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Part One: Basics of Ethics and Self-Regulation

1. Why Ethics Matter

Ethics are important in all aspects of public life but they are particularly important in journalism.

Human beings are essentially ethical animals who make moral choices. They understand what is good and what is bad, what is shameful and what is worthy of praise. They think freely and they have the right to express their opinion, thanks to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states:

But in order to frame opinions and to make judgments of value people need to be properly informed. They need access to timely, reliable and truthful information about events, whether in their own neighbourhood, across the nation or in the wider world.

They rely upon journalists and media to provide them with information and news that is useful and that they can trust.

Ethical journalism is based upon professional values and encourages relevance, context, facts and analysis which helps people focus on what is important. It also builds credibility for media within society.

Just as governments have set benchmarks for moral and ethical behavior through international agreements, standards and conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, journalism, too, has its recognised conventions and standards.

In journalism the benchmarks are set out in professional codes of ethics. In order to ensure respect for the code and the values of journalism media establish systems of self-regulation.

2. How Self Regulation Works

Ethical journalism and the self regulation that goes with it are part of the solemn promise made by media and journalists to behave responsibly.

A system of self regulation corrects media errors and deals with concerns and complaints from the public, particularly when media and journalists cause offence or violate their own ethical rules. It also ensures that media engage in dialogue with the audience.

Self-regulation can be achieved without setting up formal and rigid structures. It is only necessary for media to commit themselves to be transparent and accountable and to respond promptly to public complaints and concerns.

Self regulation is both internal and external. Inside media it is carried out by individual companies who define their own standards and systems for monitoring the work of journalists.

Internal self-regulation involves dealing with complaints as well as efforts to promote good governance and transparency at all levels of the company’s operations.

Some companies appoint a readers’ editor or ombudsman to work independently in the editorial department dealing with complaints and concerns from the public. Normally this position is independent of direct control by the editor.

An accessible system for prompt correction of errors and efficient and amicable resolution of complaints not only builds trust with the public it can help companies avoid costly legal disputes.

External self-regulation involves the creation of a national authority, such as a press council, media commission or national ombudsman. (See Part Two).

Although in many democratic countries media codes of ethics are supported by systems of internal and external self-regulation, in most countries of the world there are no formal systems of self-regulation of media.

In this context the promotion of a culture of media self-regulation in Egypt based upon ethical principles is an important step in establishing an open and pluralist system of government and an important sign of democratic development.

3. The Code of Ethics

Codes of ethics guide journalists in the moral choices they make in their daily work. They are a statement of professional aspirations by journalists.

One widely recognised example is the International Federation of Journalists’ Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists (See Appendix One).

There are many codes of ethics for journalists – more than 400 different codes exist around the world – which reflect different cultural and historical traditions.[1] Many are designed for particular acts of journalism – for instance codes covering how to report on the rights of children, or at election time, or in specific areas of journalism such as crime, business and politics.

Almost all codes are based upon the following core principles:

  1. Truth-telling: Journalism has an obligation to tell the truth. Truthfulness creates a sense of security. Journalists should always strive for accuracy. Reporting must be balanced and fair; it is the essence of news. Media must verify the facts they publish. They must avoid deceptive handling of the truth.
  2. Independence and impartiality: Journalists must be loyal to citizens. Media should be independent and journalists must not serve vested interests. In particular, journalism and media must be free of political manipulation and undue influence by commercial or other interests.
  3. Minimise Harm: Journalists should never shy away from reporting reality, however painful, but they must minimise harm to the public. People who make the news are vulnerable to the impact of stories about them — their lives or reputations may be at risk. Journalists must avoid causing unnecessary pain or suffering. They must not incite hatred and discrimination and they should avoid stereotypes.
  4. Accountability: Journalists and media must correct their errors promptly. They must also permit legitimate criticism of their work. Media must respect the right of the audience to have their say by subjecting themselves to public scrutiny.

Although most journalists cannot recite exactly the words of their code, they are all aware of these core principles. The difficulty is in putting these values into practice.

4. Setting Guidelines for Ethical Journalism

Codes of ethics resonate with a high moral tone but they are only effective when they are translated into a working document that helps journalists in their daily work.

Most media that respect and adopt codes have developed guidelines to help journalists and editors to understand what good practice is and how they should behave.

Many media organisations – such as the BBC, Aljazeera, Associated Press, Reuters, and major newspapers such as The Guardian, or Le Monde and the New York Times for example – have developed their own internal rules and producer guidelines.

Sometimes these are very extensive – often running to hundreds of pages. They help journalists to balance rights and responsibilities and to avoid bias, intemperate language, plagiarism, financial conflicts of interest, unbalanced reporting, obscenity, sensationalism and other pitfalls in the hot-house of the modern newsroom.

These guidelines also represent the values of the company and provide the moral compass for the whole workforce and management. A typical set of internal guidelines on content of journalism might cover the following:

Verify facts and Attribute Sources – Be honest about what is said and who said it and avoid anonymous quotes.

Plagiarism – Do not copy, lift or steal other people’s work.

Bias – Bias in reporting and use of media stereotypes are the enemies of truth and understanding

Quoted Speech – Avoid altering quotes when it changes their meaning.

Fairness and balance –  Journalists are obliged to allow people who suffer criticism the right to respond.

