Is the News Media Ethical in Reporting?
It is the general idea that ethics of news reporting has always been a topic of controversy. News is created by people who are vulnerable and easily influenced by power, money, fear, personal gain, fame, etc. Though, news that people produce has always been manipulative and manipulated both voluntarily and involuntarily. In fact, news reporting can be a powerful tool, which easily influences people’s minds and ideas, encourages rebellions or advocates peace, supports or disregards people and events, as well as regulates all types of human relations. Considering this fact, many governments, companies, and individuals are tempted to manipulate the news media. Despite the codes of ethics created by many sources of mass media, there are still a lot of mass media companies which violate the rules of ethical codes. Therefore, one may presume that the news media are not always ethical in reporting.
In order to either support or refute this statement, this paper seeks to analyze the definition, general overview, and history of the issue on news media ethics, single out arguments for and against the statement, and discuss the ethical issue in order to reach the consensus on whether the news media are ethical or not ethical in reporting.
History and Overview of the Issue of News Media Ethics
It has been agreed that the news media are the key elements of the mass media, which mainly focus on delivering news of high quality to the public. The news media mainly include printed sources, such as printed magazines and newspapers, the Internet sources of news, broadcast news, etc. Media ethics, when applied to the news media, can be defined as moral and ethical standards of the news media in order to insure its ethicalness, truthfulness, and transparency (Belsey and Chadwick 65).
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In order to sustain ethical environment, the code of ethics was created. Different news organizations and journalists have adopted and revised it to establish their own codes in order to clarify the ethical expectations for the public and employees. As a matter of fact, media codes of ethics have gained the most public attention for several reasons. On the one hand, the decision made by the judge that the National Association of Broadcasters codes violated the anti-trust law influenced the decision to reconsider the codes in 1982. Current debates about being neutral in reporting remind both print and broadcast news media of the governments’ possibility of intervention in media affairs. As such, the issue of credibility of the media is haunting both the public opinion polls and media management (Braman 73).
It has been asserted that the U.S. media codes of ethics appeared during the two historical periods. The first period was in the 1920s within an era of arising trade associations and professionalism, as well as different local and state censorship boards. The second period was in the 1970s, during the Watergate Scandal. The development of codes of ethics was also influenced by the Code of Wartime Practices and the National Industrial Recovery Act, as well as the fear of state intervention (Belsey and Chadwick 93).
Nowadays, codes of ethics often help journalists in making sound decisions and building a journalism strategy due to many ethical issues, which can be encountered in their work. However, in comparison to the previous century, news reporters face a wide range of ethical issues on a daily basis.
Therefore, in order to be ethical in reporting, the news company should adhere to the following rules (Perebinossoff 35).
- Firstly, journalists and reporters always need to be committed to telling the truth. This includes not giving made-up or false facts in the reports and stories. Usually, this requires news reporters to provide not only a factual material, but the context surrounding it. Therefore, truthfulness of the reporting depends not only on the journalist, but also on the news company.
- Secondly, the interests of an owner company may sometimes be different in comparison to the news being reported. In this sense, journalists need to be careful not only in describing their parent company in a decent way, but giving no favors to companies, which are connected to the parent company of organization as well.
- Thirdly, the news organizations may sometimes emphasize stories that are interesting but not important, which is also a violation of the code of ethics. This usually happens when the news reporters want to attract and please the audience more than reporting on challenging and critical issues. For instance, it may happen when the company wants to increase the rating of the news program, as in the increased pace of news business resulted by the Internet and cable television, the companies want to maintain their high profits in such competition. Therefore, news companies should at least try to make interesting reports out of the critical material, which is important to people.
- Fourthly, at the age of information, photos and videos in reporting should be carefully used, because they can be easily edited by digital editing tools or can sometimes have a disturbing content. The information used for reporting has to be truthful and reported with the consent of the person filmed or photographed (Ward 55).
In fact, journalists and their news companies can apply a variety of ways how to implement ethical behavior. These may include requiring the commitment in ethical issues from all company employees, employing an ombudsman, and adhering to the code of ethics.
