Freedom not a “get out of jail free” card

Stephen Ward

Stephen WardBeing an ethicist in journalism today can be a strange and frustrating experience.

I don’t ask for sympathy. I have a good life, thank you.

Rather, I mention this fact because it indicates how far journalism has evolved, or has failed to evolve.

I recently participated in a lively and important forum on offensive speech at the University of King’s College in Halifax. The conversation about legal issues went smoothly. Most people agreed there is a need to protect journalists from complaints addressed to human rights tribunals. But when the discussion moved to the ethics of offensive speech – how journalists should use freedom responsibly – the discussion stalled. Some people asked: What’s with this “responsibility” talk anyway? Why assume journalism has ethical responsibilities? Why not just be free to shout from the rooftops, or across the Internet?

To those puzzled by talk of ethics, I will be blunt: What planet have you been living on?

Journalism ethics is so needed today, and the responsibilities of journalism are so evident, that this skepticism is either disingenuous or shows a woeful lack of reflection.

Journalists have responsibilities because of their social role. Our society protects their freedom so that journalists can inform citizens in a responsible fashion. Every group that has significant influence on the public, like journalism, accrues certain duties. Power and impact entail social responsibilities, whether specific individuals accept them or not.

Journalists have ethical responsibilities because they can do both substantial public harm and substantial public good.

On the negative side, journalists can destroy reputations, deal in malicious rumours, demonize minorities, plagiarize and fabricate stories, doctor images, intrude on private lives and add to the trauma of vulnerable people. They can manipulate elections, spark racial tensions and accept kick-backs for doing (or not doing) stories. They can sensationalize and misrepresent issues. In times of tension, they can support the removal of civil rights, support unjust wars and act as a megaphone for demagogues.

There is also the positive side – contributing to the public good. Ethics is not just about restraints on journalism or what you should not do. It is also about what you should do. Ethics encourages journalists to seek truth without fear or favour, to act independently and to do the sort of reporting that our society needs.

No one, and certainly no profession, that has power can avoid ethics. Freedom does not give journalists a sort of ethical immunity? Freedom is not a get-out-of-jail card with respect to ethics. Freedom to publish is valuable as a means to ethical journalism. Otherwise, such freedom can be harmful and its ethical value questioned.

If some journalists puzzle over whether they have ethical duties, they should note that neither the courts nor the public are confused on this score. Courts see journalists as having social duties. The public’s trust in journalism is falling because they suspect a lack of ethics in newsrooms.

Therefore, as I sat in the forum in Halifax, I found questions such as “Why ethics?” almost surreal.

I also found it frustrating.

To be honest, I get tired of going to journalism sessions and having to mount (again and again) a defence of ethics. It seems to be de rigueur to dismiss journalism ethics as an oxymoron. Skepticism and scoffing is an easy and lazy temptation.

When I attend conferences for other professions, the participants accept the need for greater knowledge, better professional schools, better methods and greater ethics. This consensus allows for constructive discussions on how to build on what has been established. With journalism, in contrast, we often have to start from square one and justify the very existence of ethics, and confront a host of misunderstandings about what ethics is and is not.

It is a curious enterprise to discuss ethics within a profession that still isn’t sure it is a profession; to try to advance ethics in a field that isn’t sure it wants to advance ethics.

Curious, yet we need to soldier on. I take encouragement from the new global-minded students of journalism, the improving schools of journalism and the many journalists who do believe in ethics. Across the globe, hundreds of journalists put their personal well-being in jeopardy to publish controversial investigations. Journalists take principled stands for peace and humanity, and against oppression and abuse of power.

There remains a sizeable coalition for good journalism.

Moreover, at this forum, there were other people who stressed the need for ethics. I do not tar everyone with the same brush. But this particular discussion reminded me that we need to challenge limiting and long-standing aspects of journalism culture.

In the end, the most urgent question of journalism ethics is not whether journalism has ethical duties. The most urgent questions are whether ethics is possible in today’s changing newsrooms, what sort of ethics is needed and what we can do to support ethical standards.

We should spend our energy trying to protect journalism from ethical debasement during this difficult time for news media.

Now these are questions worth asking. These are projects worth our collective effort.

Read a J-Source live blog of the “The Media’s Right to Offend: Exploring the Legal and Ethical Limits on Free Speech” symposium in Halifax.

J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.