There is rich oeuvre of literature about what constitutes public interest in journalism and there are innumerable manuals for journalistic ethics and best practices. Some of the defining moments in the history of journalism are documented for posterity. The majority of the available literature deals with what journalists should do and not do. A recent study by a former Washington Post editor, Eugene L. Meyer, “Applying Standards: Media Owners and Journalism Ethics” is a timely reminder that the bar in journalism is set not by the working journalists but by the owners.
The Center for International Media Assistance had commissioned Meyer to examine the conflict of interest many media owners face in placing responsibility for content above their commercial interests and how this affects the practice of journalism in countries where independent news media already face challenges. What the study reveals are facts that are instinctively known to every media practitioner but rarely spelt out in an empirically rich study.
According to Meyer, in Western democratic societies, “there exists an inherent conflict of interest as ownership has shifted from private to public, with corporate boards that must, by law, respond first and foremost to their shareholders. Thus, even media corporations with high ethical standards reflected in their content have been forced to sell to abide by their fiduciary responsibility.” And this development is one of the reasons for embarking on this study.
Are publishers journalists?
Using a conventional interrogative methodology, Meyer poses the following key questions: “Are publishers presumed to be also journalists? Or are they just business people whose product incidentally happens to be the news? And if they are solely the latter, should the same standards applied to journalists also be applied to them? Or do they exist in a separate if parallel universe?”
He further asks: “And if they do inhabit the same universe, do the same principles of journalism apply? These principles — truth-telling, independence, impartiality, humanity (do no harm) and accountability — are well understood inside journalism, but how are they applied to the people responsible for the ownership, governance, and administration of media? Finally, should the rules be different in countries whose governments are less than hospitable to a free press? Or is it simply a matter of recognizing and accepting a different reality? Of resigning ourselves and consigning the public in such media markets to a lesser standard than is the accepted.”
The report quotes the reflection of Aidan White, Director, Ethical Journalism Network: “If there is one lesson we can learn from events in London around the Murdoch case and subsequent Leveson inquiry, it is the direct link between the culture of the boardroom and confidence in and quality of the newsroom.”
One of the positive examples in the recent times is from Africa. At the Highway Africa and Global Forum for Media Development’s summit held last September at Grahamstown in South Africa, Amadou Mahatar Ba, Executive Director of African Media Initiative, spoke about the bold industry-led process that intends to anchor leadership and ethics at the heart of African media by advocating and creating a “Leadership and Guiding Principles for African Media Owners and Operators.” He explained why the onus should be at the ownership level using a very popular African saying: “Media owners and operators have to demonstrate leadership first and be mindful of their roles and responsibilities in society. The fish rots from the head. They have to set the bar high.”
The double bottom line
In this entire debate, everyone agrees that a media organisation must be profitable to deliver journalism that can be termed public good. Meyer hints at “the double bottom line” as a desirable solution. In this model, a media house has an equal obligation both to the society and to its shareholders, and must fulfil them concurrently. Meyer cites the U.K.’s Guardian, with its annual ethical audit and ownership trust, as an exemplar of this.
In the present environment, Meyer contends, the double bottom line concept seems no longer theoretical but essential. Within South Asia in general, and India in particular, media houses are divided between those who look only at the bottom line and those who look at both bottom line and credibility. Many of the current malaises gripping media houses — like paid news and private treaties — are the manifestation of the rot at the top. At the same time, based on my three decades experience as a journalist, I can say with confidence that there are media houses that manage the double bottom line in a credible and sustainable way. For instance, enlightened owners of this newspaper, are committed to core values, and shall not subsume those values in their pursuit for growth. These media houses are not just financially successful, but they also command peoples’ trust. The trust quotient makes them different from those who are just profitable.