor, The Sunday Mirror (Eire Edition), 18th March 2007), an article reporting that a former professor of electronic engineering at University College Dublin denies a link between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and global warming 

3)      “My war on electrosmog: Julia Stephenson sets out to clear the airwaves” (Julia Stephenson, The Independent, 31st May 2007, an article in which the author details her own experience of physical symptoms apparently caused by radiation from her wireless internet router. 

None of these articles are impeccable from the point of view of journalistic ethics. The Observer article misrepresents the views of two of the researchers, and fails to mention a significant competing interest on the part of a third. The Mirror’s piece fails to provide any balance to the story, leaving any reader without prior knowledge to believe that the professor’s views are a sole authority. The Independent is similarly silent on the large body of research carried out into “electrosensitivity” and “electrosmog” which often contradicts the author’s angle. However, these problems – of misrepresentation and balance – could apply to any journalism, not just science coverage. What I intend to concentrate on are more specific concerns, namely: the use of unpublished research; individual and “expert” opinions, and their newsworthiness; and anecdotal evidence.


[1] Stephen Klaidman and Tom L Beauchamp, The Virtuous Journalist, New York: Oxford University Press 1987; p93

[2]Shark is spotted off Cornwall”, John Coles and Alastair Taylor, The Sun, 28th July 2007

[3] Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media, ed. Andrew Bolsey and Ruth Chadwick, Routledge, 1992: Chp. 1, Ethics and politics of the media – the quest for quality, by the editors, p1

[4] Joel Feinberg, Harm to Others, New York: Oxford University Press 1984; pp 34 – 35

[5] “The Mop of Death”, The Sunday Mirror, 29 August 2004

[6] “MMR crisis could spark measles epidemic”, The Daily Telegraph, 23rd September 2004

If Frost’s book (and Karen Sanders, and the Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media one) is anything to go by, there seems to be something of a gap in the literature regarding the issues that particularly apply to science journalism.

The first is that of the possibility of harm to the public through affecting their opinions and thus their behaviour – I have to say “possibility” because the effect of the media on behaviour is unproven, but it is widely assumed. In fact it could be argued that the libel laws imply it; if people’s behaviour towards an individual was unchanged by defamatory comments, then there would be no “damages” to award. Another obvious example includes Rebekah Wade’s paedophilia campaign at the News of the World; unless someone is willing to suggest that gangs of mobs would have burned down a paediatrician anyway, then that is a clear-cut case of behavioural change caused by press coverage. More relevantly there is also some research which suggests it – e.g. NKZ thing, plus the following about AIDS:

Social policy, the media and misrepresentation

Ed. Bob Franklin, Routledge 1999

Chapter 4 – “Dying of ignorance? Journalists, news sources and the media reporting of HIV/AIDS”, Kevin Williams

P82 – 83

“The media played an important role in shaping the development of AIDS policy, especially in creating a climate of opinion which demanded government action…

…the media are an integral part of the struggle to make policy”.

The media’s ability to affect policy is implicitly assumed everywhere – see Alastair Campbell – and it only affects policy if it affects, or is seen to affect, public opinion. It is then very hard to see how public opinion can be affected without some effect on public behaviour (think of comments like “gay plague” in the press re AIDS) and from there it is a short step to public health and/or wellbeing. It can’t be proved, perhaps, that the press affects behaviour, but there is a strong suggestion that it does; certainly the press act as though they believe it does. And if they believe they do, then they surely have an ethical duty to act in such a way as to be beneficial, or at least non-harmful, to that wellbeing.

The second issue that is lacking in the literature is that of the increased difficulty in science reporting of ensuring that the reader is not misled. As shown above, the usual ways a reader can gauge the reliability of a story (check against knowledge, check against sources) do not apply as strongly when you lack the knowledge itself and the skills to examine the sources; and, as I have previously considered, a lay reader could easily take away a message of “ongoing controversy” from an article that to an expert in the field might clearly speak of a closed debate.

My research must therefore consider how a journalist sidesteps or minimises these concerns. Are there cases when apparently important scientific stories should simply be ignored, as they might put the public at risk? Should they go ahead, with sufficient caveats? What can be considered “sufficient” in that situation?

