Journalism, ethics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L119-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 23, 2018, from

1. The very idea of ethics in journalism

There are good reasons why journalism should be regarded as a practice governed by ethics, but also good reasons why this is problematic. It is expected of any group of practitioners who aspire to professional status that they base their practice in ethics, often by adhering to an explicit code of practice that specifies the expected behaviour in accordance with an acknowledged set of ethical principles ruled by the twin principles of nonmaleficence (do no harm) and beneficence (do good) (see Professional ethics). Those in breach of the professional code may be penalized in some way, with expulsion from the profession as the ultimate sanction. Clear examples are regulated professions like medicine, nursing, social work, law and teaching, in which the practitioner provides care or service for the client (patient, student) with individual and identifiable needs (see Medical ethics; Nursing ethics).

But can journalism be fitted into this model? Whereas it is easy to say that journalism too should be governed by nonmaleficence and beneficence – because these principles are all-encompassing – it is not so easy to see further analogies between journalism and the traditional professions, for two related reasons.

First, journalism is not a regulated profession, and perhaps not a profession at all: anyone who can get a relevant job in the media industry is a journalist. Second, even if it is a profession, journalism is certainly not a ‘caring’ profession with individual ‘clients’, but an occupation that takes place within a very competitive commercial framework. Journalists increasingly work for organizations which seek power and profits, and which are concerned with quantitative measures like audience figures and advertising revenue rather than with qualitative issues of ethics.

As a result the professional advancement of journalists depends (with rare exceptions) not on their adherence to ethical principles but on their contribution to the commercial success of their organization. Indeed, the ‘scoop’ is all, so success is more likely to follow from ignoring ethical considerations like confidentiality or privacy. This leads to the sceptical claim that there simply is no place for ethics in journalism. Even the principles of nonmaleficence and beneficence would be ludicrously out of place, because on this view journalism is motivated and shaped solely by market forces (see Market, ethics of the).

Citing this article:
Belsey, Andrew. The very idea of ethics in 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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