Engaging with the literature, 1

August 2, 2007

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


[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.


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)


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.


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