The original version of this article was published in Turkish on journo.com.tr as a series of questions put to the EJN’s founder and president, Aidan White.
Writing about ethics, especially in the context of journalism is not an easy task mostly because the concept itself has become a cliche that many people believe that there is not much left to say about it. The problem, however, is that many of us forget why in the first place, journalism (more than many other professions) is expected to be an ethical practice. In order to understand the rationale behind this proposition, one should first review what journalism really is.
Why Ethics is Crucial for Journalism
Journalism is seen as the fourth estate due to two main reasons:
Firstly, journalism is expected to inform the public so that they can participate in the political decision-making process as informed citizens, not automata following the orders of a particular elite nor manipulated masses that do what they are expected to do.
And secondly, journalism is the watchdog of the democratic system which checks whether the three other estates, the parliament, the government, and the courts are doing their jobs properly or not.
Due to those roles of journalism that are essential for a democratic political system to function properly, journalism can be said to occupy a unique position in the socio-political and socio-economical system we live in.
Journalism as a unique profession relies on ethics more than many other occupations because the two main roles, informing the public and being the watchdog of the system, require an ethical core in the way this profession is done.
Without ethical constraints, journalism may become a mean to itself, or even worse a strong means to negative ends (for democracy).
Without an ethical core and an ethical perspective, journalism has the potential to become public relations at its best and propaganda at its worst. In this sense, ethics is not a trivial matter for journalism but a core issue, probably the most important issue that not only academics, and critics of journalism but all journalists should take into consideration in all working processes and decision making processes related to journalism.
Five Pillars of Ethical Journalism
The problem here is that ethical journalism is easier to say that is done. The first problem is that it is not always that easy to define what ethical journalism is and more importantly, even if you know what it exactly is, and even if you want to do this ethical way of journalism, there may be various internal and external factors that harden the process and sometimes may even make it impossible to do ethical journalism.
The first problem can be addressed easily: The five pillars of ethical journalism according to the Ethical Journalism Network are:
– Truth and Accuracy, that journalism should give true and accurate information so that the ideal of informed citizens can be reached.
– Independence, that journalists and the media outlets they work should be independent of political and economic power centres such as the government or industrialists.
– Fairness and Impartiality, that journalists should cover the news in a way that does not have a particular bias towards a particular political or economic power and the coverage should give voices to all sides of the story so that the whole issue can be understood from all relevant perspectives possible.
– Humanity, that the journalistic work is done should not harm humans.
– Accountability, that the information given by the journalist should be reliable and when asked, reliable sources can be provided so that the system has its own check and balances.
The Case of Turkey in Terms of Ethics in Journalism
The case in Turkey, according to the criteria counted above is highly problematic that;
– Truth and accuracy are long gone in many media outlets, even among the ones that have a long history and not necessarily associated with political propaganda. According to reliable reports, such as the Reuters Digital News Report 2018, more than half of the news audiences in Turkey had encountered ‘fake news’ in the recent month. There have been cases of fake reports, fake experts, and even fake interviews.
– Independence is a very rare issue in the media of Turkey. Most of the media is owned by industrialists and business people that are known to have close ties to the government. Even the opposition media outlets have links either with opposition political parties or business people that are known to be opposing the government.
– Fairness and impartiality is not a common practice in Turkey that most of the TV coverage is biased towards the government and even among the opposition it is not a common practice to give the perspective of the ‘other side’.
– Humanity is also problematic that privacy is not protected, dignity can be ignored, and sometimes the coverage may lead to direct harm to people. The language used in the news can sometimes be highly discriminative, especially against disadvantaged groups such as women, LGBTI, refugees, and ethnic and religious minorities.
– Accountability has probably never been a strong aspect of media in Turkey that providing sources, giving credit to the original owners of a piece are not common practices and when asked about the circulation of a fake image, for instance, most media blames others but continues to use the image.
Structural Factors Causing Ethical Problems
As stated above, the ethical problems of media in Turkey can be defined without much difficulty; however, it is more crucial to define the internal and external factors that harden the process of ethical journalism, or in other words the reasons for those problems.
