The world of journalism is full of good intentions. From the top to the bottom of the media pyramid people talk of “mission”, the public interest, and the crucial role that journalism plays as the Fourth Estate, by holding power to account and exposing the wrongdoing of our political and corporate elite.
But in the modern media landscape the ethos of journalism as part of the ethical bedrock of democracy is under pressure. Everywhere in journalism there are ‘dark arts’ at work: people doing deals with advertisers to carry paid-for material disguised as honest news; reporters accepting bribes; or any of a multitude of dodgy practices which are kept hidden from the audience.
Of course, most journalists and media do an honest job, but in times of financial crisis some cut corners and betray their ethical principles. In every country insiders know what is going on, but too often they are reluctant to talk about it openly.
This worldwide survey carried out by the EJN and covering 18 countries aims to change that by encouraging people at all levels in journalism to face up to the realities of corruption and self-interest at work inside their business.
The major threats come from outside. Governments, unscrupulous politicians and the overweening power of corporations is regularly brought to bear on newsrooms weakened by cuts and restructuring of the media economy.
But many wounds are also self-inflicted. There is a growing culture of dependence on political and corporate power. Some media owners have their own business and political agenda and many journalists and editors go along with newsroom practice that encourages unethical journalism.
It is only rarely that this story comes to public attention and when it does, as with the United Kingdom phone-hacking and bribery scandals, it can have a devastating impact.
This report, which has been produced by a group of distinguished journalists and their supporters, examines the broad scope of the crisis.
It covers countries where media are on the frontline of tough political battles, such as Egypt and Turkey. In Ukraine, for instance, the practice of paid-for journalism is a tool routinely used by politicians at election time. The same is true in India.
In other countries, including Nigeria, Philippines, and Colombia the precarious working conditions of news staff provide fertile conditions for corruption and “brown envelopes” or under-the-table cash payments to reporters and editors which are a routine feature of journalistic work.
The struggles facing journalists in settled democracies, such as the United Kingdom and Denmark, are less brazen, but no less challenging and in a range of countries across the Western Balkans with a shared and painful history, media corruption hinders aspirations to break free from the legacy of war, censorship and political control during decades of communist rule.
The story is of an uphill struggle. Everywhere there is a crisis of confidence inside newsrooms caused by crumbling levels of commitment to ethics, a lowering of the status of journalistic work and a pervasive lack of transparency over advertising, ownership and corporate and political affiliations.
Government control over lucrative state advertising, which is often allocated to media according to their political bias, remains widespread. At the same time, the elimination in most countries of the invisible wall separating editorial and advertising has created a surge of so-called “native advertising,” hidden advertorials and paid-for journalism.
It was this conflict of interest that plunged the crisis-prone UK press into a new bout of hand-wringing in February 2015 when Peter Oborne, a leading political journalist, quit his job at the Daily Telegraph accusing the management of censoring stories about HSBC bank, a leading advertiser caught up in a tax scandal.
These reports tell essentially the same story of deep cuts in editorial investment, undue pressure on newsrooms, and media increasingly dependent upon atypical models of ownership in which media have become the trophy possessions of powerful figures and institutions in pursuit of wider corporate and political objectives.
All of this presents journalists, publishers, editors and anyone who values information pluralism with a massive task: to revive commitment to transparency, good governance and ethical journalism.
This challenge echoes the stark warning issued by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world-wide web, who in September 2014 said that the Internet is being overwhelmed by corporate and state power. His call for a new “Magna Carta” to protect the Internet will be strengthened by ensuring the presence of pluralist and clean forms of journalism in a secure online environment.
But how can this be achieved if media continue to rely on sensational and populist journalism driven by lifestyle and celebrity-driven content to keep afloat? When newsrooms steer clear of risk-strewn investigative reporting, they send a warning about the future that requires a solid response.
As a start, the conclusions of this review point to an agenda for change that must include:
- A meaningful and practical commitment to transparency at all levels of journalism and publication of relevant information related to the political and financial interests of owners, managers, editors and all leading journalists and presenters;
- The adoption of rules to prohibit undue interference in the work of journalists and media by governments and state institutions and to establish principles for full disclosure of contacts and transactions between media and state officials;
- Agreed standards on the allocation of all forms of public and political advertising and regular public disclosure of payments made for services to all journalists and media;
- The creation of genuinely independent and transparent systems for assessing circulation and ratings of media;
- The introduction by media of internal systems for disclosing potential conflicts of interest and to set-up structures for dealing with complaints;
- The provision of contracts and employment conditions for journalists or other media staff that meet international labour standards and which give them the right, without fear of retribution, to refuse any form of work that infringes upon their professional codes or conscience;
- Agreement on internal rules and procedures in all media houses to ensure full disclosure of all paid for content and for such materials to be made clearly distinct from editorial and journalistic work;
- The launching of urgent debates at national and international level on the need for structures to provide public assistance to encourage the provision of pluralist and ethical journalism without infringing upon editorial independence.
- The questions set out here get to the heart of the issue of building trust in the news. The Ethical Journalism Network will promote a debate within our ranks on how people in media must work together to act upon the sobering findings in this report. Our objective is to strengthen the craft of journalism, but in doing so we also highlight the importance of transparency and ethics as cornerstones of responsible public communications across the entire open information landscape.