‘Saving the News: Ethics and the Fight for the Future of Journalism’ was launched on 6 April 2019 at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. 


Dorothy Byrne

“There are journalists in the Philippines who believe that these alleged drug pushers and addicts should be killed without being given due process. Unfortunately, not everyone believes that these victims have the same basic human rights as they do.”

The words and pictures of Raffy Lerma, the distinguished Filipino photojournalist, whose stark images of the nightly killings by the security forces in President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ leave a reader winded by their force, also test some fundamental ideas about ethical journalism.

Was he inadvertently being used by the state to send a message? Does it matter that he wasn’t able often to get consent from the devastated families of the dead? These are just some of the questions that were raised and answered when I interviewed Raffy at the sixth of our series of “Ethics in the News” events at the Frontline Club in London, and from which his quotes are taken.

Manipulation is a theme that runs through many of the 18 essays in this magazine, which is devoted to six key areas of ethical journalism.

These begin with the most basic ideas of ethics or, journalists’ lack of them as Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian points out in his forward. He says:

“There has always been a strand of amorality in the attitudes of some journalists and editors. They are neither very moral, nor terribly immoral. They don’t necessarily believe in doing bad things. But newspapering is (they might say) a’ rough old craft’ and in the end, it’s the story that counts.”

His is a heartfelt plea for a return to ethics, from an editor who broke the story that convulsed the UK media industry when some national newspapers were shown to have a culture of illegally hacking mobile phones.

However, in the UK journalists and editors have a much safer environment in which to exercise ethical journalism than many colleagues elsewhere in the world, who face dismissal, detention and even death for doing their jobs.

Chris Elliott and Aidan White tackle the difficult question of how journalists should work in an authoritarian environment, what can, and should, journalists do, and not do, while working under regimes, which think press freedom is a dangerous ideal.

Two of our contributors know exactly what that is like. Wendy Funes is an award-winning investigative journalist in Honduras, one of the most dangerous countries in the world, for journalist where 75 have been killed since 2001.

Three of those who died have been women, and Funes focuses on the stories of other women journalists who not only risk their lives but also have daily battles to retain their jobs and their dignity in a male-dominated society. Gai Alier John, who writes under the pen name of John Actually, reports on what life is like for journalists in South Sudan, where threats from the security services, subtle and very unsubtle, are a daily accompaniment to their daily life.

The EJN is committed to ensuring that the issue of gender is built into all our programmes. Hannah Storm, who became the EJN’s new director on 4 April, lays out why gender should be on every agenda:

“We cannot have truly ethical journalism, until gender is on the agenda in a fair and sensitive way, in newsroom practices: be that in the people we hire, retain and promote, or in the work we produce…. Gender is not just a women’s issue. We all benefit from rejecting harmful stereotypes, clichés, and prejudice. We all gain from greater balance and context, and from amplifying the voices and experiences of vulnerable communities which have traditionally been marginalised.”

We have two reports from the US, where President Trump appeared to strand conventional journalism on the spot as he made journalists the foe using social media. His deft, direct appeals to nativism left many of the nation’s journalists targeted as the enemy to his millions of adoring supporters. Journalists have been attacked verbally and physically but now they have regrouped and are fighting back and this has fired a new debate about ethics. Alison Bethel McKenzie and Tom Kent set out the battleground.

We return to the theme of manipulation but this time of images in an article by Salim Amin, son of the legendary photojournalist ‘Mo’ Amin, who looks at the dangers of technology and the way it can be used to undermine the authenticity of images. He says:

“As photojournalists, we must understand that the odds of us being the first to get images of any crisis is almost the same as winning the lottery! Technology has not been our friend when it comes to breaking news. The first pictures of any major story will now come from a citizen with a mobile phone.”

It has been another tough year for journalists and journalism in many parts of the world. For some that has meant physical threats or increasingly oppressive laws; for others, it is the existential threat of a broken business model as media tech giants garner an ever-increasing share of advertising revenues.

However, it was also a year when governments finally woke up to the threat to a healthy, open and democratic society posed by ‘big tech’. Aidan White charts the backlash and James Ball points up the potential dangers of rushing to new laws to combat them.

But there are also hopeful developments in journalism.

Lina Ejeilat charts the rise of 7iber, a portal that began in 2007 aiming to combine the “authenticity of blogs and the standards of journalism to produce alternative narratives about Jordan”. It now has 14 full-time staff members and has shown its commitment to ethical journalism by undertaking an ethical audit of itself, in partnership with the EJN.

It’s a story with a happy end, as they feel stronger and more confident as a result. The debate about unhappy ends being too much of the focus of conventional journalism with too little time reflecting on ‘solutions’ is explored in an article by Tom Law, the EJN’s deputy director, in which he reflects on the EJN’s fellowship scheme with the International Labour Organisation, which aims to give journalists a different way to cover the usually grim stories of labour migrants in Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf.

There is much else besides in our annual look at ethics in the news, which seeks to balance the difficulties faced by journalists with the emergence of hopeful signs for the future.

Without strong and independent journalism you can’t have a free society. The lies of some of those populist politicians whose tirades captured so much of the public imagination over the last year are being found out; the public around the world are also waking up to the fact that much of what they see on social media is piffle.

If journalists have, perhaps, been too slow to stand up for the importance of our trade and too defensive, journalists across the globe are now speaking out more strongly in support of how vital truthful, ethical journalism is to society.


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