For the case of Turkey, some factors are unique to the country’s political, sociological and economic climate but many others are problems that are existent in the rest of the world too.
The global problems are twofold:
The first one is that the perception of the need for journalism among the public is low: social media, post-truth, identity politics, populism, etc diminished the necessity of journalism and truth. Turkey can be seen as one of the first countries of the post-truth wave and populism.
The old gatekeepers (conventional media elite) have lost their power and new gatekeepers (digital platforms such as Facebook, Google, Twitter) emerged and gained power. Since their revenue model relies on digital advertising and in order to increase the ad revenue, they need more people on their platforms spending more time and engaging more, they promote dramatic, sensational content that is mostly not accurate and sometimes totally wrong. Turkish people use social media intensively and the level of digital literacy is not high.
Specific problems for Turkey
The first one is political pressure that it is not easy to do ethical journalism when you are expected to do propaganda or at least not cover anything against the structures that are in power which is mostly the case in Turkey.
The second problem is related to economic problems that in Turkey, for many media outlets, the digital transformation could not be managed well, and thus journalism has become a non-profitable business which pays not much for the majority of the media sector. This leads to the result in which journalism has become a profession only engaged, motivated ‘activists’ want to pursue. This causes a relatively lower level of journalistic quality since most of the white collar professionals with a high caliber education and equipped with a broad skill set are employed in other industries where those people believe that they can earn more, actually much more than they can if they were journalists. Under these circumstances, the existing journalists even when they have the purest intentions, may find themselves in journalistic practices that may be described as unethical not because they do not have ethical concerns but because they are not aware of those problems or they do not know how to solve them. Another critical issue here is that, without the necessary skills to do quality journalism or to find a well paid job at another industry, those well-intentioned journalists find themselves in a position in which they have to do whatever they are told to do not to lose the only job they have; and in many cases what they are asked to do may be lacking an ethical constraint.
What to do, What we are doing
Some of the problems are not that easy to solve in the short run but there are things to be done:
First of all, we engage in activities to create awareness for the ethical concerns of journalism through educational materials, guidelines, and meetings.
Secondly, the quality of journalists and journalism can be increased through training including but necessarily limited to workshops, seminars, lectures, and others that focus both on technical skills that are required in the digital new media environment and also editorial aspects of journalism such as clear language, being picky on details, fact-checking, etc… At the TGS Academy (the journalism academy of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey) such training have been given and will continue to be given with the help of newly acquired resources. It is hoped that this would help the journalists who are currently working at media outlets, who are unemployed or freelancers to obtain the necessary skills that would lead them to provide higher quality journalism which would help them to be aware of the ethical problems in their practice, to be able to solve them, and to have a leverage against the employers that demand unethical practices from the journalists work at their outlet.
Finally, with the help of training, coaching, networking opportunities, and initial financial support, new revenue sources can be created for journalists and currently existing, new, digital-born newsrooms. Such revenue sources can help journalists and media outlets to be independent and to provide higher quality journalism by increasing the level of journalistic practice done by the existing journalists and also by attracting higher caliber white collars to engage with journalism as a profession. At the TGS Academy, we provide newsroom training, coaching and supporting new journalistic start-ups, and most importantly provide physical, infrastructural, financial and informational support for freelance journalists…
All in all, the point that we aim to emphasize is that ethics in journalism is not an isolated matter but actually a direct result of the local and global eco-political and socio-cultural factors at the structural level. Without addressing those, factors, dealing only with the ethical matters that are visible in the surface level would be inefficient. Just like the problem itself, the solution should be a multi-dimensional one that is well-thought and well-executed.
Read a version of this article in Turkish here
Trust in media and independent journalism are essential prerequisites for building democracy. However, trust in journalism is falling in the face of disinformation and political propaganda and a deep crisis for pluralism threatens Europe and the countries of South East Europe and Turkey.
But change is on the way. Media and journalists’ leaders are coming together to break the cycle of corruption and undue political influence on journalism. They are partners in the Ethical Journalism Network programme – Building Trust in Media in South East Europe and Turkey – which is opening the door to fresh ideas on how to reverse the trend of falling public confidence and at the same time to build a viable and realistic future for sustainable ethical journalism.