Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with moral components of human life and usually is called philosophy of the morality1 as it reflects understandings of society regarding what is and what is not correct within a certain act, as well as differences between a good and evil. If you accuse somebody of being lazy and he does not do his job well, that does not mean that he has immoral behavior, but from other side, lying and robbery are implicit violations of ethical norms. That is why ethics is very often described as an agglomerate of principles or as codex of moral behavior.
Our conscience tells us, even in the journalism (of course if we have that conscience) very often in a brutally clear way, that there is a significant difference between tacts that are accurate ones and acts that are wrong. Knowing ethical principles and the facts from which it has been derived can have an influence on our behavior.
When, for example, journalists “dive” into someone’s life, their decision to publish, and it is very often, unpleasant details, they justify this by saying the “people have a right to know.” The problem with this type of justification is that it does not answer the question exactly of what is it that the people have a right to know, and above all, why do people have the right to know this kind of information.
All over the world codes of conduct2 have been proposed for journalists. In fact, ethics is inseparable from journalism, because the practice of journalism is centered on a set of essentially ethical concepts: freedom, democracy, truth, objectivity, honesty and privacy. If the proper role of journalism is seen as providing information, then the ethical questions focus on one issue: maintaining the quality of that information. This issue has become a matter of political controversy and public concern.
Many people think that the media are inaccurate and biased. The Robert Maxwell case3 has re-opened the issue of media ownership. Questions of censorship and freedom of information have arisen in connection with Spycatcher, the fight against terrorism in Northern Ireland and the wars in the Falklands and the Gulf. Not to mention issues with ISIL, as well as subjects as diverse and of concern about the trivializing and exploitative representation of women in media, etc.
The dissemination and discussion of information concerning the major problems the world and its people face is necessary to both the democratic understanding and action — without which problems cannot be solved, and without which, in fact, they will escalate. Ethics is not just a matter of codes of conduct (plus or minus sanctions), nor is it just a matter of rules to be followed. It has more to do with principles concerning the rights and wrongs of human conduct, principles that have some reasoned theoretical basis and which therefore can be applied objectively and impartially.
Freedom, democracy, truth, objectivity, honesty and privacy
These five criteria represent the basics of any kind of ethical system, including the one that belongs to professional journalists.
First of all, an ethical system must have joint values related to the ones mentioned within this context. Before the bringing of ethical judgments, society must achieve an agreement about the standards of moral behavior.
Secondly,those standards must be based on reason and experience and should try to harmonize rights and interests of the people with their obligations towards others.
Thirdly, andd ethical system must search for the justice. There should not be double standards for certain behaviors, except if there is no convincing and morally sustainable reason for discrimination.
Fourthly, ethical systems should be based on the freedom of choice. At the same time a system of ethics that is not embrace responsibility encourages freedom without responsibility and by doing that does not have the moral authority to encourage honorable behavior. If that happens, then we get, as has been said, – moral anarchy.
And finally, my firm belief is that we should use this sentence with regard to professional journalism: “As many rights that I might gain, I should also an gain equal amount of responsibility.”
In quality control – should we focus on Law or Ethics? The issue of quality is inescapable.
Yes, maintaining the quality of information, as we mentioned earlier, is just like having a code of conduct, is the restoration of the honor of journalism.
What is true on a national level, is also true internationally. A commitment to the quality of information and information flow to meet the urgent and demanding need for action in a troubled world is required on a global scale. To ensure freedom of information on this scale both global networks and democratic access are essential. Here the enemies of freedom are perhaps even more formidable, through intolerant or totalitarian governments and transnational capitalist corporations are not natural allies, and to some extent their interests conflict. But whether censorship — ideological, religious or commercial -– can prevail against the need for quality in the global media is not something that can today be predicted.
For the majority of journalists, being objective is a must and it is a shrine, but there also exists an acceptance of the stand that absolute objectivity is illusion. That is why journalists some times accept a less philosophical demanding definition that enables them to conduct their job without feeling that they have made a mistake. Due to that realistic point of view on objectivity, journalists aspire to keep outside their reports personal sympathies and opinions, to achieve balance within reporting and to rely on credible and responsible sources. According to that traditional point-of-view, media ethics is related to facts and impartiality within the carrying out of those facts.