Reporting Conflict – Journalists need to be sensitive in reporting from scenes of conflict. They need to understand the origins of conflict and respect the victims of violence.

Reporting Children – Take care when dealing with children. They have rights too.[2]

Digital alteration of Images – It is easy to distort and alter digital photos and film. Avoid this, but if it is necessary, label images accordingly.

Use of language – Avoid using words that are hateful or likely to offend people.

Race and Ethnicity – Ethnicity is only important when it is relevant to a report. Avoid incitement to racial hatred.

Religion and Sectarianism – Respect all of the audience and avoid contributing to sectarian divisions.

Respect minorities – Sensitive reporting is required when reporting the most vulnerable groups in who are often in minority communities.

Subterfuge – Avoid using deception, except where there is a clear and defensible public interest involved. 

Suicide, Grief – In times of trauma and tragedy avoid intruding into private grief. Take particular care with incidents of suicide so as not to encourage other similar acts.

Know the law – Journalists should be informed of their legal rights under national and international law and be aware of dangers they face including laws of defamation and privacy.

Safety – Safety of journalists is an ethical issue. Journalists should be aware of the risks they face and the need to protect themselves and colleagues under fire.

Protect Sources – People promised confidentiality for good reasons must be protected.

Right of reply – Journalists have a duty to correct mistakes promptly. Where appropriate people or groups who are victims of unethical conduct should be given the right to reply.

Privacy – People have the right to a private life so do not invade their privacy unless the public interest demands it.

In addition, editorial guidelines should give advice on conflicts of interest, both financial and political, as well as personal behaviour.

There should also be staff training in the basic concepts of ethical journalism to ensure that ethical weaknesses are corrected.

In the end it is the experience and wisdom of colleagues that provides journalists with their best guide to good behaviour. That is why media should regularly monitor and review the performance of editorial staff and the operation of the guidelines.

5. The Role of Law

The rule of law is important to protect pluralism and prohibit censorship. It can be used to protect journalists’ sources and can promote the cause of open government through freedom of information rules.

In addition, in many countries the power of media monopolies is legitimately regulated by law to protect pluralism. There are also useful rules of transparency regarding ownership of media.

These legal constraints prevent media being used by powerful individuals and industrial interests to exercise undue political influence on the state and society.

However, the law has no place in the regulation of the work of journalists or of media content. Responsibility for matters of journalism and media content rests with media professionals themselves.

Egypt like many countries making the transition to democracy has over the years developed a web of intricate legal controls over journalism. These should be systematically identified and repealed.

Although the law should never be used to control journalism, it may strengthen some aspects of self-regulation by giving a self-regulation authority some narrowly-defined powers, such as the right to carry out investigations, to define suitable penalties and to enforce adjudications.

6. Good Governance: The Role of Media Owners and Editors

It is not only journalists who must show moral courage in media. Media owners and executives must also demonstrate deep commitment to the core values of journalism.

Moral behaviour in the boardroom ultimately decides the quality of journalism. It is as important for building public trust as the performance of journalists in the newsroom.

Unless media are led by people of principle there is little chance that journalism will deliver the quality of information that communities need and democracy requires.

Unethical and partisan behaviour by media owners – such as that exposed by recent events at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in the UK – leads inevitably to corrupt or biased journalism. This undermines public confidence and leads, as one renowned philosopher has said, to “the poisoning of public discourse and public life.”[3]

When this happens as recently in Britain, for example, lawmakers begin to consider using the law to discipline media and regulate journalism.

This can be dangerous for democracy. Media can avoid the threat of arbitrary and dangerous legal regulation by adopting internal standards of transparency to ensure proper disclosure of their political, financial and editorial activities.

Public disclosure, not secrecy is the key to honesty in public life and journalism is no exception.

In this regard the launch of an extensive set of guidelines to help media report on their activities by the Amsterdam-based Global Reporting Initiative at the 2012 UNESCO celebrations for World Press Freedom Day in Tunisia is a timely and useful contribution to the debate about corporate social responsibility in media. [4]

Genuine commitment from owners of media to make their business activities more accountable will greatly strengthen the cause of media self-regulation and ethical journalism.

Additionally, it should be noted that without good governance journalism can become a victim of self-censorship. Journalists often bend to pressure from advertisers and commercial sponsors. News which might hurt the financial interests of a news organisation goes unreported by journalists within that organisation.

This threat is even greater when political tensions run high and when competition in media is intense. In summary, the key elements of a strategy for good governance are:


Ownership of media including the major sources of media funding should be subject to public scrutiny. There should be information available on those who own media including information about their financial and political interests. This should be regularly updated.


Media can demonstrate their loyalty to citizens and to rights and values of society by engaging with the audience and regularly reporting on how they promote ethics in journalism and management including respect for human rights and core labour standards.


Media should join with others in the industry to establish credible and effective structures for dealing with complaints and concerns.

[1] A full list of codes from around the world can be found at http://www.rjionline.org/MAS-Codes-of-Ethics

[2] See The guidelines of UNICEF http://www.unicef.org/media/media_tools.html

[3] See the comments of philosopher Onora O’Neill in her Reith Lectures at the BBC in 2002

[4] See the Global Reporting Initiative

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EJN Self-Regulation Guidelines for Egypt Media

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