Key points in journalism ethics

Privacy

The public’s right to know, essential for the political process in a democratic society (and, some might suggest, a good in itself)

Newsworthiness – what does this entail? Frost’s suggestion – topicality and “what interests the reader”. Seems wildly inadequate; lots of things interest the reader without being newsworthy, surely? I want to lump it in with the right to know.

Responsibility to the reader

Truthfulness/accuracy/impartiality/objectivity/balance

How do these apply to science journalism?

Privacy – not uniquely relevant to science journalism. Shouldn’t print animal researcher’s addresses, but then probably shouldn’t print anyone’s address.

Public’s right to know – important not just from the point of view of democracy (although that is also important; policymaking on e.g. climate change, MMR/autism, AIDS, stem cell research, animal testing – everything really – is influenced by public opinion, and, one assumes, public opinion is influenced by the media), but because the public’s response to certain scientific issues will directly affect their wellbeing or that of others. It could be said to be important that the public knew about BSE/CJD, for example.

KEY QUESTION: What do the public have a right to know in science journalism?

Newsworthiness – when should research count as newsworthy? Presumably this is connected to the public’s right to know. If something is entertaining or sensational, it could be newsworthy, but only if the public has a right to know it, or at least no-one has a right to keep it concealed. Presumably for a science journalist a story like “new Earth-like planet discovered in distant solar system” is newsworthy, even if the public don’t have a right to know per se. “Public’s right to know” presumably covers similar ground to “the public interest” – see PCC report. With science journalism, this could be tricky. Usually the problem is going to be new research and opinions. What criteria should be used to determine when research becomes news? At what stage does the public interest/right to know permit premature coverage? Also – whose opinion can be considered newsworthy? “Scientist,” “academic”, “professor”? E.g. Observer again – publishing (and, of course, getting wrong) story on Cambridge autism research before it was published, claiming that two “key researchers” believed MMR involved in increase; is that acceptable (or rather would it have been acceptable if the opinions expressed had been accurate)?

KEY QUESTION: When if ever should unpublished research and personal opinions form science stories?

Responsibility to the reader – what does this responsibility consist in? A responsibility, obviously, to provide what the public have a right to; and a duty to provide timely and truthful information. Is there in any sense also a duty to protect them? Use NotW paedophilia thing as an example. Let us assume for the moment that the public had a right to know where neighbourhood paedophiles lived; therefore the NotW had a duty to provide that information. Is there also a duty to protect those members of the public – both the paedophiles themselves and those caught in the “crossfire” – from the consequences of that information being made public? By analogy; assuming there is a duty to provide the public with the information that some doctors believed MMR to cause autism, is there also a duty on the part of the journalist to protect the public from the consequences of not using MMR? How would one discharge such a duty?

KEY QUESTIONS: Do the media ever have a duty to protect the public from the effects of information; even truthful information? How should this duty be carried out while avoiding censorship?

Truthfulness/accuracy/impartiality/objectivity/balance – are there levels of truthfulness? It is true, for example, that David Bellamy claimed in 2006 that he didn’t believe that climate change was dangerous or man-made; but is it “truthful” to report that as a standalone fact, or is it misleading the readership by leaving out the point that he is pretty much alone among scientists in his belief?

Is balance always a good thing? As Frost points out, if we were reporting on child abuse, we wouldn’t interview a child abuser as “balance” for the social workers and policemen in an effort to make the report even-handed. Is it analogous in science to bring in rare contrarians as a “balance” to the scientists representing the majority position? If there is a minority claiming that their viewpoint is backed by the science (which they will), what steps (if any) should a journalist take to make decisions for him- or herself on the evidence? Should science journalists in fact be scientifically trained? If not who should they trust? A point should be made that the scientists (or advocates of a certain scientific position) journalists most often come across will often be vocal rather than trustworthy – see Frost’s section on internet creationists, which he doesn’t seem to extrapolate to the media in general.

KEY QUESTIONS: Does “truthfulness” imply more than simply reporting the truth? Is it acceptable to give one-sided accounts of science stories if the dissenting view is in a small minority? Should journalists have a background in science?

The Key Questions revisited

KEY QUESTION: What do the public have a right to know in science journalism?

Possible answers: things that affect or are likely to affect their health; things that are likely to affect humanity; things that are likely to affect their lifestyle; advances for the human race; controversial ethical issues.

KEY QUESTION: When if ever should 1) unpublished research and 2) personal opinions form science stories?

