Trust in Journalism: The Ethical Challenge of the Information Age

"Day 149, Project 365 - 3.21.10" by William Brawley licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

“Day 149, Project 365 – 3.21.10” by William Brawley licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Aidan White

It is more than 15 years since Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre, one of the great contrarians of British journalism famously told his staff at their annual summer party: “A lot of people say that the internet is the future for newspapers. Well, I say to that: bullshit dot com.”

Much has changed in the world of journalism since then, and particularly for Dacre and his colleagues. Their Mail Online is now the most visited newspaper-owned news website in the world.

This website, dominated by celebrity and pictures rather than long-form reporting, may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s an important part of the mix of the Internet and media that has transformed, profoundly and irreversibly, the nature of journalism and its ethics.

Today a new media generation is working in partnership with their audience in a freshly-scrubbed news environment. It involves old-school professionals like Dacre, whistleblowers, activists and concerned individuals who are using social networks, micro blogs, and data journalism and an array of digital tools to develop new ways of gathering and presenting news.

But in the midst of the changing newsroom, an uphill struggle is being fought by owners and publishers to spark life into a depressed media market where news rarely delivers revenues that can sustain high quality journalism.

Even The Guardian, the world’s third most frequently visited news site and an acclaimed leader in quality journalism has had to live with eye-watering losses of more than £100 million since 2010, even though it has provided news of massive public importance including the News of the World phone hacking scandal, as well as the Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks stories.

The Guardian and others battle to maintain and develop high quality content in a new digital business culture which many argue is itself profoundly unethical.

In his 2011 book Free Ride Robert Levine complained that every media business has had to contend with growing consumer demand for free online content.

As it is currently configured, he argued, both technically and legally, the Internet allows technology companies to reduce the price of content to zero by letting them build businesses with content copyrighted by others.

By delivering content they don’t pay for, or selling content far below the price it cost to create, Levine says, information and entertainment distributors like YouTube and The Huffington Post become “parasites” on the media companies that invest substantially in journalists, musicians and actors.

Not surprisingly, then, some journalists, editors and publishers have acted like wounded beasts, lashing out at the power of online voices, the internet and its domineering rulers – Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon – who use technology to plunder advertising revenues while exploiting media content.

But media have only themselves to blame for some of the self-inflicted wounds sustained by journalism in recent years. Lacerating cuts in editorial spending and the elimination of the invisible wall separating editorial and advertising which has led to a surge of so-called “native advertising,” hidden advertorials and paid-for journalism have taken their toll.

The consequences have been outlined in some detail in a recent report by the Ethical Journalism Network which reveals how a seismic shift in the power-relations between editorial and commercial departments, particularly in the press, has created intense pressures on the notion of independent journalism.

The growing tension between editorial and commercial departments was exposed in London in February 2015 when Peter Oborne, one of Britain’s leading political journalists, dramatically and very publicly quit his job at the Daily Telegraph accusing the management of censoring stories about HSBC bank, a leading advertiser caught up in an international tax scandal. Tellingly, he broke the story on a current affairs news website.

The incident highlights why media who value their brand and want to maintain public trust need to have transparent and reliable internal controls to deal with potential conflicts of interest.

Oborne himself is leading calls for an overhaul of media governance rules and a fresh debate on what needs to be done to protect editorial independence in the British press. His case underscores the difficulties in keeping ethical journalism on track in the cash-strapped world of digital media.

The Internet was supposed to give us amazing access to knowledge – and it has, of course – but it has also created a tsunami of information coming at us from all directions. There is a barrage of rapid-fire real time news, with millions of snippets of information. Journalists are needed more than ever to clarify what is important, ask the right questions, put information in context, and present the news with lashings of style.

There is more informal information-sharing and more networking. The Internet is throwing up spaces where many of the issues ignored by mainstream media are getting attention. News websites have mushroomed around the world, examples like scroll.in (India) and Malaysiakini (Malaysia) show just how editorial integrity is being nourished and strengthened in places where ethics are under pressure from internal and external pressures.

But important though they are, these initiatives are no alternative to developing a fresh ethical culture inside existing news media.

The internet brings with it new opportunities for revival of transparent and accountable journalism which, at its best, should be good enough to inspire a new culture of responsible communications for everyone. However, this will only happen if news makers fully understand why ethics must be nourished and the craft of journalism strengthened.

Why Ethics Still Matter

To understand the importance of news media in the digital age it’s useful to get back to some basic thinking about the difference between the other-regarding values of journalism and the self-regarding nature of free expression.

