Ethics are a part of humanity. They evolved through out the centuries not just with society its self but in journalism as well. Media ethics is a topic highly debated between the people who rely on the media and journalists who deliver the information. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century, the presence of the penny press the 19th century, to the information, technology, business driven age of the 20th and now, Media ethics are important reflection of the profession of journalism in what they stand for and what they do.
Ethics are principals of human conduct and are sometimes called morals. The study of this is called moral philosophy. Ethics has been studied by philosophers for centuries, from the earliest philosophers Confucius in China, to Plato and Aristotle in Greece over 25000 years ago, to British 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mills and 20th Century American philosopher John Rawls (Hurst & White 1994). To attempt to find a ‘universal prescription’ for human behaviour Anthropologists have studies small scale societies ethical systems (Hirst & Patching).
Information exchange has characterized all human societies, even prehistoric ones. The western-style press we know today would not be possible with out Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 15th century (Hurts & White 1994). in which he printed copies of the bible, calling it the Gutenberg Bible, the first book known to be printed with moveable metal.
Several centuries’ later news covering and gathering, which modern readers could recognize as newspapers had evolved. The evolution of the western-style press goes with philosophical developments.
Western philosophy started with the Greeks who were genuinely concerned with ‘goodness’ and ‘righteousness.’ One of the prominent Greek philosophers was Aristotle. He proposed the natural law theory, which actions should be directed towards goals (Hurst & White 1994). Aristotle also developed the Golden Mean which means ethical conduct or moral virtue is a mean or a middle ground between two extremes (Hirst & Patching 2005).
The words “good”, “bad” “rights” “duties” and “obligations are not specifically part of media ethics but rather part of the reasoning in moral philosophy. (Hurst & White 1994) Ethical thought varies between systems, the ‘descriptive method’ which describes situations and ‘lays out facts for out consideration’ and the ‘normative’ define what is good and bad and codify a list of rules to stand by. The media code of ethics could be considered normative as they set out rules of what is right and wrong (Hirst & Patching 2005).
The Penny Press, which created when Benjamin Day in 1833, dominated American journalism in the 1800s. It started when Day, published the first edition of the New York Sun. His paper was filled with reports of local crime and violence, human interest stories and entertainment pieces. It sold for just one penny. These papers changed the role of newspapers in society (Schiller 1981).
This marked the beginning of Yellow Journalism a term used in 1896 to describe the practice of William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and their sensationalist approach to the news, using catchy headlines and bold photography. Many newspaper readers regarded Yellow Journalism as unethical (Carberry 2005).
However, Pulitzer believed the day was lost if the newspaper didn’t feature a public service. He encouraged the practice of accurate reporting and sloppy reporting. In the 1930s journalists started using a formula which incorporated a clear concise straight news story. This was the start of journalism today also called New Journalism (Canberry 2005).
Journalists’ ethical principals cause conflict between journalists and the public. For example invasion of privacy or imposing on a grieving family after the loss of a loved one could be seen by the public as unethical behaviour. A journalist would justify this by bringing in the principle of the publics right to know. A clause in the MEAA states ‘only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden’ (Media Alliance Code of Ethics 1999).
Because of the negativity associated with journalism, professionals in the media are convinced that written codes are a necessary. (Rubin 1978)During the 1920s ethical codes evolved around the Western world. The U.S. press began to codify the principals of the journalism profession. (Hurst & White)In 1923 the American Society of Newspaper journalists adopted a professional code, “the cannons of journalism.”(Thompson 1978) While Australia had its first media code of ethics published in 1927 by the New South Whales Country Press Association. 1927 (Hurst & White 1994)
Demands for improved ethical standards among Australian journalists have been a focus for journalists. In the early 1900s newspapers gave readers details of where they can lodge complaints with the press. In 1992.changes to the Australian Broadcasting Act gave the television industry responsibility of devising codes of practice on news and current affairs programs. The Australian Press council decided to announce its actions to the public. The MEAA journalists’ section decided to review the structure of the judiciary committees which regulate the code of ethics. (Hurst & White 1994)
A code aims to influence the actions of professionals. It code can give a reason for a person to decide one action over the other. (Ethics In Journalism 1997) It gives professionals a sense of belonging. It gives them the ability to define and redefine themselves, telling them who and what they are. A code of ethics serves as a description for others. It describes their purpose, standards, and values. Others may use it to understand the profession and for expectations, debate it, assess it and consider any privileges or obligations of the profession. (Ethics In Journalism 1997)
Journalistic codes are different depending on countries and organizations; however, they have common elements, such as fairness, objectivity honesty, public accountability and accuracy.