Possible answers: 1) on subjects covered by “right to know”, above; when research is reputable and near completion (then why not wait for it to be completed? Avoid scooping?); when researchers issue pre-publication press release (should this be acceptable? Does this just lay the responsibility on the researchers, or does the journalist still have a duty to check it thoroughly?); when pre-publication information is leaked by a researcher

2) Again, when covered by “right to know”; when the source is reputable and expert in the specific relevant field, rather than in “science”.

KEY QUESTIONS: 1) Do the media ever have a duty to protect the public from the effects of information; even truthful information? 2) How should this duty be carried out while avoiding censorship?

Possible answers: 1) yes; no; maybe. Presumably there is some duty not to shout fire in a crowded theatre; NotW thing pretty uncomplicatedly wrong, I expect. But where is the line? Is printing an article detailing which speed cameras don’t have film a dereliction of duty?

2) through providing sufficient further information around it to allow the reader to make informed decisions on the risks themselves. Further question raised; what is “sufficient information”, and can lay readers ever make informed risk-analysis decisions on highly specialist subjects?

KEY QUESTIONS: 1) Does “truthfulness” imply more than simply reporting the truth? 2) Is it acceptable to give one-sided accounts of science stories if the dissenting view is in a small minority? 3) Should journalists have a background in science?

Possible answers: 1) yes; as suggested in duty/censorship, background is vital. How much, though?

2) yes; no; maybe. Presumably we wouldn’t expect the flat-Earth society represented in all reports on gap year kids on round-the-world trips. To take the other point of view (as so many do), Galileo was a minority.

3) yes; no; maybe. It would be the ideal if they all did, but would it automatically mean a reduction in science coverage if there weren’t enough of them to go around, or if newspapers felt unable to afford their wages? Furthermore, what does a “background in science” mean – a BSc, or a chemistry O-level? In-house training?

 

PCC Code of Practice:

 

Long, in-depth piece covering the following headings:

 

  • Accuracy
  • Opportunity to reply
  • Privacy
  • Harassment
  • Intrusion into grief or shock
  • Children
  • Children in sex cases
  • Listening devices
  • Hospitals
  • Innocent relatives and friends
  • Misrepresentation
  • Victims of sexual assault
  • Discrimination
  • Financial journalism
  • Confidential sources
  • Payment for articles
  • The public interest

 

Interestingly, and importantly, nothing on “public health” except as a definition of public interest, meaning that it is excusable to override one or more of the other clauses if it will get you a story of relevance to public health. No suggestion that public wellbeing might be affected by the story itself.

 

NUJ Code of Conduct

 

13-point code, in which the effects on the readership are completely ignored. A section on “harmful inaccuracies” refers to libel, i.e. harmful to the subject of the story rather than the readers.

More of the same.

Media ethics and self-regulation
Chris Frost, Pearson Education Ltd, 2000

p1

The right of the public to know underpins journalistic ethics and “springs from the theory of representative democratic government” – citizens need “correct and detailed information” in order to make political decisions such as voting choices.

p12

“Journalists have to consider the public right to know, rights of privacy, the wishes of their employer and their responsibility to the reader when working on a story”

Chapter 2

p18-19

What makes an event newsworthy? Can’t decide simply through observation of the categories that news falls into, but have to establish the principles that underly them. Having said that, Frost only picks out “topicality” and “what interests the reader”.

p21

Ethical concern of sensationalism arises when the demand for information on a big news story outweighs the available well-sourced news, leading to temptation to invent or rely on dubious sources.

Chapter 3

p24

Author claims free press only relevant/important in context of democratic decision-making – is this true? Suggests that there are no decisions upon which the press can have influence that aren’t political. Admittedly in a pure totalitarian state this might be true, but those are rare. E.g. climate change – (mis)information could affect individual behaviour as well as political pressures.

p28

“As the journalist’s prime objective is the discovery, disclosure and analysis of the information on which others will base their views, the decisions affecting a journalist’s choices about what material to publish or broadcast should have as strong a moral component as the methods used to gather that material”

p29

“If a journalist is obliged by the law to do, or not do, a certain action, then there can be no feeling of moral obligation”.