Ethical decisions are always made within a certain particular context that includes political, social and cultural climate. Although context does not determine automatically the outcome of the ethical judgment, it does have an influence that cannot be ignored. De facto, the factors of the context, very often, are creating an internal morality conflict of the stances of our conscience about what we should do and what is popular to be done.
Also, we have to question as well the motives of the moral agent (moral agents are those who are making ethical decisions, regardless if they are acting independently or as representatives of some institutions, and all communicators are moral agents when they put themselves in conflict of ethical dilemmas of their professions and when they have to take full responsibility for their acts) because good motives sometimes might be used to justify something that looks like non-ethical act.
For example, a journalist can discover a case of corruption in the government –- that is journalistic techniques which the majority of us would tolerate (or even greeted) in the name of public good. However, motives cannot be analyzed only on the basis of their popularity or acceptance in public, but should have a view in regards to the consequences of the act.
The act is a component of the behavior within the process of communication. The act is something that attracts our attention through the acting of others and can lead us to describe their acts as either ethical or non-ethical. Acts can be verbal, as when a reporter lies about the sources of the information, or non-verbal, as when advertisers omit essential information about the product that might help a buyer to make a decision in regards to the buying of the product. Or, if, some TV station it provides a number to call and vote about certain issue through text messaging, while at the same time, lists the price of the telephone call can affect whether telephone calls are received exclusively because of that question.
An ethical solution should be judged in a sense of the relations of a moral agent with a person or persons or the public on which, in an ethical way, it is directly influenced. For example, magazines that are addressed to sophisticated readers could easily include a statement that consists of bawdry speech, but some local newspaper must avoid or censor that kind of statement. Remember, we mentioned earlier some political, social and cultural influences…
There are three moral markers that are fundamental in journalism, when ethics is in question: credibility, integrity and civility.
To be credible means that he/she is a trustful person and on whom you have confidence. From the ethical point of view, credibility is the starting point within our treatment towards others and full membership within the moral community.
Integrity is also key factor of moral development. Stephen Carter4 defines integrity as: a) making differences between good and bad; b) acting on the basis of observed differences, and even on a personal damage and c) open talks that you are acting on the bases of making differences of good and bad. Of course, as we stated before, to this should be added readiness for taking over of the responsibility for your own affairs.
Civility might be described as “the first principle of morality”, because that encircles the stand about devotion and respect of others. Those ideas reflect within all leading religions in the world. The problem is, as always, in the implementation of what has been written in the Holy Books, isn’t it? At the XVI Century, Erasmus of Rotterdam5 wrote that “civility is what makes us possible to live together as society”. It encircles composition of the rules, very often on conventions, that makes apparatuses for the interaction with others.
With regards to values, we have a problem of journalistic and media neutrality. Is it possible to be neutral in certain cases – especially in those cases in which the violence, crime, and discrimination are affirmed?
Philippe Breton6 has underlined that “under the mask of division of work and professional ideology supported by so call neutralism, media are becoming most suitable mean for the spreading of xenophobic amalgams”, which can devastatingly act upon the public. Breton’s words can be portrayed on the area of any xenophobic territories in the World: “We are the best, but we do not know in what. What is more favorable one stand of one group about itself, it will be more unfavorable in regards all other groups, with a tendency for accusing others for the all misfortune of their group, and from there raises possibilities to have a conflict with other groups, and every conflict even more strengthen distrust and hatred.”
We then come to the issue of: Political corruption, which is, in the widest sense, every kind of misuse of authority for the reasons of personal and/or group benefit regardless if we are talking about the public or private sector. The word itself came from Latin word “corruptus” which means “destroy” or “corrupt” and when it is use as an adjective literary means: “completely destroyed/corrupted”. But, to be more specific, corruption is the misuse of power to gain private benefit. Corruption can be high, petty or political corruption, depending on the amount of money that is lost within the sector in which it happens. There is a definition from Vito Tanzi7 who says that corruption is purposely not complying with the principles of impartiality during decision making process with the goal of realizing advantages for the perpetrator or connected persons through that kind of procedures.
