Ethics in Journalism

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    • 00:00

      [MUSIC PLAYING][Ethics in Journalism]

    • 00:09

      TONY HARCUP: I'm Tony Harcup, and I teach journalismof the University of Sheffield.And I'm going to talk to you about ethics in journalism.That's a topic that some people willtell you doesn't even exist.How can journalism ever be ethicalwhen it involves poking around in people's private lives,and when a good journalist is alwayson the lookout for the next big story, the next big scoop,

    • 00:30

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: the next big scandal?People might tell you that the very conceptof ethical journalism is an oxymoron, thatis, a contradiction in terms.They might tell you that the only good news is bad news--bad news for somebody.And if you have to trample over people to get to that bad news,then so be it.They might tell you that the first principle of journalism

    • 00:51

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: is that it has no principles.Well, I'm going to suggest that it'sjust a bit more complicated than that.Having said that, it's hard to deny that journalism does haveits issues, as they say-- issues such as those thatclose one of the biggest selling newspapers on the planetin 2011, the News of the World.

    • 01:12

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: For much of its existence, that paper used to boast,"All human life is there"-- meaning in its pages.But in truth, it's a fairly weird versionof human life that filled it mostof the time-- a sensational version, if you like.And readers seemed to like it.Its obsession with sex led to its nickname,the "News of the Screws."

    • 01:33

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: But it was still undeniably a newspaper, of sorts.Over time, though, in many ways, itseemed to lose touch with the reality of whatall human life meant for ordinary people, whowere its readers.And it became ever more obsessed with celebrity scandaland gossip.And it turned out that it was cutting corners

    • 01:53

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: to uncover some of those stories by engagingin unethical practices, sometimes illegal practices--illegal ways of snooping on people, such as phone hacking.[Phone Hacking]Some of those working for the paperdidn't just hack into private messagesof celebs and their families, including the royal family.

    • 02:16

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: They also did it to the families of people who found themselvesin the news simply because they had the bad luckto be the victim of a crime, such as the missingschoolgirl, Millie Dowler.As if that wasn't bad enough, the paperthen spent years covering up the fact that it had done so.That was why the News of the Worldeventually came to be seen by the Murdoch empire that

    • 02:37

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: owned it as a toxic brand, and why the paper was closed downin July, 2011, after it had survived and thrivedfor more than a century and a half.In a sense, it was ethics that did for it,or perhaps it might be more accurate to say,it was down to a lack of ethics.And it was the revelation that the country's most popular

    • 02:57

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: newspaper had seen fit to hack into the mobile phonemessages of a missing and murdered childthat led the UK government to set up the Leveson Inquiry,into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press.And this was a huge inquiry.It lasted many months, took evidencefrom hundreds of people.And although the Leveson Inquiry sprang from phone hacking

    • 03:20

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: on just one newspaper, it trawledthrough a really wide range of ethical issues,including how bereaved relatives and the victims of crimein general are treated by journalists;how easy or difficult it is to get connections publishedto set the record straight; how peoplewith mental illness or disabled people

    • 03:41

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: can feel stigmatized or stereotyped in some newscoverage; whether pictures of topless womenreally ought to be displayed in our newspapers;whether some titles have an agendato demonize asylum seekers or certain other groupsin society; whether there might be a culture of bullyingin some newsrooms;

    • 04:01

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: and whether the press really oughtto be allowed to continue to sort of police itselfin a system known as self-regulation.Well, all this and more, lots more,was discussed at the Inquiry and isdealt with in the Leveson Report itself, all 2000 pages of it.And that was published in November, 2012.

    • 04:22

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: Now the Leveson Report might not contain easy answersto any of the questions raised.But it could be that the first step towards achievinga more ethical journalism might simplybe to raise awareness about such issues in the first place.And even just talking about it might help.Well, Leveson and certainly generated plenty of talk.

    • 04:43

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: As to whether anything much has actually changed as a result--well, it's too soon to tell.So let's return to the principlesof ethical journalism.[The Truth]There is a first principle of journalism,at least according to the International Federation

    • 05:04

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: of Journalists there is.And it's this: "Respect for truthand for the right to the public to truthis the first duty of the journalist."That's principal number one of the IFJ code of conduct.And you'll find something similarin most journalists' ethical codes all around the world.It's a clear and unambiguous statement

    • 05:26

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: that on the face of it, few could disagree with.Is it really as simple as that?After all, the News of the World discoveredsome things that were true when it hacked into people's phones.But did the fact that certain stories might be truemake it right or ethical to publish them?Lots of things might be true that journalists don't reveal--

    • 05:47

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: maybe because the law prevents it,or possibly through personal conscience,and sometimes because codes of ethical behaviorhave helped establish a consensus that it might notbe in the public interest for certain truthful informationto be revealed-- the names of victims of sexual assault,for example, or the identity of a whistleblower who is helping

    • 06:09

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: journalists to expose a scandal on the understandingthat she or he will remain anonymous.And there were even examples of local papersnot publishing accurate scores from reallyone-sided children's football matches,so as not to hurt the feelings of kidswho've been on the wrong end of a 29-0 hammering.

