A global journalism ethics is, in essence, a code adopted generically by the profession which governs and guides their everyday practice and performance. Like the world of medicine bows down to the GMC (General Medical Council), some people might like to see a similar omnipotent force thrusted upon the world of journalism and mass media.
However, as Herrscher (2002, p. 278) correctly asserts, ‘what can we expect of a code which has no judges, no police and no prisons to enforce it’? To become successful, then, a code of ethics must penetrate the very fabric of the industry – it must be universal and relevant, and it must be punishable if flouted.
Herrscher (2002) and Ward (2005) propose a diffusion of varying codes which could apply here, many of them are similar and overlapping in their definition. However, the implementation of four universal and achievable parameters could have a positive effect on a profession which is perceived to be dirty and untrustworthy.
Firstly, the Pursuit of Completeness. Herrscher (2002, p. 280) outlines the necessity of truth as a cornerstone of journalism ethics, stating that ‘the role of the journalist is to find out what has actually happened and to tell it with precision and clarity’. Ward (2005, p. 10) concurs, highlighting the need for ‘credibility’, where ‘journalists have the ethical duty to provide the public with credible news’. One might argue that truth is an extremely loaded term. What is truth? It rather depends on who is defining it. In the realms of political journalism, truth is somewhat hard to come by. As a result, ‘completeness’ may be more attainable. Here, the journalist can endeavour to convey a whole story, reflecting all sides and opinions until there is no more information left to gather. This is rather different to the mechanical stenography of ‘the truth’.
Secondly, one may consider Risk Assessment and Justification. This is similar to a feature which Ward (2005, p. 11) identifies and terms ‘justifiable consequence’. He describes how ‘journalists should be able to justify the consequences of their actions […] and whether they are necessary given journalism’s social function (Ward, 2005, p. 11). Considering the enormity of damage which may be inflicted by journalism, particularly felt by those with celebrity status, the implementation of a pre-publish risk assessment could help to minimise harm. Here, journalists could complete a form detailing the possible ramifications of their work before deciding whether said consequences are outweighed by the public interest in their story.
Thirdly is the necessity for Professional Standards. This reflects rather more in the collation of news, rather than the creation of it. Here, journalists must adhere to a stricter moral code which implores them to maintain societal standards and not to utilise immoral or illicit tactics in their work and slump to ‘moral defectives with no sense of their responsibility to society’ (Petley, 2012, p. 534). Crucially, though, this must apply in relation to all subjects of journalism – be it a public figure or an average citizen. A recurrent theme, highlighted in the scandal which culminated in the Leveson Enquiry, was the press’ maltreatment of celebrity figures and the series of blind eyes which followed. Despite stories breaking of the likes of John Prescott and Hugh Grant having their phones hacked, it was only when the news that ordinary citizen Milly Dowler was also embroiled in the scandal did the public interest peak.
Last, and somewhat interrelated with the first point, is the topic of Objectivity and Impartiality. Herrscher (2002, p. 280) also identifies this, stating that ‘journalists cannot have personal interests in the causes, businesses or parties of their sources’. Indeed, for a story to be entirely complete, as mentioned previously, the journalist must be completely objective and impartial during the collation and presentation of news.
Herrscher, R., 2002. A Universal Code of Journalism Ethics: Problems, Limitations, and Proposals. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, XVII(4), pp. 277-289.
Meetoo, C., 2013. Ethics in Journalism: Why and How?. In: C. Chan-Meetoo, ed. Ethical Journalism & Gender-Sensitive Reporting. Mauritius: UOMPRESS, pp. 31-45.
Petley, J., 2012. The Leveson Enquiry: Journalism Ethics and Press Freedom. Journalism, XIII(4), pp. 529-538.
Sabbagh, D., 2012. Leveson inquiry: the essential guide. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/nov/28/leveson-inquiry-report-essential-guide
[Accessed 14 October 2020].
Ward, S. J. A., 2005. Philosophical Foundations for Global Journalism Ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, XX(1), pp. 3-21.