Corruption exists in every country in the world, democratic of non-democratic, in the west or the east, developed or non-developed, transition or non-transition country, so it looks like it is inherent in human civilization. However, within developing countries, the media is very often faced with the combination of the factors that creates a fertile ground for corruption, as it is lack of training and technical skills, law professional standards, limited financial resources, mat or by state controlled ownership structures of the media, inadequate or antidemocratic made law framework – forms of corruption in media starts from the bribe in the shape of cash for the news, through the organization of fake news, bestowal, hidden adverts and up to nepotism and controlling of the achieved private or political interests. The fight against corruption in media might involve a wide spectrum of the approach, starting from the raising of the conscience about ethical standards, strengthening of the freedom of the press, introducing of the adequate media politics and legislature, accentuation of the media responsibility, as well as support towards investigative journalism through the adequate education.
Why morality and ethics are important for professional journalists?
The answer is simple – To make a difference between good and evil – universal values as the truth, justice, love, beauty, freedom, goodness, solidarity, human dignity, peace-glorifying of the life. Characteristic attributes of the journalists are integrity, honesty, harmony, respect, sacrifice, trust. Questions about universal values and norms that came out of it becomes very important every time when basic human rights are brutally violated in the name of some state, national, racial, class, party interest.
When there is moral decay, than the laws are fulfilling the emptiness: that is why we have today so many laws and lawyers – A German saying states: “Where the law does not have power, that the power becomes the law.” I add that where we do not have the Rule of Law, we surely have Law of Rule.
By punishing and awarding we can come to expect decent behavior, but never we will come see a moral behavior, because the motive of the behavior has been imposed from outside and is not experienced from the inside. I can be obedient citizen, but not a moral person.
Legal norms are endured, moral norms are respected: distrust towards the state and their institutions is widely spread. That is why people more often break legal laws, and not moral norms.
The responsibility of journalists and the media considers responsible acting and behavior towards him/herself, people near them, others, call, nature, narrow groups and the whole community, respectively the state itself. Only when individuals become mature and achieve the ability for responsibility, will they become religious, customary, moral and legal subject, otherwise, without that he/she stays on the level of biological nature. Here is the key concept of conscience. Victor Hugo8 used to say: “I am a convict who only listen his own conscience.”
To have conscience means to be honest to myself. Conscience is the authority to which you cannot lie.
However, how to survive as a professional journalist in a World that has killed at least 110 journalists9 in 2015?
How to survive as professional journalist in a World where you are going to be killed or prosecuted just because you are doing a legitimate and sincere job as, I repeat, a professional journalist?
Again, the answer will not be blowing in the wind if everybody conducts their work ethically, like professional journalists do. Nothing more, or less, but who will be the one who will establish a comprehensive book of rules for such? I hope that you remember the one who did it more than 2000 years ago. That Holy Book still exists, but comprehensive ethics does not. Yet, maybe, if everybody just copies/pastes the work of professional journalists, the World might become a better place for living. Yes, that is the answer. And, please, do not shoot. Yet.
1. Louis Alvin Day: Ethics in Media Communications: Cases and Controversies“:
2. Society of Professional Journalists: http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
3. A Notorious Fraud – the Robert Maxwell Farrago – by Australian guardians: http://australianguardians.org/?page_id=808
4. Stephen L. Carter „The culture of disbelief“: http://www.stephencarterbooks.com/books/nonfiction/integrity
5. Erasmus of Rotterdam: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desiderius_Erasmus
6. Phillipe Breton: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippe_Breton
7. Vito Tanzi: https://www.imf.org/external/Pubs/FT/staffp/1998/12-98/pdf/tanzi.pdf
8. Victor Hugo: http://www.biography.com/people/victor-hugo-9346557
9. Reporters without borders: https://rsf.org/en/news/rsf-annual-round-110-journalists-killed-2015