Is ethical journalism possible?

Well... it is possible, yet challenging, to demand high ethical standards in the field of journalism. It is imperative that these standards are continually imposed and reiterated so as to provide a benchmark for journalists, as ethics are fundamental to the practice of responsible journalism and to uphold the good reputation and credibility of the news organisation. As journalists are bound to come across ethical issues like the public’s right to know and blasphemous publications that could be seen as offensive to a particular group of people, they require journalistic ethics and codes as a guideline.

The focus of this blog revolves around the cartoon controversy of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) with regards to freedom of expression and blasphemy. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten was condemned by Muslims for publishing cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). On September 30, 2005 the paper published 12 cartoons of the Prophet. Thereafter, the newspaper was formally investigated to determine whether the cartoons constituted prohibited racist or blasphemous speech (Saleh, 2008). I argue from a relativist point of view, that freedom of expression should be balanced out with other human rights.

This particular incident is particularly sensitive as Muslims are often framed negatively by mass media. The editorial of The Hindu stated on February 9: “At a time when Muslims across the world feel deeply offended by prejudiced stereotypes of Islam post-9/11, the cartoons have not just been insensitive, they have been downright provocative” (Saleh, 2008: 186). Therefore it can sufficiently be argued that this publication, especially in light of its context is highly unethical. This is a sterling example of why ethical guidelines need to be in place. However, some journalists have completely defended the publication of cartoons in the name of freedom of expression and were explicit in their disapproval of the Muslim world’s reactions (Saleh, 2008). These journalists take on an absolutist view, in seeing freedom of expression as an absolute right.

Black, 1999 in (Claassen, 2005) argues that for many years, journalism has unfortunately neglected the significance of the link between excellent journalism and ethical journalism. Journalists tend to see their work as a profession, but their faith in that calling has been badly shaken in recent years (White, 2010). Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1972, "The press has a preferred position in our constitutional scheme, not to enable it to make money, not to set newsmen apart as a favoured class, but to bring to fulfilment the public's right to know." (Powe Jr., 1992). In this particular case, it can be argued that there was no legitimate reason for the publication of these caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

Ethics deals with the philosophical foundations of decision-making, or choosing among the good and bad options that one faces (Claassen, 2005); while media ethics more specifically, is meant to help media people develop principles and maxims to follow in ethical practice (Froneman & de Beer, 1998). Meta-ethics provides the broad foundation for making ethical decisions without being involved in the decision-making itself. In the journalistic sense, therefore, meta-ethics studies the paradigms that underlie the ethical choices made by journalists (Retief, 2002). So responsible journalists are conscious of, or care about, the ethical problems that arise between them and news sources, as well as the general public. Therefore, a reporter who reports responsibly is one who cares about the effects of the news on society (Nel, 1999).

Four of the key ethics of journalism as identified by (White, 2010) are accountability, truth-telling, independence and responsibility. Fairness, accuracy, objectivity and impartiality are also vital objectives of ethical journalism. Gouldner (1976: 102) in Glasser and Ettema (2008) states that, ‘‘To be ‘accountable’ means that one can be constrained to reveal what one has done and why one has done it; thus, the action and the reasons for it are open to a critique by strangers who have few inhibitions about demanding justification and reasonable grounds’’. A good journalist should always take the interests of readers into account.

American journalistic ethics have become extremely influential in the practice of journalism. It is argued to capture the essence of a Western attitude to journalism. Therefore, there have been significant voices arguing that these principles are culturally specific and are therefore incapable of being universally applied. In South Africa there have been vociferous calls for journalists to adjust their ethics in line with African cultural realities and the new political order. In the wake of its controversial enquiry into racism in the media, the South African Human Rights Commission for instance has suggested that the current codes of conduct and the various declarations that exist be reviewed to ensure that they are consistent with the current constitutional requirements and that they adequately reflect the role of the media in a democratic society (Krüger, 2005).

However, basic principles like independence (keeping a distance from the various players, to be able to report honestly), truth-telling, accuracy, and fairness are generally valid across contexts. Whatever the ethical approach in journalistic reporting, the topic reported needs to be addressed within its context (Krüger, 2005). Black, Steele & Barney (1995) in (Krüger, 2005) argue that, guiding principles for ethical journalism include treating sources, subjects, and colleagues as human beings and not merely as a means to an end. White (2010) argues that media accountability is shaped according to national conditions, traditions and customs. In this case, the Jyllands-Posten should have acted differently, in accordance to Islamic jurisprudence as it dealt with a specifically Islamic area of interest. Furthermore, journalism is effectively for the public good and in the public interest. This particular case was not necessary or ethically appropriate. Unethical journalism therefore is not in the public good as it brings about mistrust from the public in journalists and news organisations (Ndlovu, 2010).

There are many challenges in making demands for ethical journalism. Firstly, the truth should be objective; but everyone’s truth is subject to their beliefs, value system and ideologies. To be a good media practitioner, media ethics always need to be applied; you have a responsibility to be ethical (Ndlovu, 2010). Journalists face two pressures, working to keep their newspaper in business, and but also maintaining professional standards based on the idea of virtuous conduct and serving the public interest (Greer, 2008: 20).

