History of journalism ethics

by Stephen J. A. Ward

This section provides a summary of the main theories of the press and its ethics, from the 17th century onward.

Societies have transmitted news since the dawn of human consciousness and pre-literate society. The origin of the modern journalist, however, begins with Gutenberg’s printing press and a host of social, political and economic changes in Western Europe that provided the conditions necessary for the emergence of a periodic news press by the 17th century. This was a press that included a variety of news and opinion for sale to a public, and it did so periodically. It took the form of weekly and bi-weekly “news books” or “news sheets” in Europe in the early 1600s. (For a more detailed history, read my book The Invention of Journalism Ethics.)

From this relatively modest beginning, the press grew into the daily press of the 18th century, especially in England. By the end of the 18th century, the press had played a major role in the American and French revolutions and were a major social force. The press was a “fourth estate.”

Across the 19th century, a more commercial and popular press developed into the mass commercial press of the late 1800s, now both economic and social force. The large commercial newspapers were the first mass medium. They had the staff, technology and economic means to pursue news with speed and across great distances. Rather than stress opinion, the mass newspapers began to stress the “business of news,” while journalism associations stressed the virtues of professionalism, objectivity and factual accuracy. In the 20th century, broadcast news media would join the newspapers.

By the end of the 1900s, computers linked to the Internet would create a communication revolution that would challenge the social position and standards of the professional, commercial press that had developed in the previous century.
In summary, we can identify four revolutions in Western journalism:

1. The development of a limited, but novel, “periodic news press” in the 1600s
2. The expansion of the daily press in the 18th century public sphere
3. The development of a liberal press in the 19th century, culminating in a mass commercial newspaper
4. The emergence of “new media” — global and interactive — in the 1900s

Theories of the Press
In an influential text from the 1950s, Four Theories of the Press, the authors outlined a number of “theories of press” since the 17th century.

1. Authoritarian theory of the press: The function of the press is to support the policies and actions of the state, and its authorities. The press should foster social solidarity and national unity. The state has the right to control the press for the overall public good. In many cases, controlling the press means preventing the press from embarrassing the existing government, to repress criticism and protest, and to severely restrict press freedom. The authoritarian view was prevalent in 17th century Europe where publishing came under the prerogative and censorship powers of the monarch and church. The authoritarian theory is embraced today by many leaders of non-democratic states.

2. Libertarian (or liberal) theory of the press: The function of the press is to protect the people’s liberties and rights, and to inform the public so they can participate as citizens in democratic self-government. The liberal theory prefers a privately owned news media that is maximally free to inform citizens and criticize public policy, as well as act as a watchdog on authorities. The right to publish and express oneself freely is not a prerogative of the state or a government. It is a fundamental right of free individuals. The liberal theory argues that a free marketplace of ideas, while it may cause harm over the short term, is the best safeguard in the long run for a free and liberal society.

3. The social responsibility theory: The social responsibility theory: Four Theories describes social responsibility theory as a 20th century development and critique of libertarian theory. It attempts to balance the liberal stress on the freedom of the press. It argues that such freedoms of a powerful news media must be balanced by social responsibilities. Journalists have a duty to provide well-contextualized news in a comprehensive manner. They have a duty to provide a diverse forum of views and values. They have a duty to go beyond entertaining news consumers and to provide a core of in-depth analysis on the most serious issues.

Quick Study: Siebert, Fred et al. Four Theories of the Press. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956.

An alternate ‘view of press’ theory
In The Invention of Journalism Ethics, I provide an alternate, more nuanced, history of press theory and the development of journalism ethics, going beyond Four Theories. I identify six major stages in the development of journalism ethics.

Stage one: The invention of journalism ethics in the periodic news press of the 17th century, especially in London. The two traditions of factual news reporting and independent opinion-making begin here. Editors claim to adhere to such norms as impartiality, truth-telling, unbiased observation, credible informants, etc.

Stage two: The “public” ethic: The development of the 18th century public sphere stimulated the growth of a more free and diverse press, including the first daily newspapers. The roles of journalist, news reporter and editor emerge. Journalists take on the persona of reporter, reformer, “polite” commentator and revolutionary. By the end of the century, the press is a “fourth estate,” a social force to be feared or praised. All forms of journalism justify their behaviour by appeal to their role as a “tribune” and protector of the public and its liberty.

Stage three: The liberal theory of the press: The liberal theory is, strictly speaking, a 19th century phenomena, although it has long roots in the writings of Milton, Hume and other thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries. It received its definitive defence in Mill’s On Liberty.

The liberal press was a creature of liberalism as a social movement of an ascendant middle class in England and other countries. Liberalism stressed liberty, a society organized around “merit” and knowledge, and wider political representation. Liberalism stressed a free marketplace in the world of ideas and in the economy. Social progress would come through education, social reform and a press that supported liberal ideas.

Note: “Liberal press” is a misnomer. There were at least two types of liberal newspaper across the 19th century: the elite and egalitarian liberal newspapers. The English liberal press of the mid-1800s, such as the Times of London, exemplified the elite liberal newspaper. Its primary mission was that of serving the liberal elites, providing weighty opinion and educating the masses. The egalitarian liberal paper began as the cheap “penny” papers that began in the 1830s in major American cities and grew into a mass commercial press. This popular press depended on wide circulation and advertising. It had a brighter, more accessible style. Its mission was to provide “news for all” and to support a growing, egalitarian democracy.

Stage four: Objectivity and the mass commercial press: By the end of the 1800s, the development of a professional “news” press gave birth to the doctrine of objectivity — the ideal of the reporter as an independent, objective observer of events. This “traditional objectivity” became a strict methodology in newsrooms for eliminating opinion in the writing of news. By the 1930s, mainstream newspapers came to be defined in large part by an objectivity that was summarized by the mantra, “just the facts.”

Stage five: The return of interpretive journalism: Objectivity was challenged from the beginning by other forms of journalism — the muckrakers of the early 1900s, the interpretive journalism of Time magazine and the new tabloid papers. Also, from the 1960s onward, objectivity was challenged by the more personal form of broadcast news and by the popularity of investigative and literary journalism. By late century, the objective tradition was weakened further by the “civic journalism” movement and by on-line journalism. Journalism ethics in the 20th century was characterized not only by the dominance of objectivity, but also by its decline, and the return of a more interpretive journalism.

Stage six: Global journalism ethics in the 21st century: The major question of journalism ethics today is what type of ethics should develop in the 21st century. Will interpretive journalism, in the form of blogging or citizen-to-citizen communication, overwhelm the professional ethics of objectivity and verification developed by more traditional forms of journalism?

How should the ethics of journalism change to face the challenges of a new media environment? To make matters more complicated, the news media are now global in a radically pluralistic world. Is a new global journalism ethics required?