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Despite the existing codes of ethics, the ethical rules are still constantly being violated. One of the most debatable issues in modern news reporting is media bias, especially on political issues, but sometimes also concerning racial, cultural, and other issues. Sensationalism is other common complaint in violating ethics of reporting, as well as making factual errors. There are also some wider ethical concerns as the new media appear and change rather fast nowadays. Considering the fact that the modern news media appear mainly in the Internet, it is hard to control the gigantic flow of information. Blogs or websites often lack arguments and a factual material as there is almost no control in what people publish on the web. Furthermore, the use of sound bites and brevity of news reports has reduced the fidelity to truthful information, and it sometimes might result in a lack of needed context for the public to understand. As a matter of fact, the increase in the news media management influences the real possibility of news media being deliberately manipulated. Selective reporting (usually referred to as double standards and spiking) is very common in news reporting, both in broadcast and printed media, and this is an undeniable violation of the ethical code. In the USA, both liberal and conservative biases exist in terms of political views. One of the examples of political bias happened in 2000 during the presidential elections in Florida, when the several news networks reported that George Bush had already lost in this state, even though the polls were still working. If this false announcement had not been made, the last vote from Florida would probably not have happened, which could have changed the results of elections (Christians and Nordenstreng 15).
Furthermore, nowadays, newsmakers deal with the increasing competition in covering all the significant stories and reaching information sources before their competitors. CNN and other website news have practised 24 hour wall-to-wall news coverage in order to ensure that they would provide the news to their readers or viewers as soon as it takes place. The main danger of such policy is that speed usually prevails over accuracy, and journalists exchange their ethical motives of fact-checking and truth-seeking for their love of breaking a story. One recent example of such ethical violation was when several news companies wrongly reported that Gabrielle Giffords was killed in a mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona, when she was not (McBride and Rosenstiel 145).
Despite the fact that some journalists turn to transparency in order to justify the claims in their news reports, most news makers have adhered to a more careless form of news writing, named “journalism of assertion.” Many independent websites and blogs, which lack an engrained sense of duty to readers and reporting truthful news, have developed a reporter style of the unsubstantiated opinion. Ideas in their reports are accrued and restated, without any regard to their factuality or origin. A good example of journalism assertion appeared in 1999, when a sexual assault allegation of Juanita Broaddrick against Bill Clinton had appeared in the press after almost twenty years after its occurrence (Ward 45).
In broadcasting, most of the companies are privately-owned. This results in the immense controversy and debates as usually news companies cannot give any negative facts about themselves and allow any of the employees to do that. The newsrooms become parts of large business corporations, and economic imperatives often make newsrooms compromise their ethical codes. In such case, business values of the need to meet the demand of advertisers and investors jeopardize journalistic ideals and integrity. Due to the fact that companies are financed by corporations, newsroom owners and their employees constantly work under pressure of investors, while making their quarterly reports. Therefore, journalists find themselves in the conflict of interest – either to report on economic issues that have a direct effect on the interest of their corporation or to report on what will have a positive influence on their company. When their corporation is affected, there is a chance it would negatively influence their career development or even the future of the corporation. It is the general idea that in the USA, six main corporations control all the American media. For instance, News Corporation owns nearly 27 TV stations and more than 150 newspapers, and Time Warner owns more than 100 subsidiaries such as Time Magazine, CNN, and the CW. This statistics provides a disturbing evidence of how far economic bias has gone in controlling the flow of information in the country (Ward 99).
The circumstances, in which most of the U.S. news media are struggling to succeed, refer to the Libertarian model. In this model, which dominated the Western world, the freedom of press is unlimited. It is not constrained by the society, government, and media ethics. Instead of being a conglomerate of various opinions and ideas, news reporting in such a model is truly restricted. Certainly, it is not as limited as in authoritarian societies, which usually serve the government’s interest, although it is still limited to the financial dependence on large businesses and corporations. Western news media heavily rely on their advertisers for money, thus, all their news never conflict with the desire of their financial partners and their vision of events. Owing to the deregulation movement, the FCC and the Congress have allowed more freedom and transparency in the field of telecommunication, and loosened laws that were implemented to provide ethics and social responsibility in the news media. Nowadays, most part of the western media outlets, including those in the United States, belongs to the share of media conglomerates and companies, which are focused on increasing their profits.
