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Fixing the boundaries of journalism ethics

Sonia Ambrosio - -

To set the standards for journalism practice in a changing media environment is not an easy task.

More than to discuss attitudes within the profession on what is good and what is bad, and what rights and responsibilities journalists should have, we should first be talking about the role of journalists in society.

The question starts with what journalism is for — or even to whom — when thousands of citizen-journalists tackle on issues that mainstream media professionals are somewhat barred or inhibited from addressing.

The one-way flow of information has become a free-for-all, and journalists have lost some authority, editors at Columbia Journalism Review claim.

Then, how do reporters establish ‘truth’ in a landscape where spouting opinion often prevails over digging for facts? How to apply fairness, balance and objective reporting when business partnerships have become crucial for news organisations’ survival? It is near to mission impossible.

But what can’t be done is to carry on with ethical standards that have been enshrined for generations.

Thinking ahead — and we are quite late for that — what type of code of ethics do we need when new technologies and the never-ending potential of the Internet have bent the meaning of privacy and created the sphere of openness? We have reached a very confusing boundary between the public and private areas, between openness and secrecy, publicity and privacy, selfishness and trust.

New trends of spreading false and misleading information add to the contemporary ethical challenge. As sources of information continue to be one of the main values of journalism, the question is how to deal with such issues as well as to how to handle when sources deny their own — previously — published statements? How to decide on news of public interest and news revealed in the public interest? These nuances need to be examined and adapted to a more current ethical guidance.

The media revolution has undermined a previous professional consensus on the best forms of practice.

As Stephen J A Ward — a recognised Canadian media ethicist, author, and educator - puts it: ‘as journalists, teachers and ethicists, we need a mindset that allows us to bridge the old and the new — to retain what is valuable from the past yet embrace new and valuable ways of communication’.

Assessing what is true, what is false or paid-for content has not changed at all.

True, we are getting overloaded with information but that doesn’t mean we no longer need to figure out what the information implies.

And for that reason, journalism has become more important than ever.

To be a journalist today, one must understand how much things have changed – not only due to technology but also on values, behaviours and business models.

The shape of media ethics of the future as Ward suggests, would involve a guide for journalists working in non-traditional environments such as non-profit websites; ethics of how to use new media; ethics of activism journalism and, ethics of interpretation and opinion - since the forecast is that ‘just facts’ journalism is doomed to die.

It means a return of viewpoint journalism - a style regarded as important before being replaced by objectivity.

In today’s various interpretations of the profession, there is a need to adequate ethics not just for an interactive and global media setting but also for emerging types of practices.

Perhaps, this is to ask for too much since we still treat journalism principles as undeniable truth. Media professionals —- generally — remain committed to the broad principles of journalism, such as truth, impartiality, values, transparency, objectivity, and facts.

However, everything about journalism is up for debate.

Having ethics codes is helpful, having checklists in newsrooms are useful, both raise standards, but good conversations about journalism and its role in society are more constructive and important.

A positive discussion of ethics is a step forward and it is just encouraging that this conversation has started!

The different opinions on what journalism is for and on its practice will continue, but meaningful dialogue can only enrich society.

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