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Of law and ethics: (Re)building credibility in journalism

by on March 5, 2013

Last year in November, after Rupert Murdoch’s scandal and other complaints filed on the press, Lord Justice Leveson of Britain delivered a report on the inquiry into British press standards. He proposed a new independent overhauled Press Complaints Commission, while also recommending that a statutory body should take responsibility for monitoring the independence of the newspaper. The proposal is designed to reassure the public that newspapers are subject to an effective and independent regulator to prevent a repetition of phone hacking or other scandals. Of course, such proposal is definitely unneeded had the practice of journalism is carried out ethically.

Roy Greenslade in his column on The Guardian points out something that we have discussed in class last week regarding the profession of journalist. As he reviews the book of the director of Cardiff University’s centre for journalism, Professor Richard Sambrook, “After Leveson”, he asks how did the journalism in Britain lose its credibility (or did it?) to the extent that the Leveson Report that may be stepping into the independence of the press, has to be issued. In rebuilding the credibility of journalism in Britain, he proposes a possibility of developing a “consistent standard for entry to the profession,” despite the fact that “there is little incentive for them to do so and, culturally, little recognition of the need or advantages of doing so,” which still raises the question, does journalism practice requires such official ‘standard for entry to the profession’? How do we define who is a journalist when the media technology and the way it is used evolve at pace that we hardly even keep up with?

But I think what is really interesting is how he eventually returns to developing or renewing the set of ethics in journalism practice as the solution to the deteriorating credibility of the press. He says that “[e]thics and transparency are about the media’s relationship with the public. Adopting a framework of transparency of this kind – within whatever regulatory model emerges from the current political debate – would be a first step in strengthening that relationship, providing a basic level of accountability and rebuilding trust.” As abiding by transparency and ethical codes are seen as the ideal solution, we can see how journalism, everywhere, should work independently and that government regulation should be taken as the last resort in restoring the credibility in press. 

But this is when it is hard to really draw the line between law and ethics, and between federal regulation, government interference, or self-governance in journalism everywhere. I was doing some research last week on censorship in countries in Asia and Middle East and I was surprised looking at how ideal the journalism ethical codes are outlined in countries like China and Egypt. The extreme censorship and heavy prosecution put upon journalists whose reports are unfavorable of the government leads to untruthful, heavily biased, and not objective reporting, despite the fact that the journalism profession in these countries are grounded on such an ideal set of ethical values. This is also the questions raised in News War documentary we watched in class that demonstrates the complicated situation American journalists are in – how do we maintain coherent reporting and ideal journalistic practice when something as crucial as protecting sources is not protected by the law? How do we deal with outside legal forces that prevent us from reporting truthfully? 

 

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