Despite the facts demonstrating the unethical side of the news media, there is a lot of evidence suggesting that nowadays, news media reporting is becoming more and more ethical.
Many scholars argue that an increase in the competition also has some positive results on transparency and ethics in the news media. Journalists, who are willing to set their articles on the web as comprehensive and truthful, have started giving the public an access to the sources they use. Assertions are often supported by web links, whereas the anonymity, which is granted to sources, is thoroughly explained (Merrill 88).
In the USA, the First Amendment is about the freedom of speech, so that the press needs to remain fully free, and the public should be informed about everything what is happening in the country. Despite the fact that plurality can sometimes conflict with ethical codes, the public interest is always put on the first place. As the same system is not provided in all countries, scholars suggest that the universal system of ethics should be created to regulate information in the globalized world. This is already happening as the global media are created all over the world, where political and economic bias can hardly exist. Some news media even put their codes of ethics online, such as The New York Times in 2003, which was an immense breakthrough in journalistic transparency (Ward 87).
Creating the global news broadcasting system and other types of news reporting prevents from the media bias, regulates and supports the news media in different countries, and detects international players, who support unethical broadcast operations and maintain the development of unethical journalism.
Nowadays, it is generally agreed that there is an existing news media corporation which is proved to be ethical and universal, the BBC Corporation. The news this corporation delivers lacks bias, despite circumstances. For example, when the British parliament decided to take military action against Syria in 2013, the BBC political editor harshly condemned the policy of the Prime Minister. In spite of the fact that the BBC is founded by Britain, the news independence is enshrined. Moreover, if the BBC reports on not accurate information, the news proves wrong by the BBC itself immediately. In fact, the explosions in social media, alongside these systems and policies keep the BBC honest (McBride and Rosenstiel 99).
As a universal corporation, the BBC organized trainings and courses for journalists for a number of partner TV and radio stations around the world. Moreover, the BBC gives a financial assistance to the same partners. This financial and practical support is substantially crucial, because the main element of the ethical crisis in journalism nowadays is the economic crisis. In this regard, the economic crisis and the pressure it makes on the developing world journalism gives corruption a space to grow (Berry 111).
In 2013, during the UN High Level Panel on updating the Millennium Development Goals, the new recommendations and goals were set, among which was to ensure that people enjoy freedom of peaceful protest, speech, access to independent information and media, as well as freedom of association. This was an immensely important addition to the UN developmental goals, which demonstrates a considerable step towards the independent media and their goal to promote positive results and descent governance in terms of the human development (McBride and Rosenstiel 102).
As a matter of fact, the support of news media ethics can be drawn from the social responsibility theory, according to which the media are driven to the public benefit. This theory expects journalists to provide people with the need for truth, requires a diverse and open debate on current issues, and truthful updates on different events. In this theory, media ethics comes automatically, because the media is free to serve its inner purpose for the public, as opposed to advertisers or special interest groups. Another statement, which relates to the social responsibility theory, is that reporting of news cannot be dependent on any groups that might encourage unethical practices and bias in exchange for the financial aid (Plaisance 57).
In order to combat the pressures, which threatened freedom of the press in the past, this theory was firstly introduced in 1947 by the Hutchins Commission. Since that time, the United States of America has truly developed better educated reporters and journalists, witnessed a reduction in sensationalism of news, and achieved more accuracy in news reporting. Moreover, many journalists are nowadays also advocating for the social and public issues and reforms, spreading their messages throughout the media (Berry 95).
In fact, the BBC news described above is not the only one to serve as an example of such theory model. The American NPR news is also an excellent example of the Western media, which relate to the category of social responsibility. They do not depend on their advertisers or government, but on their public audience for compensation and, therefore, are not involved in corporate interest affairs. Moreover, they share an educational and multicultural focus, instead of only entertaining their viewers and listeners, which is immensely positive (Callahan 4). Therefore, they are perfect examples for other media to follow. Today, their influence is worldwide, thus, one cannot deny the immense improvement in world media ethics. This fact supports the idea that nowadays, the news media reporting is ethical (Bender et al 148).
