What responsibility do journalists have to tell the truth? If the commercial or ideological interests of their
employers require them to misrepresent an issue or incite conflict or exploit partisanship, what protections are there for the public against that deceit? And if journalists are the professionals they insist they are, what sanctions do they face for breaching the ethics of their trade?

These seem more interesting questions than the reflexive liberalism we saw in recent weeks in response to the racial discrimination case against right-wing Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt.  Incurably romantic about their chosen profession, journalists love any opportunity to quote Voltaire and argue that even the most odious commentator has a right to speak their mind. After all, rallying around the freedom flag proves how committed they are to the role of the Fourth Estate as an institution that asks tough questions and squares up to authority.

But perhaps the more courageous questions for journalists to pose in this climate of extreme partisanship and increasingly desperate attempts by media owners to create a sustainable business model in a disintermediated world relate to their own roles in the power structure and their own accountability to the public.

Yes, there is a journalists’ code of ethics, which lists 12 major principles that journalists must follow – well at least those journalists who are paid-up members of the union – the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

These include a commitment to report honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Journalists are required not to suppress relevant facts or to give “distorting emphasis”.  Other principles include not placing unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics such as race and religion, and not allowing one’s personal beliefs or commercial pressures to undermine accuracy or independence.

But what sanctions are in place should journalists not follow this code in practice? More importantly, who polices and prosecutes breaches of the code?  Can journalists be disbarred or disqualified from the pursuit of journalism as can doctors and lawyers and even financial advisers?

The short answer to these questions is an unequivocal negative. The Australian media is largely self-regulated – newspapers by the Australian Press Council (an irrelevant and totally toothless organisation run by the papers themselves) and commercial broadcasters by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.  The ABC is held separately accountable by a government-nominated board administering a charter and a code of practice, as is SBS. A full list of regulatory arrangements is available here.
Ask yourself when was the last time you can recall a journalist in Australia sanctioned by an industry regulator over breaches of professional standards. Perhaps the most high profile case was the ‘cash for comment’ scandal, in which the ABC’s Media Watch revealed that shockjocks Alan Jones and John Laws had been paid to give favourable on-air comments about major corporations such as Telstra, Qantas and the big banks. Laws was found by the then Australian Broadcasting Authority to have breached a disclosure standard. But Jones was cleared amid controversy over the ABA’s inquiry, which the Communications Law Centre of the University of Technology described as “overly timid”.
But calling Alan Jones and John Laws ‘journalists’ is a stretch even on the most charitable definition of the word. Paid entertainers certainly. But journalists? Surely not. But the fact is, as far as the listening public is concerned, there is very little difference between the young, idealistic and very badly paid reporters scurrying around town from press conference to press conference and the millionaire talkback hosts pontificating on the issues of the day with minimal respect for accuracy or independence or fair comment or the need to report all “relevant facts”.
It might shock non-media people, but what is happening now is that nothing, beyond the conscience of the individual journalist, stands in front of the media’s increasingly unethical pursuit of profit and the truth. A journalist can become and remain a good journalist in Australia (‘good’ as in upholding that code of ethics) only despite the organisations they work for, not because of them. And with only three or four substantial employers of journalists outside the ABC, it is a very brave reporter who stands on principle when they see the pursuit of the truth getting in the way of commercial imperatives.
In that context, then, what prevents Andrew Bolt using his new program on the Ten Network to  propagate manifest untruths about climate science in support of an ideological agenda? And what is to stop the shockjocks on commercial radio using selective reporting to incite racial hatred and exploit prejudice and ignorance? Are the limits of our sanctions a slap on the wrist from Media Watch on a Monday night? How do you improve accountability in journalism and the media without sacrificing the rights of a free press?
At an academic level, this debate is now well underway in the United States, a country whose constitution’s protection of a free press under its first amendment has been flagrantly abused by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, which has given up any pretence of fairness and independence to pursue partisanship in a way that makes no distinction between news and comment.