Journalism, let’s remember, is not simply free expression. It is a form of expression rooted in respect for human rights and is itself constrained by a framework of values and ethics where stories and opinions flow from a fact-based culture of communications based upon respect for accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity and accountability.

This is what distinguishes the work of journalists from most people using social networks and online bloggers. On the web people may say what they want. They can be in turn deceptive, offensive, unrepentant, and even abusive, as much as the law will allow. Thanks to technology and the web today everyone can have their say and tell their story, but it’s only journalism if it’s ethical.

This is an important and necessary distinction and explains why journalism at its ethical best can be an inspiration for responsible communications to counter the worst manifestations of online behaviour, such as the apparent ease with which some people indulge in hate speech, voyeurism, narcissism and prejudice.

These threats have been exposed in some detail by Andrew Keen, a veteran of Silicon Valley, in his 2015 book The Internet is Not the Answer. He is one of a number of writers who in recent years have targeted a web-based information culture that makes us better connected, but less aware of the world around us.

It’s a problem eloquently defined by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Civic Media and cofounder of the international bloggers’ website Global Voices.

In his 2013 book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection Zuckerman says the Internet has made everyone less dependent on professional journalists and editors for information. People seek out information directly via social media or by searching online, but this comes at a price – that we will be exposed to what we want to know at the expense of what we need to know.

The one thing that made traditional forms of journalism useful for people was that it exposed us to information that was new, out of our comfort zone and about which we knew nothing.

Sometimes these unknown areas of our lives – foreign affairs, political and religious conflict, the experience of other communities and cultures – have serious implications for all of us, but in a world dominated by do-it-yourself information structures in which the public interest is defined as what the public is interested in, there is a danger that for all its multitude of opportunities, the web will lead to increased ignorance and self-interest at the expense of pluralism and other-regarding principles of democracy.

Journalism, therefore, provides an opportunity to counter this possibility by focusing on what reporters do best; telling stories that are interesting, relevant and stylish and, above all, trustworthy.

Big Data: Journalism Finds Safety in Numbers

While media ethics have been defined and upheld for decades, the context in which they’re practiced has shifted. Data journalism, which involves using technology for rapid and targeted analysis of vast amounts of public information that flows in vast quantities on to the Internet, is changing people’s lives, but it is also raising ethical questions for reporters and editors.

In South Africa, for instance, data-driven journalism by the Ziwaphi community-based newspaper in the Nkomazi district of South Africa, is improving the lives of people in an epicentre of the aids crisis.

The crisis is made worse by water contaminated by sewage, but the newspaper has developed a way of using old smartphones submerged in plastic bottles to help residents get safe water. The phones take microscopic photos of water content which are then compared with images from an existing public database to detect dangerous levels of E.coli. The results are then delivered to residents, by SMS, informing them where it’s safe to collect water.

Similarly, in Kenya, a radio station has set up Star Health, a toolkit to help its audience do background checks on doctors through digital access to data on medical practitioners. They help people analyse data to isolate and expose bogus medics and those guilty of malpractice (In one case they discovered a man working as a doctor turned out to be a vet).

On the surface all of this is good news, but this democratisation of information is only useful if the original data is reliable. Journalists have to be acutely aware of personal privacy and security issues, not to mention simple ethical obligations such as accuracy and fairness in reporting.

It is not enough to acquire the technical skills to turn raw data into journalism, but this has to be done in a way that both protects and informs the public the data describes.

According to Jeff Sonderman at the Poynter Institute editors need to ask a series of basic questions. He warns: “Don’t assume data is inherently accurate, fair and objective. Don’t mistake your access to data or your right to publish it as a legitimate rationale. Think critically about the public good and potential harm, the context surrounding the data and its relevance to your other reporting. Then decide whether your data publishing is journalism.”

Nowhere has the issue of potential harm been more troubling than when WikiLeaks released data from the US Department of Defence and Department of State to multiple news media in 2010 and 2011 or when journalists at The Guardian and The Washington Post in 2013 faced tough editorial decisions over publication of documents provided by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

In both cases editors and reporters working on these stories had to make difficult, tricky decisions about what information to publish. They knew lives were at risk and the sensitivity of the subject matter and global reach of published data created a context that couldn’t be ignored.

In the end they recognised that these were stories too big for a single media outlet to handle so they found solutions in collaboration.