p33

“If… one politician says that poor teaching is responsible for our children being ill-educated, whilst another says it is a lack of resources and a third says our children are actually the best-educated in the world… the only thing we can be certain of is the row [between politicians]. The rest lies in the field of opinion, usually based on untested facts and one-sided statistics. It would be foolish, and indeed dangerous, for journalists to pretend they can provide enough information for the consumer to come to a firm conclusion.” This seems to suggest that journalists should make no effort to analyse data themselves but should put across “both sides” of an argument – hardly a viable working method for science journalism.

p35

“[The Kantian maxim] ‘a journalist should always report truthfully’ [as opposed to accurately] allows the journalist to report potentially inaccurate or untruthful information, providing he or she ensures that the consumer is able to make a judgement about how reliable the information is”. Question mark again over the suitability of this for science journalism – can lay consumers make adequate judgement on the reliability of data without scientific training? Ought the judgement on how reliable the information is be taken one stage further back in the proceedings, by the journalist?

“It is the journalist’s job to give [the consumer] the information to make a rational decision, not to take that decision for the consumer”

p39

Contra the last statement? “Objective reporting is by its very nature almost impossible and is in any case undesirable”

p40

“Many journalists do not want to risk destroying a good story by discrediting [a newsworthy but misleading statement], but use it on the grounds that it is a fact that the words were said, even if they are untrue”

p41

“…if a group called Smokers for Health existed and issued a press release saying that latest research, paid for by the group and carried out in their own laboratories, shows smoking not only to be safe, but positively beneficial to health, then objective reporting might require the publishing of this amazing revelation. A reporter determined to be fair and to present truthful information might dig a little deeper, carry the same story but with additional information. He or she would add that Smokers for Health is funded by a cigarette manufacturer and carried out its research in an impoverished part of the world, paying its ‘guinea-pigs’ with resources such as food and water that were unavailable to the rest of the local population, and then leave the reader to decide why the survival rate for smokers was better”.

This is interesting for two reasons – 1) because it shows an instinctive attraction to ad-hom/motivation attacks, discrediting the research on the grounds of it being funded by a cigarette manufacturer rather than straightforwardly on the scandalously bad scientific technique (in theory the provenance of the research shouldn’t matter, although publication bias is a problem); 2) because it shows why peer review publications are such a useful “filter” in science journalism. This (admittedly hypothetical) research would never have got near, let alone past, peer review in any half-way reputable journal; uncontrolled and in fact deliberately skewing the results by feeding the smokers, plus of course the massive ethical issues involved.

p42 Balance

“For the most part, balance is difficult to achieve. This is the notion that both (or more) sides should have equal time and equal space to put their arguments. This is fine [for most political stories]. But are we really suggesting in an article or report on child abuse that for every social worker or police officer talking about the problem we would have a child abuser extolling its virtues?”

By analogy – for every scientist quoting good research and well-founded theories, should we have a raving contrarian yelling that the earth is flat?

Chp 4 p49 

On media rights: “the rights to freedom of speech and access to certain information apply equally to the media as they do to private citizens”. Frost means this in a UK legal sense, but is it true ethically? And does it really represent a right in itself, or is it just an extension of the right of the public – i.e. they couldn’t access information, or express opinions widely, without media help, so the media has to do it for them? Anyway.

 P50

“Freedom of speech is an absolute; either you have it or you don’t.”

 Is this contradicted a sentence later by this?

 “Where a person’s freedom of speech can reach a wide audience… other safeguards are felt by society to limit what can be said to that audience”.

 Either you have it or you don’t, eh? Presumably you have a right to say it in an empty room, but your right diminishes as the room fills…

 P56

 Regarding quality of information:

 “There are two main ways that we can check the information we are given by news outlets.

 1)      we can test it against our knowledge, our experience of the outlet, and scepticism

2)      We can test it by accessing primary sources and checking the information”

This represents an obvious difficulty with specialist subjects like science, especially academic subjects; we don’t have the knowledge ourselves (usually), and even if we were able to understand the primary sources, many of them are only available from expensive academic journals or web portals like Athens. This puts a much greater responsibility on the news outlet to give detailed explanations and background, as well as to report accurately. Also it could be pointed out that “our experience of the outlet” can be misleading – see Observer/MMR, July 2007

 Chp5 p61

 Acknowledgement again that journalists owe loyalty to their readers, but nothing about in the suggestions of standards of professional conduct about the effect on readership their writing could have.

