Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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2. Journalism and democracy
But before the irrelevance of ethics to journalism can be confirmed, we need to look at the traditional political justification of ethical journalism, as this is ignored rather than refuted by the sceptics.
Liberal theory places a high value on freedom of thought and freedom of speech (see Freedom of speech). One argument for this is in terms of rights: rational individuals have a right to think as they find and to speak as they think. Another argument, due especially to Mill, is in terms of consequences: truth is beneficial to individuals and society, and it is most likely to be arrived at through free expression and open discussion, through the unfettered critical clash and contention of ideas (see Mill, J.S. §12).
Democratic theory adds to these goals and arguments (see Democracy). An informed citizenry is a necessary condition of democracy, and this gives the media their special role with both rights and responsibilities. The rights are the privileges of press freedom, and the responsibilities are the duties to provide the accurate information and balanced comment without which people cannot fulfil their roles as rational citizens.
This link between free speech, freedom of the press and liberal democracy famously appears in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America: ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’. It has since become enshrined in international charters such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers’ (Article 19).
To the extent that there is anything in this democratic justification of journalism, the abandonment of journalism to market forces must be rejected, and journalism emerges as an ethical practice. This is because it can serve the required democratic role only if it constitutes itself on the basis of ethical concepts like truth, objectivity and fairness. Journalism which is ethical in this sense rejects a purely commercial ethos and recognizes a commitment to serving the public interest.
The more specific principles of journalistic ethics, concerning objectivity, confidentiality and the like, follow from this overall commitment that journalism should do no harm to but should further the interests of a democratic polity and its individual citizens. Although there is scope for a legal framework on such matters as defamation, obscenity and privacy, legislation has a merely restrictive effect on freedom of expression and does not actively promote journalism of high quality. It is ethical engagement by journalists, and not legally backed censorship, which is a necessary condition of journalistic quality.
Belsey, Andrew. Journalism and democracy. Journalism, ethics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L119-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/journalism-ethics-of/v-1/sections/journalism-and-democracy.
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