The world is changing, and journalism should react to these processes. One of the areas in urgent need of a rethink is journalism ethics. Today, journalistic coverage requires more diverse information and data, more voices and perspectives, to be considered balanced and accurate. At the same time, national or even personal interests should not take precedence over transnational principles of human rights and justice. Journalists should become transnational communicators whose social contract extends beyond their own audience or country. Instead, they should develop something much wider – a multi-society contract with the entire global community.
Globalization has brought journalists new challenges. From everyday issues to major crises, many stories have ceased to be local in nature: their global interconnections and effects have become practically inescapable. At the same time, the ability of journalists to collect and disseminate information has risen immensely, too.
The world has changed, and journalism needs to respond accordingly. One of the areas most in need of a rethink is journalism ethics. Stephen J. A. Ward, an internationally recognized media ethicist, has identified at least two reasons to do so:
- ‘Practical: a non-global ethic is no longer able to adequately address the new problems that face global journalism, and
- Ethical: new global responsibilities come with global impact and reach.’
Journalistic messages can travel the globe and have an impact in unprecedented ways – for better but also for worse. Journalists and newsrooms should bear this in mind. However, in spite of these tectonic changes, ethical codes often don’t reflect this new reality.
Practical implications of global-minded ethics.
But how do these challenges manifest in practice? Stephen Ward points out in his book The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond that ‘ideas of accuracy and balance become enlarged to include reports with international sources and cross-cultural perspectives’.
In other words, journalistic coverage today requires more diverse information and data, more voices and perspectives, to be considered balanced and accurate.
According to Ward, to be ethical while covering global issues, and in order to be objective, journalists need to be conscious of how they frame their stories, how they set the international news agenda, how their coverage could potentially spark violence.
One of the problems is that the usual understanding of objectivity among many newsrooms and audiences ‘asks journalists to avoid bias towards groups within one´s country as whole’.
This approach can then alter the whole coverage on international issues. National or even personal interests, assumptions, notions of the world, often take precedence not only over transnational principles of human rights and justice – but also over balance and accuracy. It happens somehow automatically. The good news is that it is something that can be managed if used with critical analysis.
National vs global interests: a false dilemma.
Ward argues that if someone’s country, for example, wages an unjust war, journalists – and citizens – should react and express their opposition loudly. Never mind that in the traditional, border-limited understanding of the world, they actually go against their own country.
But ‘it is not a violation of any reasonable form of patriotism or citizenship to hold one’s country to higher standards’, explains Ward. It is, therefore, a false dilemma. Higher standards take over lower standards.
Migration coverage, for instance in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, is a fine example of this ethical maze. Several studies have shown that, when covering migration issues, journalists in countries such as Hungary or the Czech Republic tend to focus narrowly on the consequences and risks for their own societies, rather than on the humanitarian implications for migrants or the root causes of migration processes at a global level. But do these journalists produce a balanced and accurate picture of reality? Not really.
Journalists participating in Minority Rights Group’s Media, Minorities and Migration programme have met with similar dilemmas on a number of occasions: for instance, the EU’s support of Fortress Europe measures in countries such as Morocco or Libya. As journalists participating in the programme found out during field research, the EU has helped finance often brutal policies of containment towards predominantly sub-Saharan African migrants through third party countries with poor human rights records.
Just because the EU is funding this strategy to ‘protect’ European borders, sometimes with significant levels of popular support in some countries where governments have actively encouraged anti-migrant sentiment, does this mean that European journalists should not cover these stories or put the blame on their governments and the EU? Of course, they should. As already said before, it is not unpatriotic to hold one’s country to higher standards.
This could, of course, be applied also to less controversial issues such as unfair trading practices or tax evasion, even if in the immediate term it might cause problems for a particular business or industry based in your country.
As journalism has become increasingly global in focus, so too have its moral obligations. Journalists should therefore become transnational communicators whose social contract extends beyond their own audience or country. Instead, they should develop something much wider – a multi-society contract with the entire global community.
Case study: climate change coverage.
One of the best topics to illustrate the growing complexity of global journalism ethics is the coverage of climate related issues. This section again draws on a case study in Stephen Ward’s book. Imagine you are a journalist at a UN climate change conference. Its goal is to reach a common objective – lower CO2 emissions while developing trade. And now go through these quotes and try to reflect on them.
A parochial journalism ethics would not object to journalists serving the public of their nations by reporting a climate change conference mainly from the perspective of their compatriots. With regards to the climate conference, parochial journalists would tend to ask: what is in it for their country? What strategies will serve the national interests of their fellow citizens? As for global trade, parochial journalists would focus on how changes to a global trade agreement could open up markets for their countries farmers or oil producers.
A global attitude would oppose such narrow, nationalistic reporting. It would require that journalists approach such events from the perspective of the global public good. What is the global problem concerning climate change and how should all countries cooperate to reach a fair and effective agreement? Globally minded journalists from the West would report the legitimate complaints that developing nations have against the environmental policy of their own country. They would question a global trade proposal made by their country if it advances their national interests while impoverishing developing nations. Global journalism ethics directs journalists to make issues of global justice a major part of their reporting and analysis.
A global ethics attitude limits parochial attachments in journalism by drawing a ring of broader ethical principles around them… Global journalism ethics does not entail that news organisations should ignore local issues or regional audiences.Stephen Ward, The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond