Journalism, ethics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L119-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

3. The ethics of journalism

Although ethical issues in journalism can be classified in various ways, the most straightforward is to distinguish between what is ethically required and what is forbidden. (This is not, however, an absolute distinction, and some injunctions, depending on how they are worded, can be in either category.)

On the side of what is required, it follows from the democratic justification that truth is fundamental, and this leads to the often-made claim that truth-telling is constitutive of journalism (see Truthfulness). Therefore, honesty and accuracy in presenting factual information is required, and, since no one is free from error, a commitment to publish corrections and to offer a right of reply to those who are criticized. In practice it is not as simple as this, as there is often no agreement about what is a factual matter or about what the facts in a particular case are, and a right of reply could easily be abused by anyone with a trivial complaint against the press.

There is also the problem that although journalists might have a commitment to the truth and nothing but the truth, it is impossible to publish the whole truth. Selection of material is always necessary, and so further principles like objectivity and impartiality, fairness and balance, are called up. It follows that there is never an algorithmic solution to ethical problems in journalism. The broad principles of honesty, objectivity, fairness and the like require both further specification and detailed consideration in the context of particular cases, and journalists must exercise ethically-informed judgments in the light of a commitment to the public interest.

The difficulties are compounded if we turn from factual journalism to comment and opinion, and especially to political journalism. Whereas public service broadcasting is expected to conform to the principles of impartiality and balance, the commercial press normally has a political commitment or ‘bias’. There is nothing wrong with individual journalists being partisan so long as they are honestly and openly partisan, but when does partisanship become manipulation or propaganda? And to what extent do editors have a responsibility to try to ensure that all varieties of opinion are represented in their paper? To what extent does the press as a whole have such a responsibility? It is in this area that the ethical ideals that lie behind the democratic justification of press freedom are diminished by commercial realities.

What is ethically forbidden in journalism includes sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, deception, harassment, invasions of privacy, exploiting children who are in the news, and buying the stories of criminals (see Discrimination). Again, in practice these prohibitions are problematic, and a good deal of reflection on fundamental principles of good, harm and the public interest is required.

This is so especially in the area of the relations between journalists and their sources or potential sources. The confidentiality of willing sources, including whistle-blowers, should be respected, but investigative journalism presents special difficulties. Journalists often want to find out things which those who are involved prefer to keep hidden. Investigative journalism is part of the truth-telling function of journalism, and journalists have a responsibility to uncover scandal and corruption, especially where harm is being done to innocent victims. So investigative journalism can serve the public interest, and in doing so there may be justification for some deception or intrusion into privacy. But where in such cases to strike a balance is the most difficult issue in the ethics of journalism.

Privacy is especially problematic. Whereas it is easy to agree that journalists should not invade privacy, it is not at all easy to draw a satisfactory boundary between private and public (see Privacy). The truly private citizen who lives a life of public insignificance is in little danger from intrusive journalists, but sometimes such citizens are forced by good fortune (winning a lottery) or bad (being a disaster victim) into the public eye. In such cases requests for privacy should be respected and harassment frowned on. There is a difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in.

But should public figures in politics, business, entertainment, sport, be entitled to privacy? There is more than one issue involved here. Many such figures choose to live by publicity and are not in a morally strong position to object if the publicity is not exactly what they want. But are politicians, for example, entitled to a private life? The usual answer is to say that those areas of their lives that do not affect the performance of public duties are properly private, and that therefore financial scandals can legitimately be exposed in the media, but not sexual scandals. But it is doubtful whether this distinction, which involves dividing one person into two separate parts, the private and the public, is satisfactory on psychological or ethical grounds. And there is a further problem, in that appeals to ‘privacy’ can be question-begging. Investigative journalism often shows that what the corrupt politician claims is private is not private at all but is legitimately a matter of public concern.

What this brief survey of ethics in journalism shows is that there are no easy answers. Although it is possible to talk of what is required and what is forbidden in ethical journalism, more than a list of positive and negative injunctions is necessary. This is one reason why various formulations of codes of practice for journalists have not proved satisfactory. What is needed is a rational understanding of the underlying principles of harm and benefit, of individual rights and the democratic public interest. What is needed is the incorporation of reflective ethical practice into journalism, so that, as Klaidman and Beauchamp so well express it (1987), every journalist becomes ‘the virtuous journalist’.

Citing this article:
Belsey, Andrew. The ethics of journalism. Journalism, ethics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L119-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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