According to Muslims, any image of Muhammad (SAW) is blasphemous, while some Westerners perceive its publication as a core right of free speech. Many media professionals in the West believe that religion should not set any barriers on freedom of expression on one hand, while also arguing that Muslims should not be insulted (Saleh, 2008). This great cartoon debate led to two cartoonists fearing for their lives when the Pakistani Jamaaat-e-Islami party offered more than $US1000 to anyone who killed the cartoonists. Most newspapers have been intolerant of the violent protests that erupted after the publication, condemning these acts as an over-reaction to an aggravation that should have been regarded as an insignificant insult (Saleh, 2008).

As we can see with the above controversy with freedom of speech/expression versus blasphemy as offensive to religious beliefs, it is important to have ethical guidelines in place so as to prevent the incitement of violence and dispute.

From a utopian perspective of upholding journalistic ethics, one would not publish the cartoons at all as it goes against Islamic beliefs. However, from a more pragmatic viewpoint, this decision would be balanced out with the public’s right to know and to be informed. This would depend on which is more important, the public’s right to be informed verse blasphemy against Muslims in general.

As we have seen in this case study, the media can cause significant harm by publishing information that is highly offensive, and not of legitimate public concern. Established ethics call for harm to be minimised, yet not avoided completely, since some kinds are unavoidable or even justifiable; therefore established ethics would be vital in this case with regards to decision-making on whether to publish blasphemous cartoons of a religious figure.

In considering many situations, we ask whether reported information outweighs the harm that may be caused. Neither the public’s right to know nor the harm to individuals have an automatic priority, and deciding which weighs more heavily is often very difficult (Krüger, 2005). Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers” (Karam, 2001). However, this right to freedom of expression and imparting information should be balanced out with other ethical issues like causing or inciting harm by publishing blasphemous content, because freedom of expression should not include the right to cause harm. As Haffajee (2006) also notes, balancing the public’s right to know against the duty not to injure people’s religions, racial or ethnic sensibilities is often a difficult and delicate matter.

There are various reasons as to why these demands need to be in place. As Xolela Mangcu argues in (Isaacson, 2009: 16), “whatever we put out there has an impact on the other side of the railway lines. We need to be responsible for what we put out there”. White (2010) argues that the failure of media to be open and accountable is one of the fundamental reasons why public trust in media and journalism has been lost.

Accuracy, truth and fairness is part and parcel of ethical and responsible journalism, therefore these ethical demands need to be made in journalism. If they are not, inaccurate information could be made public which could cause irreparable personal harm or offensive publications could cause a public outcry as seen in the case of the blasphemous cartoons. This goes further to affect the media’s credibility and integrity (Ndlovu, 2010). In protecting the media’s credibility and their right to report freely, they also have to accept that they bear a responsibility to respect the views of others (Karaan, 2006).

Contemporary technology allows for almost anyone to take on the role of ‘journalist’. The widespread use of the internet has allowed citizens to blog, circulate emails, and write stories in an online environment. White (2010) argues that beyond the need for public trust, there is a new debate about the need for greater professionalism in journalism. He argues that in the age when the term “Citizen Journalist” has come to represent an overflow of untrained, uninformed and ill-equipped amateurs into the world of real journalism there is a need to identify exactly who we are talking about when we use the term “journalist”.

Journalists see themselves as ’licensed truth-tellers’; societies give them unique freedoms so that they can inform the public about matters of importance. In this way, journalists are essential to democracy (Krüger, 2005). With that said, journalists need to distinguish themselves from others through their ethical behaviour and professionalism; their accountability and transparency. This is about ensuring that the people who practice journalism for a living are competent, trained, informed and aware of their responsibilities (White, 2010). With that in mind, the journalists who published these caricatures should have been wary that freedom of speech is not an absolute, but should rather negotiate between the dividing lines (Haffajee, 2006).

Journalism can be a driving force of change, building confidence in society and opening the door to new and dynamic forms of democratic exchange. “Freedom of speech is a universally-accepted right, but we must carefully realize the fine line of distinction between free speech and hate speech. The cartoons can be seen as a form of hate speech, by stigmatizing all Muslims” (Saleh, 2008: 190). However, Unterhalter (2004) argues that at the heart of free speech is the right to say things that may offend others. This emphasises the great challenge in not having ethical standards of journalism as ethics varies from one person to the next. So to expect any kind of standardised ethics to be implemented, specific guidelines need to be in place. However, this will naturally vary across contexts.

Though these ethical demands may not always be met completely, the high standard of ethics needs to be reinforced so as to encourage responsible journalism in order to promote the value of journalism. Without ethical demands, journalists would be free to be biased, partial, unaccountable, inaccurate and insensitive to the beliefs and values of others as seen in the case study presented. This would naturally erode the credibility and integrity of journalists and news organisations which would effectively lead to distrust of the news media by the public. If the general public should lose trust in news media in general then news organisations will cease to exist because their entire existence is dependent on the public as consumers. If these demands are not made and met it will lead to the death of professional journalism which will leave us with citizen journalism that have no public responsibility or standards or ethics to which they need to adhere to, leaving us with unfiltered and possibly inaccurate news content.


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