 

In a paper published last month in the University of Michigan’s Journal of Law Reform, Andrew Selbst noted that while newsmakers always have been driven to an extent by profit, sensationalism and partisanship, this is now at a level that compromises the functioning of democracy. While the media trumpets its rights, journalists failed to reveal the truth in two of the biggest stories of recent years – the invasion of Iraq and the events leading to the global financial crisis. In the US, media companies such as Fox now actively promote untruths, such as the idea that President Obama was  born in Kenya or that his health reforms would involve compulsory euthanasia.
The problem as Selbst sees it – and it applies equally in Australia – is that the media has become much less diverse since the mid-20th century “golden age” of journalism. Murdoch is dominant among a handful of media corporations that use their First Amendment protections to pursue their own commercial and ideological agendas. Media regulation is piecemeal, hostage to industry interests and largely toothless. Individual journalists might proclaim their commitment to a professional code of ethics, but these decisions seem unlikely to have a demonstrable effect on standards in an industry in which the pursuit of profit and audiences overshadows every other imperative.
In his paper, Selbst advocates the establishment of a Journalism Ratings Board, that administers a ratings system employing a list of eight principles expressed by New York journalism professor Jay Rosen – namely veracity, accuracy, transparency, intellectual honesty, inquiry (doggedness in pursuit of the truth), polyphonicity (plurality of voices), currency (staying up to date) and utility (the usefulness of the information).
Of course, this proposal will almost certainly provoke shrieks of indignation from most journalists, who view any oversight of their trade as an assault on the freedom of the press. For their part, public choice theorists argue the regulators inevitably will be captured by the industry they oversee (as we saw in the GFC). But just because there are potential conflicts, does not mean we should ignore the challenge.
Selbst argues the Journalism Ratings Board could work like the electoral commission or the securities commission (our ASIC), using a market-based approach that requires news programs to to provide “news consumer guidelines” that work similar to the parental ratings already employed. The details are up for discussion, but I suspect no working journalist, in their heart of hearts, thinks the public is currently properly protected against an industry that routinely hides behind high-minded appeals to freedom to push an agenda that aims to draw as many eyeballs as possible to the ads that underpin their profits.
What do you think?

PS: For a “people-driven” ratings system on journalism, it’s hard to go past the idea of UK satirist Tom Scott, who has advocated sticking warning labels on newspapers. The warnings include:

  • “Statistics, survey results and/or equations in this article were sponsored by a PR company”
  • “This article is basically just a press release copied and pasted”
  • “Medical claims in this article have not been confirmed by peer-reviewed research”
  • “Journalist does not understand the subject they are writing about.”

Here’s a template if you want to make your own.


13 Comments

Felix · April 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm

If this Bolt person incarnates all that is evil and wicked, and is prone to spreading untruths how is it that Channel 10 has given the brute his own show. Is Channel 10 on a self-destruct mission? What is it about Bolt that causes so much consternation? Is Masochistic Personality Disorder on the rise again?

ern malleys cat · April 10, 2011 at 12:32 pm

It does seem odd that so many journalists are keen to promote the importance of the right of someone to say things they disagree with over the right of others to seek protection under the Racial Discrimination Act.

Also the Pilger doco tonight highlights the danger of journalistic laziness in accepting lies and passing them on. A kind of passive lying that is even harder to counter than the active lying of the shock jocks and conflict columnists.

Stevie Easton · April 10, 2011 at 2:57 pm

It is not that nobody is doing a good job of reporting on the actions of governments and businesses. Pilger is a good example and there are many others, but of course they are often discredited by the same propaganda machine his doc described tonight, as communists, left-wing loonies and paranoid conspiracy theorists.

I doubt the existence of any golden age of journalism where these powerful entities were held accountable and their agendas consistently exposed. There has always been a powerful 'establishment' or whatever you want to call it, and most journalists don't want to be outside of it, labelled a crank.

An apologetic British diplomat on the doco described how they would shut out any journalists who asked uncomfortable questions and reported their propaganda with a sceptical eye.

Most journalists

Anonymous · April 10, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Great article, it will be interesting to see if the phone hacking scandal of the UK, has any flow on effects in the USA.
Felix, Gina Rinehart is an admirer of Andrew Bolt, so there could be a few assets behind Channel 10 before the self-destruct mission is enacted.

calyptorhynchus · April 10, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Lovers of the mainstream media in all its forms may be amused by the latest post on my blog

http://www.calyptorhynchus.blogspot.com

Anonymous · April 10, 2011 at 11:16 pm

The proliferation of by-lines for every article, the end of the “cadetship” system and the amalgamation of the old Australian Journalists' Association with Actors' Equity, to form the MEAA, are partly to blame for the current lamentable state of news reporting in Australia.

When I trained as a reporter -and I use the term advisedly- in the 1970s, only articles in which the writer expressed their own opinion, or which were major stories that required substantial research, were given by-lines. Today, it seems, even the simplest reports are credited to the writer.

