Ethics of Journalism and Freedom of the Press
The CSS Point 6/22/2012
Introduction Freedom of the press - where to draw the line? By Michael Kunczik o o
Preface Problems of ethics in journalism 1. Historical background and starting points for a discussion on ethics 2. Journalistic ethics: Individualistic aspects 3. Codes of ethics 4. Systematic aspects of a journalistic ethic and the public ethic 5. Further aspects of the discussion on a journalistic ethic 6. Outlook List of questions Literature
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Introduction: Freedom of the press - where to draw the line? Ethics (the term comes from the Greek word ethos: custom or practice) is that branch of philosophy whose purpose is to describe moral sentiment, as well as to establish norms for good and fair behaviour. In the context of journalism, this is a question about what is good and what is right journalistically. In the search for answers to these questions, my assumption is that democracy, though afflicted with many weaknesses, is nevertheless the best form of government. A functioning democracy is founded on a communications sector that functions adequately and allows informed public opinion to develop freely. This is why, in a democracy, journalists have a special political purpose and responsibility. Democracy is, above all, a culture of dialogue, in which the opinions of dissenters are respected. For example, the highest German court (the constitutional court, the "Bundesverfassungsgericht") holds that freedom of the press and freedom of speech are the essential elements of a democratic state, because only the continuous struggle between opinions and constant intellectual debate will safeguard democracy. It is not surprising that coups d'état which crushed democratic societies prioritised destruction of free media. So do totalitarian regimes, often using extreme brutality, do their utmost to prevent press freedom emerging. Freedom of speech and the media is an achievement of the European enlightenment, which must be fought for over and over again and always be defended. Every society has experienced that the powerful in politics and business don't want their affairs critically observed by the media and so find themselves under public scrutiny. Corruption and abuse of power happen everywhere, all the time, and fighting them is a task central to democratic journalism. I am working on the assumption that in a complex, pluralist, modern society there can be no one absolutely correct ethic. A single journalistic ethic always valid everywhere in the world is currently just as unthinkable. In different countries, a variety of elements form the focus of the ethical debate. Currently in the US (1997), the debate is above all about violence and decency; in the UK it is about tabloid journalism (e.g. reporting on the royal family); in Israel the secrecy of military intelligence is under discussion; and in Germany the impact of the commercialisation of TV (scramble for ratings, superficialisation of programming, sensationalism) is at the forefront of the ethical debate. You can keep adding to these lists ad infinitum. In the following pages, however, the assumption will be made that there is indeed a fundamental and generally acceptable basis for a journalistic ethic - namely human rights. The argument put at international level that human rights are a typical Western invention that may not count in other cultural contexts is in my view intentionally deceptive. In arguing like this, regimes that
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hold human rights in contempt want to distract attention from their own disgraceful acts in any way they can. I am nevertheless aware that my position throughout could have an ethnocentric bias and it is possible that I am under the spell of a logic denounced strikingly by Nigeria's Chinweizu,...