    • 06:34

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: And speaking of football, what are we to makeof this so-called truth?"The Truth"-- that was how the Sun newspaper infamouslyheadlined allegations about the behavior of football supportersduring the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989 in which 96people lost their lives."It's The Truth" front page came a few days after the disaster,

    • 06:58

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: when it seems that the police mayhave been trying to cover up for their own shortcomingsat Hillsborough, a briefing against the victimsand against other supporters.They were allegations, that's all.And some of the rest of the mediareported them in that way, as allegations.Only the Sun decided to label them "the truth."and only the Sun has suffered the consequences to this day,

    • 07:20

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: as its sales have never recovered on Merseyside,where most of the victims came from.And that's largely because people there had accessto a different version of the truth that could challengethe version put forward by a small number of senior policeand then amplified by a small number of journalists.But people don't always have accessto alternative information or firsthand information

    • 07:43

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: to consider alongside what they see in the news.What happens then?The Sun's coverage of Hillsboroughhas long been seen as symbolic of an unethical and uncaringsort of journalism.But it is worth pointing out that over the years,many other journalists have worked with the families

    • 08:04

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: and others, digging away to get at the truth of what reallyhappened.So perhaps the best response to unethical journalismis not to despair of all journalism,but to challenge it by engaging in moreethical forms of journalism.And that can often mean questioning and challengingsome very powerful forces.

    • 08:25

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: That can be a lonely place at times.But if ethics is to have a role in journalism,then journalists have to retain a sense of independencefrom power, independence from the proprietors that wework for, and also independence from the power of the state.[Iraq]

    • 08:50

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: To see why that's important, let's look back at the buildupto the US/UK-led invasion of Iraq in March, 2003.Now, taking your country into a warmust be pretty much the biggest decisiona government ever has to take.And it's certainly one of the biggest decisionsfor a country's journalists to scrutinize.

    • 09:11

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: And in the months leading up to the invasion,the British government was tryingto convince a skeptical public that war was the best option.And as part of what many saw as a propaganda campaign,they published a dossier in September,2002 that among other things, claimed that the regime in Iraq

    • 09:31

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction-- WMD--and that it could launch an attack within just 45 minutesof an order being given.Prime Minister Tony Blair said the same thing in Parliament,and journalists reported it.They reported it accurately.They reported it truthfully.

    • 09:52

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: Journalists accurately reported what was in the dossier.They truthfully reported what the prime ministertold Parliament.They used quotes and attribution to cover the story accurately,picking out the most newsworthy angle for the intro,and generally following the tried and tested formulaof reporting the news.But was it the truth?

    • 10:14

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: What we do know is that those WMD were notfired at the invading troops, and norwere the stockpiles of such weapons ever found afterwards.So maybe we weren't 45 minutes from attackafter all, in which case all of those stories telling usaccurately what the dossier said-- well, they

    • 10:36

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: may have been accurate in one sense.But how much truth did they contain?This raises a big question: what ethical responsibilitydo journalists have when it comesto reporting what the powerful people are telling us?Is it enough simply to report what they say accurately?

    • 10:57

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: Or is the more ethical thing to doto challenge, to question, to be skeptical,to look at the evidence but also look at the counter-evidence,and to seek out other views and alternative views.As with everything concerned with ethics in journalism,there are no easy answers to such big questions.

    • 11:18

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: But simply asking the question can be a start.[Right and Wrong]When we talk about ethics in journalism,or ethics in anything else, we'rereally talking about ideas of right and wrong.Yet one of the confusing things isthat, as we know from our everyday lives,

    • 11:39

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: different people can have very different ideas of what's rightand what's wrong.So can different editors, different owners,different industries, different regulators,and different societies in general.One way of working out what might be right and wrongis to learn from what has come before, and to read about someof the different ethical dilemmasfaced by different journalists in different circumstances,

    • 12:02

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: and what they did about it.Being aware of issues that have come up beforecan help prepare you for when they come up again.And it can also remind us that when we talk about ethics,we don't just mean those big issues-- "the truth," privacy,war, censorship, life and death matters.No, ethics can come into everything that journalists do,

    • 12:24

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: or that journalists don't do.So every time a journalist decidesthat this story is worth coveringand that story isn't, there might be an ethical elementto that decision.There's certainly an element of choice.And every time a journalist decideswhich sources to use, who to trust,what angle to take on a story, howmany other sides to include, there

    • 12:46

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: might be ethical issues involved, as wellas a whole host of other practical considerations:how to edit a quote or a sound bite; how to crop a photo;whether you can verify a video that somebody's justposted onto YouTube; and whether it'sright to lift pictures or other materialfrom somebody's Facebook profile.All of these everyday issues can have ethical dimensions

    • 13:10

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: that journalists have to think through, often really quickly,as part of doing their jobs.It's part of the job, or at least it should be.And the good news is that individual journalists don'thave to do it all on their own.There are usually colleagues to talk things through with.You'll often need to discuss options with your editor.

    • 13:31

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: And there are editorial guidelines or codesof ethical conduct that can informyour thinking and your actions.[Codes of Conduct]Many news organizations have their own codes,or expect their journalists to follow industry-wide ones.

    • 13:53

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: And there are also codes of ethics drawn upby trade unions representing journalists,such as the NUJ in the UK and Ireland.Then there's the IFJ, the International Federationof Journalists, which brings togetherjournalists' unions from around the world.That's also got its own code.That's one mentioned earlier, with respect for truthas the first principle.

    • 14:15

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: Now some codes are really long and detailed.Some are very short, dealing mostly in principles.And others are somewhere in between.But they pretty much tend to agree on most of the basics,such as the importance of journalists respectingtruth and accuracy; on correcting mistakes;

    • 14:36

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: on not whipping up hatred against certain sectionsof the population; protecting the identityof confidential sources; not intruding on people'sprivate grief, or at least not without pretty good reason;and invading somebody's privacy, onlyif there's a serious public interest in doing so.So in their way, such codes can be

    • 14:58

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: seen as the sort of collective wisdom of journalistspassed down the years.That doesn't mean they're commandmentswritten on tablets of stone.They are open to interpretation, and circumstances differ.But it does mean that they can be used as a reference pointto help get you out of an ethical jungleif you find yourself in it, a torch

    • 15:20

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: to help you see the way ahead.Apart from anything else, ethical codes of conductcan help provide generalists with a peg on which theycan hang the question, hold on a minute.Should we really be doing this?Because that's what ethics boils down to in many ways--questioning what you're doing, thinking about what you're

    • 15:43

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: doing, talking about what you're doing, and who knows,sometimes maybe even changing what you're doing.But how much influence can one individual journalist actuallyhave in all this?[Agency and Constraints]How much agency do journalists have, to use an academic term?

    • 16:08

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: Agency here refers to the power of individual journaliststo control or influence their own practicewithin the constraints they work under.Now, constraints is another word used in the academic studyof journalism.In this context, it refers to the rangeof influences that can limit a journalist'sindividual autonomy.

    • 16:28

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: It might include the law of the land, decisionsmade by the employer, the attitudes of colleagues,possibly the influence of advertisers, maybe not wishingto go against strong public opinion-- that kind of thing.And recent thinking has suggestedthat the ethics that we get in journalismare not the result of just one almighty influence, but rather

    • 16:52

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: the result of a range of different, and sometimesconflicting, influences.So there's the individual-- that's each one of us.There's the institutional-- that's the workplace.And there's the cultural-- that'sinfluences from wider society.So as individuals, we have an individual conscience.

    • 17:13

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: And we have some individual power to act,even if it sometimes feels that that'spretty much limited to deciding that you don't wantto work for certain employers.But as individuals, we don't exist in isolation.And it's a bit much to expect the rights and wrongsof the whole journalism industry to be

    • 17:33

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: based on the consciences of individual journalists.So there's interplay between the individual and the institutionand the wider culture, with one influencing the others--to some extent, at least.So it's not that individual conscience doesn't matter.It's that there's more to it than that.

    • 17:55

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: A workplace may have an atmospherein which employees are encouragedto speak up, for example.Or, it may have something of a bullying culture thatpunishes those who speak out, or at leastmakes it feel harder to do so.And a concern for ethics in journalismshould not just be for the especially brave

    • 18:15

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: or the foolhardy.Journalism plays a really important rolein informing society about itself,in questioning what goes on in society,and what the powerful are getting up to.And that's done best in a climate in which journalistscan also question what goes on in journalismand what the powerful are getting up to.

    • 18:37

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: And that way, we might end up with fewer examplesof the lives of people such as the family of MillieDowler being trampled on in pursuit of the next big story.You can take this further by reading moreabout the possibilities of ethical journalism.Have a look at the Ethical Journalism Initiative,

    • 18:59

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: which brings together informationfrom around the world, where journalists have taken a standto show that ethics and journalism are not opposites,or at least they don't have to be.There are some horror stories out thereabout unethical journalism.But that's not the whole story.Every day, there are also journalists demonstrating

    • 19:22

      TONY HARCUP [continued]: in practice that ethical journalism does not haveto be a contradiction in terms.[Available Now][MUSIC PLAYING]

Ethics in Journalism

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Tony Harcup examines ethics in journalism, highlighting independence from influence and the relative values of truth, privacy and the public interest. He devotes special attention to the News of the World phone hacking scandal, the coverage of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, and the buildup to the Iraq War.

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Ethics in Journalism

Tony Harcup examines ethics in journalism, highlighting independence from influence and the relative values of truth, privacy and the public interest. He devotes special attention to the News of the World phone hacking scandal, the coverage of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, and the buildup to the Iraq War.

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