For example the MEAA states, respect for truth and the public's right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. (Media Alliance Code of Ethics 1999) The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) aims to promote excellence in the practice of the craft of journalism, and considers the privilege and duty to report the truth and serve the public interest. (Canadian Association of Journalists Statement of Principles 2002) The SPJ believes public enlightenment is the forerunner of democracy and justice.
Different to Australia in terms of an ethics code is India. The Press Council in India was at one time expected to devise a code of ethics for journalists and newspapers; however, a code acceptable to all has not been made so far. (Mehta 1979)
The Indian Press Council did set up guidelines for the conduct of newspapers. (Mehta 1979) For example, news involving death or crime is to be reported, with restraint and is to be strictly objective and news that aids in ‘peace and harmony’, and contributes in ‘restoration and maintenance of law and order’ is to be given prominence. (Code of Ethics of Various Journalists' Unions in Asia, n.d.)
Journalistic codes declare at least some of the standards by which we want to judge ourselves and our peers. They also show those outside the profession the kinds of actions we applaud and those we condemn. said Lou Hodge, chair of the concurrent review of the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists. (Ethics In Journalism 1997 p. 1)
A code of ethics and self regulation are features of a profession. However, there is a debate whether journalism is a craft rather than a profession, as journalist does not perform the same functions a lawyer or a doctor does. Journalists don’t need a licence, education, or any professional certification to become a journalist, although many now a days do have tertiary degrees (Ethics in Journalism 1997).
The code was ethics was seen by the Australian Journalists Association (AJA) 1984 review committee as ‘a statement by members to the public of the ethical considerations which will guide them in their activities on behalf of keeping the public informed,’ (Ethics In Journalism 1997 p. 2).
A reporter’s independence is the key to ethical standards (Rubin 1978). The Australian Press Council states, self regulation works because the industry is committed to it. It provides a system committed to high ethical standards (Australian Press Council 2004).
The journalists’ section of the MEEA judiciary system of journalists is the oldest form of regulation. The AJA administers the 10 point code of ethics. Each Australian state has a AJA judiciary committee, which is made of elected union members. Anyone can lodge a complaint against member for conduct that falls under the codes clauses (Hurst & White 1994)
A code of ethics cannot guarantee ethical journalism, only the journalist can (Ethics In Journalism 1997). Ethical standards will continue to change in journalism and society. Understand the philosophical aspects are important to understanding ethics today. Ethical codes are important as code describes what a journalist is and what they do.
Australian Press Council 2004, Benefits of Self Regulation, viewed 13 April 2006
Canadian Association of Journalists, 2002 Canadian Association of Journalists Statement of Principles, viewed 20, April 2006 http://www.caj.ca/principles/principles-statement-2002.htm
Carberry, B 2005 ‘The Revolution in Journalism with an Emphasis on the 1960’s and 1970’s’ Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, viewed 20, April 2006, http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1983/4/83.04.05.x.html
Code of Ethics of Various Journalists' Unions in Asia nd , All India Newspaper Editors' Conference: Code of Ethics for the Press in Reporting and Commenting on Communal Incidents Adopted in 1968, viewed 13 April 2006 http://www.medialaw.com.sg/ethics/jcode.htm#india
Ethics Review Committee, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Australian Journalists’ Association Section 1997, Ethics in Journalism, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne
Hirst M. & Patching R 2005, Journalism Ethics: Facts and Cases, Oxford University Press, Melbourne
Hurst, J & White S 1994, Ethics and the Australian News Media, Macmillan Education Australia Ltd, Melbourne
Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance 1999, Media Alliance Code of Ethics, viewed 13 April 2006 http://www.alliance.org.au/hot/ethicscode.htm
Mehta, D. 1979 Mass Communication and Journalism in India, Allied Publishers Private Limited, New Delhi, India.
Rubin B, J 1978, ‘The Search For Media Ethics in Rubin R 1978(ed) Questioning Media Ethics, Praeger Publishers, New York,
Schiller, D 1981, Objectivity and the News: The Public and the Rise of Commercial Journalism, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, United States.
Society of Professional Journalists, 1996 Code of Ethics, viewed 20, April 2006, http://www.spj.org/ethics_code.asp
Thompson, J 1978, ‘Journalistic Ethics: Some Probing by a Media Keeper’ in Rubin B 1978(ed) Questioning Media Ethics, Praeger Publishers, New York,
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