Discussion of Ethical Issue
Having analyzed both supportive and opposing arguments to the statement that the news media are not always ethical in reporting, one cannot but agree that despite positive changes in news reporting ethics and creating independent news media, which represent public interests, it is evident that these examples are dominating neither in the USA nor in the world. The theory of social responsibility applied in the news media ethics is quite utopian nowadays, where the business corporations dictate their own policies and control the main economic and political processes in the world. Moreover, economic crises in the news media result in the increase in dependence on advertisers and business corporations, which leads to corruption and bias in the news media.
Evidence suggests that threats of physical violence and intimidation among journalists have been rising nowadays. It has been recorded that 600 journalists were killed during the past decade in the world. In most cases, they were not working on reporting from conflicting zones, but worked in little towns, revealing illegal activities and corruption. Therefore, the main focus of the UN Security Council is on revealing those who planned journalist attacks and organized those crimes. Those crimes would not have happened, if the news reporting had been ethical (Bender et al 89).
No one can deny that the Libertarian theory has been dominating the world for centuries, which was grounded on the free market economy. Consequently, it resulted in a number of issues from political and corporate censorship to media bias. Reports on stories that could be significant are not necessarily reported to the general audience and are often substituted with more entertaining stories and news. For instance, main world conflicts and political issues are seldom covered in the reports, while the media are saturated with news about the celebrity life or other less important information. In addition, while there is no social responsibility requirement, the Western media tend to advertise only those political candidates, who can afford making such an advertisement, which limits the coverage of other political movements. Therefore, such tendencies cause a deluge of entertaining stories and a lack of crucial news and reports, which contain critical information. Main humanitarian conflicts can go unnoticed for decades; environmental problems are barely discussed. Voices and opinions of many people remain unheard, and it is definitely not the case of ethical news reporting.
When discussing the multicultural focus of some of the so-called ethical news media, there is also a wide range of problems associated with racial, religious, and cultural bias. Norms and democratic principles of one state can interfere with principles and laws of the other state. The BBC news has the European view of democracy and multiculturalism. If these ideas are imposed on other cultures, it may result in considerable resistance. Thus, there is a serious debate on whether it is real to create a universal code of ethics for all media. The reality of today’s world is that each culture and religion has its own ethical views, which might not necessarily match those imposed by the BBC. Therefore, the implication of this idea might be a success only in the Western world.
Therefore, in the future, the news media system may not fall into either the Libertarian theory or the social responsibility theory. The time has shown that the first one has not justified itself, and the second one is utopic. In order to make the news media reporting truly ethical, there is a need to change the nature of human relations and attitudes. People are weak and vulnerable and, thus, can be easily manipulated. Until this statement proves to be right, it will be impossible to make a positive change in providing people with ethical news reports.
It has been widely accepted that accountability is expected from journalists, which demands and integrity and respect to fellow citizens and their profession. Certainly, codes of ethics are not technically enforced, but accountability results in adherence to these ethical standards. Journalists should recognize that their duty is to uphold the ethical principles. Consequently, the ethical codes should come after the realization of their main purpose.
Having analyzed the definition, general overview and history of the issue of news media ethics, having covered arguments for and against the statement that the news media are not always ethical in reporting, and having discussed this ethical issue considering arguments for and against, one has come to the conclusion that the statement presumed at the beginning of the paper has proved to be true.
Indeed, despite the existence of codes of ethics, which are aimed at setting the ethical standards to news reporting, and despite the existence of several news companies, which are relatively ethical in their policy, the majority of news companies are privately owned parts of business corporations. They establish what news should be broadcasted and published, and what should not. Mostly, such companies are interested in a decent profit and good rating; thus, most of the time, crucial political and humanitarian events are left out. Other significant issue, which supports the thesis statement, is political bias, when politicians influence the news reported by companies in order to manipulate the public opinion. In fact, the main purpose of the news reporting is not being reached, which is to provide news for people, not to manipulate the public.
Consequently, in order to make the news media reporting ethical, a change of human priorities and values should take place. There is also a need to change the nature of human relations. People are proved to be are weak and easily manipulated. Until this fact remains to be true, it will be impossible to improve the situation with regards to media ethics and make a positive change in providing people with ethical news reports.