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.