Engaging with the literature, 2

August 2, 2007

More of the same.

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


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.


“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


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”.


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


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.


“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”


“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”.


“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.


“[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”


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


“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”


“…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.


“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…


 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.


 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.


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