Means and ends matter

Updated - April 21, 2016 04:50 pm IST

Published - September 22, 2014 12:48 am IST

This column was written on Saturday, September 20, 2014, when The Hindu turned 136. It is a long and eventful journey for this legacy newspaper. It recognises that journalism is a dynamic profession. It is a vocation where continuity and constant change are a part of its construct. The governing rules are adjusted to reflect the larger world without compromising on the core values and cardinal principles. The queries we receive and the clarifications that are sought reveal the discreet shifts. It becomes incumbent to keep abreast with the emerging realities.

In media, every technological disruption forces certain levels of modification to ensure accountability and credibility. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) approved a new code of ethics at the Excellence in Journalism 2014 convention in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. earlier this month. The debates surrounding the new code reveal the challenges before the profession.

Known as Sigma Delta Chi’s Code of Ethics, it was first borrowed from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1926. It was rewritten in 1973, and revised in 1984, 1987, 1996 and 2014. The new code encompasses all media, and includes all who consider themselves journalists. The focus is shifted from who is a journalist to what is journalism, and the SPJ has come up with a set of boundaries that will help to generate better public information. The Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by additional explanations and position papers that addresses changing journalistic practices. The SPJ also made it clear that the code should be read as a whole and individual principles should not be taken out of context.

Foundation of ethical journalism

The Hindu , like the SPJ, believes that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. In this context, the SPJ spells out four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media. They are: seek truth and report it; minimise harm; act independently and be accountable and transparent.

Though the broader principles seem to be the same as 1926, there are substantial differences even compared to the 1996 code. An analysis of this new code by Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute explains the changes more clearly. The first issue is the use of anonymous sources. The code says: “Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources. Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm. Do not grant anonymity merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.” Tompkins points out that when some members wanted the new code to urge journalists to directly link to sources they reference online, the committee rejected that idea, saying it was good to link to original sources but it was not imperative in every circumstance.

On undercover tactics

The code has taken a much strident view about paying for interviews. Tompkins wrote: “The previous code said, journalists should avoid bidding for news. The new code says do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.” The code is not kind to another disturbing trend in sections of journalism — undercover tactics. It firmly states: “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” The Code also spelt out some of the known requirements more clearly: “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story. Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.”

But the process did not stop with the new code. At the same convention, the problems before the digital platforms too were discussed and a draft code for the Radio Television Digital News Association was unveiled. This is the first update of its code since 2000 and it is expected to be voted in 2015. Let me share excerpts from the draft as it reveals the challenges journalists face in a succinct manner: “There are not two sides to every story; for every story of significance, there are more than two sides. While they may not all fit into every account, responsible reporting is clear about what it omits, as well as what it includes … Scarce resources, deadline pressure and cutthroat competition do not excuse cutting corners factually or oversimplifying complex issues. ‘Trending,’ ‘going viral’ or ‘exploding on social media’ may increase urgency, but these phenomena only heighten the need for strict standards of accuracy.”

The proposed code goes beyond the usual dos and don’ts and urges journalists to remember that the means of journalism are as much important as the ends of journalism: it is not about what they report alone, it is also about how they gather information. One element that immediately struck a chord with me was: “Shying away from difficult cases is not necessarily more ethical than taking on the challenge of reporting them. Leaving tough or sensitive stories to the rumour mill, the blogosphere and social media can be a disservice to the public.” A tough task indeed.

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