 P91

 UK freedom to publish is very limited by standards of western democracies; following limits apply:

 Coverage of criminal proceedings
Protection of individual honour (libel)
Protection of commercial confidentiality
Invasions of personal privacy
Security and blasphemy
The public good (taste and decency)
Public order
Prevention of terrorism 

Interesting to note that “the public good” exists, but only covers “taste and decency” – you would think that “health” would come under “good”.

 Chp 7 p134

 “Although consumers ask for accuracy, journalists… can only offer an honest presentation of the information, checked as best they can, together with its sources…” (my emphasis)

 Interesting. Does this apply in science? And what level of referencing should be given?

 Chp 12, p242, case study 12.1

 Re: creationism:

 “A small but vocal and determined minority [on the internet] had been able to build up their theories to appear far more widely believed than they really are”

 Not just on the internet.

A few relevant bits from books on media ethics:

Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media, ed. Andrew Bolsey and Ruth Chadwick
Routledge, 1992

Chp. 1, Ethics and politics of the media – the quest for quality
By the editors

Aims of journalism (p1)

Journalism… has an honourable aim, the circulation of information, including news, comment and opinion. This is an honourable aim because the health of a [democratic] community… depends on it. There is no reason why journalism should not have further aims as well, such as entertainment, so long as these are subordinated to the overall aim of the circulation of information.

What is a “free press?” (p5)

Is it the freedom of editors to decide what gets broadcast or published? Is it the freedom of journalists to offer fact and opinion without fear of sanction or persecution? Or is it the freedom of ordinary people to receive full and fair information on all issues that are likely to affect their lives and their interests?

What might constitute a “code of conduct” in journalism?(p10/11)

Authors suggest: rights-based; although this would then entail establishing a hierarchy of rights. For example, if people have a right not to be deceived, but also a right not to be defrauded, then in a situation when exposing the fraudulent dealings of, say, a politician requires deception by journalists, whose right takes precedent? That of the politician, or those of the constituents he is defrauding?

Another suggestion: “maximis[ing] the satisfaction of the interests of those to whom the conduct is directed” – i.e. the readership.

Or a third: “anchor[ing] the conduct in a virtuous character, one that for journalists would exhibit specific virtues such as fairness, truthfulness, trustworthiness and non-malevolence.” Is this basic enough? Surely in defining what virtues a journalist should have, you’re really just listing the ways in which s/he should behave? Is it then just a code of conduct at one remove?

Any code of conduct for journalists is divisible in to two “broad aspects” (p12), “input” and “output”. Outpu is that which reaches the public – articles, reports, programmes etc – while input is the “day-to-day practice” of journalism; research, newsgathering, whatever. Belsey and Chadwick suggest “truthfulness” as fundamental virtue for output (while recognising problematic nature of truthfulness – requires selectiveness) and “honesty” as fundamental to input (although not always overriding).

My thoughs – should some recognition of public good not be present in “output”, at least as a guide to what bits of what is “true” should be printed?

Chapter 5 – Codes of conduct for journalists
Nigel G E Harris

p65

[Areas where as yet no codes give guidance include] advice columns… ranging over health, personal relationships, gardening, travel and financial matters. Some are written by professional journalists, but others are obtained from “expert” contributors…

…editors should be seen as taking responsibility for ensuring that the person giving the advice is appropriately qualified. Where advice is given on matters which could affect people’s wellbeing, press codes could require conformity to the practices of giving the status of the advice provider and recommending readers to obtain an independent professional opinion before acting on the advice.

p66

Author lists 3 direct beneficiaries of codes of conduct:

  • Readership (through clauses stressing requirements of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity etc)
  • Sources (through confidentiality clauses and similar)
  • Investigatees (through privacy and harrassment clauses)

p68

Author suggests that a risk of having strictly enforceable codes of conduct (perhaps analogous to the possibility of getting “struck off” a la GMC) would be the possibility of powerful investigatees (politicians or oligarchs, perhaps) putting pressure on the professional body to have the journalists investigating their wrongdoings sanctioned.

p69 – Reader’s interests

“Reporters may be required to give the truth; to write accurately and objectively; to avoid distortion, selection or misrepresentation of the facts; to avoid bias or partiality; to refrain from conjecture or the passing off of opinion as fact”

For more codes of conduct see: J C Jones, Mass Media Codes of Ethics and Councils, Paris, Unesco

British codes of conduct include the National Union of Journalists, the Newspaper Publishers Association, the PCC, Broadcasting Standards Council, and the Institute of Journalists

Chapter 8: Objectivity, Bias and Truth
Andrew Edgar

This chapter is so stuffed with clever-clever postmodernist bullshit about the impossibility of objectivity and “the social event as freely interpretable text”, such as might be written by a first-year philosophy undergraduate who’s just heard of Derrida, that it can be safely ignored in all its pompous, wilfully obscure entirety. Plus he uses the word “plurivocity”, for fuck’s sake. A disgrace.

May 2, 2007

Part ninety-four in slightly obscure notes to self: not sure if this is ludicrously obvious – it generally is when something strikes me as utterly profound – but it seems that a large part of the ethical work of journalists in this field will be deciding what is newsworthy. To give two extremes – IPCC report newsworthy, David Bellamy’s unfounded burblings probably not. What are criteria? Authority, public interest I suppose.

Not remotely profound, but there you go.

Apologies made by Tom for being so elusive for the past couple of months.

Discussed Tom’s work establishing the scientific consensus on climate change; Pat wondered whether it is methodologically sound. Tom to meet Don Hill for advice on the subject, but claimed that as it is a snapshot of the science rather than an exhaustive literature review he felt that it was sufficiently rigorous methodologically.

It was felt that the science section was a little dry. Suggestion was made that after the media section had been completed it could be used to provide some context for the science stuff, explaining why this is such an important topic. The concern that “sexing it up” would detract from its scientific rigour was noted.

Discussed whether the May 24th deadline for MPhil 20,000 words was plausible. Tom felt it was, and it was agreed that the next section, on the media representation of the science, would be prepared for May 1st

AHRC form was discussed; Tom to come in the following day (now done) to sign it. It should by now be on its way.

Next meeting 1st May.

My online referencing system log-in details. Probably not a good idea to put them on the internet where everyone can see them, but I couldn’t think of any better ideas and I don’t imagine there’s much of a security issue here. 

Your non-Athens login information for email address thomaschiversfakebit@hotmail.com is below.  If you would like to change the login name and password or update your e-mail address select Update User Info from within the program.

Your Subscriber Group Code* = 112

User Name = Tom Chivers
Login Name = PUID-adc35b00:018a2e3
Password = E32WC95
Read Only Password =

Random thought

February 7, 2007

I may have a way of demarcating the area of my research and stopping it from sprawling all over the fookin’ place.

 First – it seems simple enough to establish, to an extent, the balance of scientific opinion on each of my three topics (MMR, climate change, ID); ordinary library research should do for most of it. Indeed for climate change I’ve already done most of the work for my MA dissertation. Cannibalise and self-plagiarise away, plus get latest IPCC stuff to keep it up-to-date; then try to use format for the other two.

Second, on establishing how newspapers approach using this stuff; look at a few articles from reputable sources on either side of the debate (if they’re easy to find), and see how many column-inches or stories they generate. Will “no link between MMR and autism” studies get as much publicity as “possible link suggested”?

Hardly groundbreaking stuff, but at least it gives me a definite focus for a few weeks/months.

Meeting with Pat, 23.01.07

January 23, 2007

Discussed AHRC funding application form: Pat suggested rewrite to make it more eye-catching, including an introduction stressing the importance of the research – impact of journalism on public opinion, the nature of the three main subjects (MMR, ID, climate change), the nature of balance in reporting, and why print journalism over, say, TV news (less regulation in TV news). Will send Pat rewrite ASAP for her to make further suggestions.

 Training – sign up ASAP for “reviewing existing research”, “using documentary sources”, “elite interviewing” and “appraising research critically”. Await information from KILT about teaching certificate application deadlines for 07/08 academic year. Ethical approval relies on interview training so can’t do interviewing until after approval meeting – probably June (training in April).

Update work plan with deadlines for next meeting.

Write extended version of AHRC application entry on new direction (controversy, balance, science rather than merely medicine etc) to explain thinking behind it.

Start work on methodology section – comparison of academic journals with popular press and so on. Need to find sources for ID/evolution and for climate change – can use BMA, Lancet, JAMA, NEJM for MMR.

Read comments on ethics thing

Continue with philosophy of science

Next meeting 2:30pm 06.02.07