Strengthening the Craft of Journalism: EJN Targets Self-regulation and Media Corruption

Aidan White

The future of journalism may look bleak to many, but it’s not all bad news for the beleaguered media industry. There’s a growing movement both inside and outside traditional newsrooms to reinforce and promote the ethical base of media work.

Next month leaders of the Ethical Journalism Network coming from all platforms of media will meet in London to agree an outline for a new three-year programme to be launched in 2014 which will focus on a single theme – to strengthen the craft of journalism.

The meeting will take heart from the conclusions of this week’s 5th Bali Media Forum Ethics, Journalism and Democracy: Taking the Hate out of Media and Politics in which 70 editors, journalists and media supporters from 24 countries called for an Asia-wide campaign to strengthen journalism

The meeting took particular aim at the threats posed to media ethics by internal corruption and the growth of online hate speech. But the overriding message from participants is the need for journalism to stick to its ethical guns, distinguish itself from online gossip and build public trust in quality information.

Similar meetings supported by the EJN in have been held in Sarajevo and Brussels in the last month. And this week a major gathering of Arab press leaders in Tunisia will underscore the growing mood among media professionals that ethical journalism needs to be nourished and supported if political pluralism and the democratic change called for by supporters of the Arab Spring is to be achieved.

The Indonesian conference, which was organised by the Thomson Foundation, the Indonesian Press Council and the Institute for Peace and Democracy in partnership with the EJN, highlighted how journalism can be subverted by forms of unscrupulous interference in editorial work to spread malicious lies, hate speech and information deliberately designed to incite violence and disputes between communities.

Given that there is no acceptable legal definition of hate speech editors find themselves having to make tricky judgements about where to draw the line, particularly in reporting of intemperate political speech and online rants. One solution came from Stig Ingemar Traavik, the Norwegian Ambassador to Indonesia, who said media need to confront hate speech with rational and fact-based speech. “Hate speech is like the trolls from Norwegian fairy tales,” he said. “When you expose them to light they explode.”

Tom Kent, Standards Editor of Associated Press, said journalists themselves should set the ethical limits to hate speech. “It does not mean that just because a statement is outrageous and hateful it is newsworthy”, he said. “We need sound news judgments. What we don’t need is more legislation.”

His warning is well taken by news people, but these days the media space is being increasingly occupied by non-traditional voices. Most of them make good sense; others are just plain unruly.

Media recognise that online sources can greatly strengthen journalism and give added value to media by allowing different voices to be heard, but the social media networks are no substitute for ethical and informed reporting.

One conclusion in Bali was a call for media to create effective internal structures for monitoring and moderating user generated content to eliminate rumour, speculation and hate-speech. But how will this be done when more media are tolerating online abuse and encouraging clicks over quality content in the competition for audience and web-site advertising? The question of how journalism learns to live with user generated content without weakening its ethical base will be part of a debate on the future of news content that the EJN will launch in the coming year.

In particular, the EJN will examine how self-regarding free expression on the Internet is different from ethical journalism. Many media observers, academics and even journalists seem to have forgotten that journalism is not undiluted free expression. It’s a form of constrained expression, framed by ethical obligations – truth-telling, responsibility and humanity, in particular.

The EJN plans to encourage a fresh discussion about where journalism comes from in the digital age. There are many bloggers and online commentators, for example, who do not fit the traditional media mold. Even though they may not be card-carrying members of the club of journalism, sometimes they provide information that is just as ethical, reliable and with a similar public purpose. In such cases there is no reason why the author should not receive the same respect we give to established journalists.

Recognising the need for more solidarity across an increasingly fragmented industry, the meeting in Indonesia called on media organisations, editors and journalists’ groups to work together to strengthen media ethics, and to co-operate with online news portals and online sources to encourage ethical standards and responsible use of information.

But adjusting to the open information landscape is only one challenge. Internal threats to ethics from corrupt practices such as paid for journalism, threatens the integrity of journalism in many countries.

In many Asian countries – India, Pakistan, Philippines and Indonesia, for instance – some media sell their editorial space to the highest bidder. It’s a form of ‘ATM journalism’ said one participant when politicians can pay journalists for favourable editorial coverage or for stories that discredit their political opponents.

Next year the EJN will be carrying out a survey on such practices, shining a light on this dark side of the media business and looking for solutions to a problem that is growing across the globe.

In Bali the participants also worried about how media owners sometimes play fast and loose with editorial independence and try to dictate the news agenda to suit their own political or commercial interests. The conference said that media organisations should put in place internal systems of governance to avoid conflicts of interest and to protect newsrooms from undue interference in the work of journalists by owners and shareholders.

The question of establishing national oppress councils also figured on the agenda and the meeting agreed to support a new initiative among countries in the ASEAN region to promote independent national self-regulation among south-east Asian countries.

The EJN will next year launch a global survey to examine how effective press councils really are and what can be done to make such structures more credible. New councils are being established and prepared in many countries – Myanmar, Egypt and Tunisia – and the EJN is working with journalists, editors and owners to help these organisations unite the media community around national systems of self-regulation which are fully independent of the state and government.