As a cadet reporter, I spent several months covering stories in each of the specific news areas, such as local council meetings, police rounds, court reports and sports events, wherein I learned to emulate the “house style” as well as the pertinent legal and ethical standards required. My work was scrutinised by experienced reporters and sub-edited by people who knew their jobs, and I was often told to go back to my sources and seek additional information and clarification. Graduates from university journalism courses today seem to have experience only in compiling student newspapers, with their necessarily limited range, and to lack the wherewithal to comply with most of the major principles of the journalists' code of ethics. They are content to recycle media releases from public relations organisations -the major employers of journalism graduates.

The amalgamation of the old AJA with Actors' Equity seems to have given reporters license to consider themselves celebrities and entertainers, and to have elevated them -in their own minds- above the “news hack” status of a former age.

Journalism was not considered a “profession” back before it became the subject of university degrees. It was a “craft”, like most others, the learning of which mixed the theoretical and the practical, and was overseen by experienced craftsmen.

Most “journalists” today are not reporters, nor do they aspire to be. They are “columnists”.

-Ozy

Notus · April 10, 2011 at 11:49 pm

“Code of ethics” more like guidelines actually.
With the constant stream of “expert opinion” being offered on shows like The Drum, I would like to see a descriptive subtitle providing the speaker name, background and current affiliation. The viewer can then judge the worth of the comment for example spokesmen from the Institute of Public Affairs are more likely to be sprouting right wing propaganda than balanced opinion.

Gordicans · April 11, 2011 at 5:11 am

Something needs to be done as democracy is being subverted. Even the ABC is starting to sound like News Limited these days. Any government that puts forward an agenda that diverts from News Limited's goals and aspirations gets crucified. News Limited sets the agenda, then channel 7 and 9 follow with the ABC bringing up the rear. One only has to see how the power elites were able to shape public opinion to their advantage in the mining tax debate, and currently in the Carbon Tax debate and vilification of the Greens.

But I'm not sure where you start.

Anonymous · April 11, 2011 at 6:59 am

Mr Denmore, re the MEAA code of ethics covering “those journalists who are paid-up members of the union”, they are (or were recently, at least) also incorporated by reference in the terms of employment at News Ltd. Yes, News Ltd.

Rhiannon Saxon · April 12, 2011 at 3:05 am

I would like to thank Mr. Denmore for this wonderful blog – I spent far too long last night reading through the entire archive and I think it is GREAT. Luckily I am the product of parents who taught us all from a young age to ask when reading or watching news to always ask, 'Cui Bono?”
(And yeah – they would word it like that too – Mum was a Latin teacher. They even used to sing 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow' in Latin at birthdays. Nerd-cubed.)
Anyway – keep up the good work! It is appreciated.

Mr D · April 12, 2011 at 3:39 am

Thanks Rhiannon. Good journalists always ask 'who benefits' when hearing newsworthy information. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen so much these days. Actually, you've given me an idea…

Andrew Elder · April 22, 2011 at 10:42 am

I agreed with most of this blog, until it came to the solution. Codes of ethics, journalists judging journalists, no role for perspective in what constitutes a story – let alone “The Story” – and you lost me.

It is entirely possible to follow all of the codes of ethics and still get the story wrong on climate change, or Aboriginal disadvantage, or a range of other issues. Julian Disney is trying to get the Australian Press Council to do something like what Selbst proposes. You need a body that would laugh at the idea of “the (24 hour) news cycle” as an excuse, and none of the proposals above are going to do that.

The market for news is falling away. Focus groups, old-school beliefs about what the punters want, tried-and-true/clichés clearly aren't cutting it – but yet that is all we're being offered. Market signals just aren't being heeded by people who make decisions in the media. Some journalists are working really hard, some aren't – yet all of them are working for dills.

First one to start producing stories that resonate with people, rather than “industry insiders”, wins.

Kay · April 25, 2011 at 11:08 am

It is so difficult to find more than one cogently argued view in Australian newspapers that I think journalists need a revolution! They seem to have lost all semblance of telling anybody's truth! The general public believes the papers, doesn't believe anyone in politics or science, loves sweetened pap on their plates and television, and is usually drunk and on the phone anyway! I'm sick of everything informative via verbal/visual channels except social media (blogs are GOOD- people have no reason to hot tell the truth- they can just leave it out if they're touchy!). I think I'll just crawl back into my hole. Thanks for the comment space!

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