According to the Tow Center for Digital Journalism the way that these stories were reported and collaboratively syndicated and the data itself protected provides an important case study for journalism and media generations to come.

Ethical Traps: Verification, Plagiarism and the Rush to Publish

At its best the Internet is an information playground full of inspiring and entertaining moments, but it has a dark side where dodgy deals are being done, dirty pictures exchanged and where bullies, bigots and mischief-makers run freely.

Journalists aren’t monitors or supervisors of how people behave, that’s not their purpose, but they should be careful in their dealings with web-based sources. Malice and deceptive handling of the truth are ubiquitous. A trusted news brand needs to check facts, verify sources of information and steer clear of dangerous rumour and speculation and avoid the rush to publish.

Never accept, for instance, images and statements on first impressions. In the world of digital manipulation, pictures are not always what they seem and not everything someone says – no matter how outrageous – is going to be newsworthy.

That is difficult at the best of times, but it is doubly so when the impulse of modern communications is for information in the fast lane – urgent, immediate and instant.

Media eager to beat their Internet rivals and to chase down the clicks needed to generate advertising revenues may be prepared to sacrifice the time journalists need to verify facts and to ensure their stories are ethical and rounded. But it’s a risky strategy; speed never trumps quality and even the best of media can be embarrassed if they have a too-casual approach to online sources of information.

For example, a story about the kidnap of a lesbian blogger writing from the horrors of the Syrian civil war in Damascus hit the headlines of many major news outlets across the world, but few had taken the time to check the source. It was the work of bloggers carrying out simple journalistic checks who set the story straight. This extraordinary tale turned out to be a hoax which fooled even some iconic leaders of global journalism.

As one of the bloggers put it: “It is a reminder that it does not always take enormous resources to cast light on important stories. It does take a willingness to ask questions that may not have occurred to others.”

Sometimes, of course, in moments of emergency and crisis, journalists have to give what information they have, if only to give context to issues being overheated by Internet speculation, but media using unverified content need to issue a simultaneous “health warning” explaining where the information comes from and why it might be unreliable and to correct errors when they become known.

And help is at hand. A useful verification handbook has been prepared by the European Journalism Centre, which provides step-by-step guidelines for using user-generated content during emergencies, and getting the story right has been the single-minded mission of Storyful, a Dublin-based social media news agency that helps media to verify news content. The company is so successful, it was bought up in 2014 by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Avoiding the perils of slavishly following what is trending on Twitter and Facebook can help to limit the circulation of rumour and speculation but ensuring material is original, that copyright is not being infringed and that sources are protected is essential in a world where downloading information for free and without acknowledging sources is accepted practice.

Plagiarism has always been a problem in journalism, for instance, but the Internet has created a pandemic of copy-and-paste information and the audience should always be informed about the source of the information. The only exception to this is when there is a pressing public interest or professional reason for not revealing a source. Remember: journalism is about transparency, disclosure and reliability.

At the same time, editors have to deal with the thorny problem of anonymous communications on the web. This has become controversial because of the reckless behavior of so-called “Internet trolls” — people who hide their identity when making abusive, often bullying and offensive attacks on people.

Dealing with such intruders into the media space is difficult and more so because we often invite the audience whether tweeters, bloggers, citizen journalists, or other social media users, to comment on our work.

The opportunity to comment on journalistic work opens the door to debate but unless controlled it can merely provide an entry point for abuse, prejudice, and hatred.

Providing opportunities for comment can be lucrative – clicks in abundance will catch the attention of algorithm-driven advertising – but media need to be careful that they don’t allow their editorial space to be overrun by unethical and hateful communications. Many media turn off the comments sections on issues that provoke heat and intolerances. Some stories – such as the Arab-Israeli conflict for example – are simply too incendiary to open up for comment.

But keeping control is not easy, either because the sheer number of comments can sometimes be too much for moderation or some social networks, such as Facebook, don’t allow media to block comments. Applying the standard that ethics should apply to everyone who features in the news media is a legitimate aspiration, but often is not a realistic option.

Nevertheless, media should try to apply firm rules about comments and the right to anonymity. Providing guidelines to help the audience respect the values of their journalism and increasing the capacity to moderate the online conversation with readers, viewers and listeners can be expensive, but it’s necessary.

Hatred and Terrorism in the Picture

There is nothing easier, particularly in times of crisis and tension, for journalists to fall into the trap of following casual stereotypes and to react thoughtlessly to issues that require careful and sensitive attention.

