‘Unethical practice’ is threatening journalism

Joe Torres, Jr.

There is a growing consensus among journalists and media practitioners around the world that “unethical practice” is slowly killing journalism. The threat has become so serious that the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) last year launched an “Ethical Journalism Initiative.”

The initiative is supposed to be journalism’s response to the challenges the craft faces – the increasing polarization around the globe, the clamor for change in a number of countries on the fringes of development, war and terrorism.

Amid these developments – racial, religious, cultural and political conflicts that most of the time lead to shooting wars – are the media, which most of the time are used by partisan interests to deceive, sow falsehood and speculation, and provoke misunderstanding, hatred and violence.

“The manipulation of public opinion by media-savvy extremists and the poisoning of public discourse happen because individuals and groups that express themselves freely do not aim at truth,” said Aidan White, IFJ secretary general.

It should not be the norm for journalism and the media whose basic tenets are accuracy and fairness, to aid the spread of lies and deception.

Unfortunately, technological advances in the delivery of news, the growing commercial interests of media organizations, and the drive for dominance by institutions and states, have contributed to the erosion of the tradition of truth-telling in the media.

Apparently commenting on the trend of sensational, celebrity- and scandal-oriented coverage of many media newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets, blogger True Focus, in an article reprinted by BC Culture observed that “most of the news rooms have gone from media bias to engaging in media corruption.”

He added that many journalists do not seem to be interested anymore in source accuracy and reliability in news reporting, but in ratings.

“With the proliferation of technological advances, and subsequent increased ambitions on the global socio-political/economic platform, so too have the ambitions in newsrooms across the nation increased,” the blogger said.

The IFJ’s White admitted during a global media conference in Bali, Indonesia, last May that the scope for quality journalism has been “dramatically curtailed” even in countries where free speech is supposed to have taken roots.

Among the factors he cited to explain the problem are “changing market conditions and deep cuts in editorial budgets.”

Several studies in the United States have found a decline in advertising, especially in newspapers, with the growing popularity of the Internet as a source of news. News sources are even competing for popularity, high ratings and advertising dollars, blogger True Focus said.

“With full access and control of the news outlets that reach the masses, and no one to ‘answer to,’ media (have) ceased to be reliable tools for information, but… powerful tools for fraud and manipulation,” he added.

Indeed journalists have been found to be accepting bribes and fabricating stories. Some even work with interest groups to sabotage rivals and defame enemies.

Reclaiming the ‘ethical tradition’

The media must reclaim their “ethical tradition” to survive the changing landscape, said White, even as he urged journalists and media practitioners to rethink their attitudes on how media and journalism contribute to democratic life.

“When journalism is inaccurate, when it marginalizes important issues or denies access to different voices and when it is manipulated to serve narrow interests, it damages democracy,” White said.

For democracy to work in a society dominated by conflicts and deceptions, journalists must commit to an “ethic of communication” to help the public “better understand the complexities of the world.”

For journalism to survive and to function effectively, “it must open itself to scrutiny and challenge,” White said. Journalists must make a conscious effort to “protect and nourish the values and public good that flow from committed, ethical journalism.”

It cannot be right that with the supposed expansion of free expression, the quality of information delivered by the media should be declining. Journalists must start standing up for principles “to circulate the worries, fears and inquiries of people who have no institutional voice.”

It is admittedly hard for many in the media to make the shift after years of working in what could be a culture of corruption fed by a culture of silence and sustained by a deep-seated fear of exposing their own weaknesses.

But with initiatives like that of the IFJ, there might be some hope for the future. Practical is the inclusion in the campaign of a stress for politicians not to meddle in “journalistic affairs.”

There is of course no debate that governments can contribute “to building an enabling environment for media freedom” by creating conditions for decent, safe and fair employment conditions for people in journalism.

It is not enough to leave journalism to the market. Priorities must be set. In the Philippines, for instance, the culture of impunity must be eradicated by punishing the killers of journalists, the welfare of media practitioners must be looked into, and laws that threaten free expression repealed.

Journalism must first of all be safe, and attacks on media practitioners must be stopped; a fresh start for journalism based on its ethical traditions must be encouraged; and a dialogue between citizens, the government and media must take place to raise awareness of free expression and independent journalism.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda made it clear in Bali last May: “One inconvenient truth that cries out for concerted action is the fact that too many journalists are being killed in the line of duty, often in areas that are free of armed conflict.”

He called on journalists to “ennoble their audiences” by using the media’s power “to educate, enlighten and to unite perceptions…to take collective and concerted action for good causes and for good fights.”

The return to ethical practice in the profession is the good fight that must be waged by journalists themselves.


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