18th December 2016
By Wendy Collinson

Ethics in the News: Challenges for journalism in the post-truth era

Introduction: Truth-Telling and Ethics Remain the Keys to Open Democracy

Aidan White

The ongoing war in Syria and the humanitarian ordeal of Aleppo brought 2016 to a sombre close and remind us that the ethics of humanity and truth-telling remain the twin pillars of ethical reporting from conflict zones.

The conflict, which has claimed up to 470,000 lives, has demonstrated how war in the 21st century has changed, but after a year of unprecedented news- making it might be worth stepping back to ask a pertinent question – what is the future of ethical journalism in an age when it appears that the public around the world are falling out with facts, humanity and accountable truth-telling?

This special edition of Ethics in the News throws some light on ethical challenges for media during the year. While it is too early to answer the question our writers make a vital contribution to the debate about media futures and we give journalists some tips on ethical survival techniques.

In Europe we look at how media reported on the UK vote to leave the European Union, which intensified concerns about the revival of racism, extremism and political propaganda across the continent. Inevitably, the media challenges around the Trump election in the United States are also centre stage amidst a new wave of bigotry, sexism and polarising rhetoric that has shaken people at home and abroad.

We also analyse how journalism with a public purpose is being overwhelmed in a do-it-yourself world of communications that has led to a so-called post-truth movement in which facts and expert opinion are sidelined in public discourse.

But this is no “western media” crisis. Elsewhere, the question is equally relevant.

In Turkey, for instance, we report from the frontline of a catastrophic and on-going assault on free expression and journalism as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one of a new breed of authoritarian leaders, purges the media landscape of critical journalists in the aftermath of a failed coup d’etat.

We also look at the role of war-mongering media in India where the year ended with a full-scale information war between India and Pakistan and with bellicose journalists stoking up the prospects of a new conflict between these nuclear states.

We also examine the continuing global rise of hate speech, particularly in Asia, where there are increasing regional tensions around China and Japan, not least because of territorial disputes and increasing nationalism. And we look at how a glossary for hate in Hong Kong might help take the sting out of some of the media’s bad language.

In Africa, media struggle to rise above conflicts in central and eastern regions covering Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Kenya and South Sudan. We highlight the efforts of journalists to cool things down through the EJN’s Turning the Page of Hate campaign.

Beyond politics we also look at how media add to the ordeal of women who are victimised by repressive social and cultural attitudes which continue to dominate media coverage of the shockingly mis-named “honour killings” in Pakistan.

But it has not all been bad news for journalism in 2016. In fact, perhaps the biggest single, corruption-busting story of the decade came from an unprecedented piece of investigative journalism carried out by 400 journalists in 80 countries – the Panama Papers.

And we highlight two areas of particular ethical practice that make journalism a cornerstone of reliability and trust: firstly, a tribute to all the whistle- blowers and sources who make public interest journalism possible through the eyes of the reporter who helped Edward Snowden reveal the secrets of United States’ global surveillance and snooping; and, second, a thoughtful examination of how we use images to tell stories, focused on migration.

We also provide tips for journalists on how to stick to the factsprotect sources, report fairly on migration, identify hate speech, block fake news and guard against war-mongering and propaganda. In all, our report reveals that ethical journalism has rarely been under such sustained pressure, both political and commercial.

The world’s changing culture of communications, driven by the imperial power of internet companies and social networks, not only encourages users to create personal echo-chambers at the expense of information pluralism, it has also shredded the market models that used to nourish ethical journalism.

Many observers inside media are not overly optimistic about the future, but although there may be more rumour, speculation, fake-news and misinformation as the information market moves online, there is a growing movement to strengthen the craft of journalism.

Indeed, in every part of the world, even where megaphone politics is in power, journalists committed to the values of accuracy, humanity and transparency are doing good work, connecting with audiences and sometimes putting themselves at risk in the process.

Public trust will only return when people have confidence that powerful institutions – government, the state, corporate power – are accountable and listening to their concerns. Journalism at its best can do this job, but not without fresh support.

The crisis outlined here is not just one of professionalism, it is a watershed moment for democracy and requires political will to invest in open, connected and pluralist systems of communication. What is needed are new directions in public policy:

  • To develop practical and sustainable solutions to the funding crisis facing independent journalism.
  • To support the public purpose of journalism through more investment in public service media.
  • To launch campaigns to combat hatred, racism and intolerance.
  • To provide more resources for investigative reporting and ways of promoting minority voices.
  • To encourage attachment to ethical values in the management and governance of journalism.
  • To put pressure on social networks and Internet companies to accept responsibility that as publishers they must monitor their news services.

And, not least:

  • To support expanded media and information literacy programmes to make people – including politicians and others in public life – more aware of the need for responsible, tolerant and other-regarding communications.

Download the report

Browse the report by chapter


Trumped: How US Media Played the Wrong Hand on Right-Wing Success


Fake News: Facebook and Matters of Fact in the Post-Truth Era

Tips for Exposing Fake News

Refugee Images – Ethics in the Picture

The Perfect Source: Edward Snowden, a Role Model for Whistleblowers and Journalists Everywhere

Panama Papers

Hate Speech: A Dilemma for Journalists the World Over

Hate Speech: India v Pakistan

Hate Speech: Africa

Hate Speech: Hong Kong

“Honour Killing”

Turkey: After an Attempted Coup the Journalists’ Nightmare