Ethical Journalism Requires Conscientious Decision-Making in Context

Topics: Journalism, Mass media, Journalism ethics and standards Pages: 10 (2781 words) Published: November 18, 2012
Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context


The practice of journalism and ethics are intertwined in the way how journalists operate and function in the newsroom. Tanner (2005) argues that ethics is not an optional add-on but underpins the practice of journalism. The everyday routine of journalism is very much entrenched in the way how journalists gather, write and disseminate news to the public. This is because journalists are expected to maintain public trust- in addition to reporting accurately (Hargreaves 2003), and it is the ethical decision-making in journalistic practice that determines how much the public can trust journalists.

It is the society that grants journalists the power to observe and report, and the society expect nothing less than true, honest, fair and accurate reporting (Tanner et al 2005). Kovach and Rosenthiel (2004) argue that journalists’ first loyalty to the citizens and their objective is to report facts as truthful and honest as possible. However, in fulfilling these responsibilities to the public, journalists face decision-making process everyday that is not always so obviously determined by a set of codes and law. Franklin (2005) argues that while journalistic codes of ethics exist to assist reporters to make those important decisions every day, ultimately it is conscience that becomes the ethical compass in situations where no formal codes can give clear guidance or morally dictates a decision is right or wrong. Franklin (2005) argues that the more experience a journalist is, the more readily he/she should recognise that such codes are not all-inclusive.

Nevertheless, Voakes (1997) argues that there is a hierarchy of social influences that influence journalists’ decision-making in ethical situations at most of the times, whether explicitly or not. This view is shared by Tanner (2005) who argues that journalists wrestle daily with their consciences in making ethical decisions in the newsroom.

Whatever it is, it is undisputed that conscientious decision-making is vital and influences ethical journalistic practices in the newsroom. The purpose of this paper is to examine the various factors that influence decision-making process and how journalists are guided in their ethics by intrinsic motivations (such as religious upbringing, personal moral compass, or desire for career advancement) and external heuristics (such as code of ethics, peer pressure, or the threat of reprimand) (Voakes 1997). At end of this paper, we hope to prove that conscientious decision-making is very much integral and vital in the practice of ethical journalism as vouched by various journalists and editors. In order to limit the scope of this paper, we will examine these factors based on the Theory of Social Influences (Shoemaker & Reese 1996). The seven factors are: individual, small group, organisation, competition, occupation, extramedia, and law.


As an individual, journalists are very much influenced by their internalised set of beliefs in the way they report. Masterson and Patching (1997) argues that journalists are very much influenced by their biases, their perception of the audience, and their own interpretation of the core ‘news value’ of consequences, proximity, conflict, human interest, novelty, and prominence. This is unavoidable as in order to tell a good story, certain aspects of the news will take precedence over others (Masterson & Patching 1997). The selection of news value itself is a form of contentious decision-making that is practiced by the journalist as an individual. As White points out (1996), these set of values can be applied to any situation that comes along, as journalists have an internalised ethical orientations to figure out what to do for themselves.

However, this form of perception is further added by a moral compass that steers how journalists operate in the newsroom. Studies have shown that journalists are drawn to...
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