Take the case of Terry Jones, an unknown evangelical Christian from the backwaters of rural Florida who became an overnight global media sensation in 2010 simply by announcing plans to publicly burn the Koran.

No-one would have noticed, or even cared, had this story not been picked up by a local journalist and magnified by international news agencies and viral circulation on the web.

Media that rushed to publish this provocation later acknowledged their mistakes in giving a bigoted nobody undeserved prominence and he was returned to obscurity (in due course he was arrested beyond the glare of publicity while trying to set fire to 2,998 of the holy texts in 2013) but his story should never have made the news agenda in the first place.

The consequences of the rush to publish in this case – ratcheting up of an Islamophobic political and media narrative and inciting further hatred which led to riots in the Middle East and scores of deaths – could have been avoided if journalists had taken time to consider the context of the story.

Of course, journalists will always make mistakes, but it becomes worrying when mistakes like this are repeated. In 2013 a catalogue of journalistic failure surrounded publicity given to a controversial anti-Islam film posted on YouTube – Innocence of Muslims – by another Christian extremist which led to yet more riots and deadly violence.

Isolated acts of extremist outrage by individuals can often be safely ignored, but the same can’t be said for the high profile violence and sophisticated web-based propaganda techniques of organised terrorists.

Using state-of-the-art cameras and recording devices attached to their clothing, extremists are able to produce slick, high-quality, and often shocking images of their murderous work. These are uploaded, either to public social networking sites where they hope to shock or influence broader public opinion, or to their own internal websites known only to committed supporters, where the aim is to boost morale and recruitment.

In fact, with modern technology terrorists can live-stream their actions, raising the possibility of a new era of on-the-spot propaganda in real time. Among the pioneers of such techniques were Iraqi militants from groups that have been linked to the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris in January 2015 and over the past year, militants in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq and Syria have all broadcast violent images of their work.

At the same time slickly produced propaganda videos from terrorist groups like ISIS and broadcast via social media are often picked up by mainstream media, even though they form part of the arsenal deployed by militants to spread their message.

The executions of hostages by ISIS and the circulation via mainstream media of images from their videos have raised troubling questions for media about what they should and should not show.

Most want to avoid showing explicit images of terrorist violence, but media might ask if they are often too-easily seduced by high-quality terrorist propaganda. Certainly, the drama documentary-style executions of journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Kenji Goto has brought home to editors and newsdesks the world over the need to consider a troubling question – how do we tell the story without reproducing the propaganda of murderers and terrorists?

Trust in the Future

Questions like this are a reminder that journalism is just one of the players in the age of viral information. News media compete for attention in an emerging ecology of global news and comment where the work of journalists intersects with street-level activism, propaganda, political spin, and Internet traders.

Many of these new players are upstart groups with no professional background but they can complement the work of media. In collaboration with investigative journalism they are part of a new information army able to challenge holders of power and give voice to minority opinions and vulnerable groups that are too often neglected on the traditional news agenda.

The future of journalism in this fragmented landscape of broader, more flexible public communications will depend on its ability to serve the public interest and, above all, in building trust in the ethical framework in which news is gathered, presented and circulated.

The dominance of the Internet and its associated technologies may have given birth to new forms of journalism for a connected generation – think Buzzfeed and Vice News – but it has also put old-school values of journalism such as accuracy, humanity and accountability back on the agenda.

Although media operate in superheated environment with its 24-hours continuous news cycle generating new and potentially depressing dynamics based on speed, thanks to the Internet journalists have fresh opportunities to separate fact from rumour and speculation and to continue to do their bit to expose lies and dishonesty.

The gathering, editing and dissemination of news has become more sophisticated and complex, but media commitments to truth-telling and to truth-seeking provide reasons for guarded optimism.

Today’s generation of journalists are for building trust in the future of news, whether they are analyzing big data or trying to filter the truth out of the information chaos and bias of social media.

They define the craft of journalism more loosely, not just as the act of communicating using the most advanced technology, but as a way of providing information in the public interest that respects privacy, avoids malicious and deceptive handling of the facts and respects the rights of others.

The electronic, converged and digital newsrooms in which they work are a far cry from the world of journalism practised in their youth by the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre or, at the other end of the newsroom, by The Guardian’s outgoing Editor Alan Rusbridger, but everyone agrees that the basic principles remain the same, even if the tools of the trade have changed forever.


This article was originally published on the The Tinius Trust Annual Report.

Photo: Flickr CC Louisa-Chan

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