Journalism & Professional Ethics

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Leading parallel lives: journalism and professional ethics
by Ian Richards

Abstract Although all decisions by journalists have an ethical dimension, lapses in journalistic ethical standards cannot be explained simply in terms of the moral failings of individuals. Deeper insight is required, yet for a number of reasons little wider understanding has emerged from within journalism. At the same time, analysis of journalism ethics is largely absent from the field of professional ethics. This paper argues that, while this neglect can be understood in terms of journalism’s uncertain relationship with the notion of professionalism, journalism justifies far more attention from those who are concerned with professional ethics than has so far been the case.

Paper submitted for IIPE/AAPAE 2002 Conference Reconstructing `The Public Interest' in a Globalising World: Business, the Professions and the Public Sector

Dr Ian Richards is Director of the Postgraduate Journalism Program at the University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. A former newspaper journalist, he has worked and studied in Australia and the United Kingdom. . Contact details: Dr. Ian Richards Director Postgraduate Journalism Program University of South Australia St Bernard’s Road Magill SA 5072 E-mail Phone: (61) – 08 -8302 4526 fax: (61) – 08 - 8302 4745


Introduction Journalism is a cut-throat business, the unsavoury practicalities of which do not lend themselves to academic study. (Blackhurst 1997, p.23) There is a widely-shared view among journalists that the daily routines of their calling render it unsuitable for academic study designed to improve journalistic practice. Such assessments are particularly strongly held when the focus of that study is journalism ethics, even though many countries, including Australia, have developed journalistic codes of ethics and codes of conduct. While there is little resistance among journalists in general to the notion that ethics is a legitimate field of academic study, there is no great support for the notion that the academic study of journalism ethics has anything useful to contribute to the practice of journalism. Such views are indefensible for, whether those engaged in journalism realise it or not, all of their professional decisions have an ethical dimension. This is obvious in, for example, editorial discussions about whether to publish material which is especially graphic or explicit. However, an ethical component is also present in the plethora of less dramatic decisions which journalists are required to make every day – who to interview and who not to interview; who to quote and who not to quote; what angles to emphasise and which to play down; what to include and what to leave out; how much to reveal to an interviewee regarding the real purpose of an interview; and so on. In short, there is an ethical dimension at all stages in the journalistic process, from initial decisions regarding what to report, through decisions about the gathering and processing of whatever information is acquired, to decisions as to how the information will be presented and to whom. Logically, then, whether they realise it or not, journalists do not have any choice between considering ethics or excluding it from their practice. In other words, journalists can consider ethics as applied in practice – or they can avoid the issue. If they do the former, they are at the very least demonstrating the responsibility many claim to be implicit in the notion of professionalism. Alternatively, if they adopt the latter approach, their practice becomes a matter of personal responsibility and liability as they position their own judgment as final arbiter. In Australia, journalists are sharply divided between the minority who belong to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), and agree to abide by that organisation’s code of ethics, and a majority who do not belong to the MEAA and so are not bound...
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