29th September 2014
By Stefanie Chernow

​Why Ethical Journalism Needs a Magna Carta for the Web

Aidan White

This week Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the world-wide web, called for a new global charter to protect internet freedom from threats by governments and corporations.

His intervention provides a welcome opportunity for a new discussion about control of the web. At the same time it opens the door to a debate about ethics, quality and responsible use of information that should interest all journalists and the media development community.

Berners-Lee, who invented the web 25 years ago, says there should be a new bill of rights to guarantee the independence of the internet and ensure users’ privacy. The aim is to put limits on how companies and governments control the internet and our access to websites. “If a government can block you going to, for example, the opposition’s political pages,“ he says, “then they can give you a blinkered view of reality to keep themselves in power.”

His answer is to create an internet version of the 800-year-old English Magna Carta, which was an early attempt to guarantee some basic rights. This would check the power of the state to control the internet, particularly in the aftermath of controversial revelations by former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden of mass monitoring by the United States of global online activity.

Such a modern charter would be no bad thing. Certainly, more must be done to outlaw censorship and to guarantee privacy and freedom of the internet.

But is that enough? As well as curbing the power of government and big business, a charter for online freedom could articulate a vision of internet futures that also promotes responsible communications.

With over a billion users the internet is one of history’s great success stories. Its global, integrated communications infrastructures and service platforms underpin the fabric of the global economy. Yet today’s internet was designed in the 1970s, for purposes that bear little resemblance to its current set-up.

Its future is a concern for all citizens, and it is also inseparable from the future of journalism and media.

The reality of media convergence and the visible intertwining of the traditional press, broadcast and online journalism means that internet content is everywhere: it is arriving on the traditional television screen and is available on every mobile smartphone.

At the same time, the audience is an interactive partner in the media newsroom, particularly through social networks. We are closer than ever to our audience which raises new questions about who is a journalist and what is journalism.

The call for a new beginning in the debate about the future of the internet provides media with a remarkable and vital opportunity to reinvigorate ethical values in journalism and to promote responsible communications beyond the newsroom that will strengthen the partnership between media and audience.

These are issues that get to the heart of discussions now emerging within journalism, most recently at the Global Forum for Media Development conference in Kiev last week, where media leaders from Eurasia discussed digital journalism. There was much talk of an Agenda for Change in the post-Soviet region.

Much of the debate in Kiev was focused precisely on the threats posed by government and big companies, but there were other issues, too.

The crisis of credibility in the open internet, for instance, where malicious information, distortion, intolerance, hatred, propaganda and bias – “some ghastly stuff”, as Berners-Lee describes it – makes it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish what is reliable and useful.

For journalists who have a vested interest in the development of digital media there’s the additional question of how to maintain respect for ethics in an online environment that is both unruly and works at breakneck speed?

One answer may be for media and journalism support groups to promote a global campaign for ethical communications targeting people and organisations who launch themselves into the public information space.

The problem is that the notion of internet ethics is an alien concept to millions of users.

On the other hand, most journalists know what the ethics of their craft are, even if they can’t recite the precise wording of clauses from the 400 or so codes that have been drafted around the world over the past 100 years.

The business of reporters today is less to be first with the news (that’s increasingly told by others via the web) but they can be expected to verify facts and to provide context, analysis and background that makes the news relevant and properly understood.

Journalists are trusted to do that because, in theory at least, they are bound by five core ethical obligations:

  1. To tell the truth, or at least to be accurate and provide fact-based reporting;
  2. To be independent, particularly from direct political and commercial influence;
  3. To be impartial and to show respect for all sides of a story;
  4. To show humanity and to strive to do no harm; and
  5. To be accountable to the public through transparency and correction of errors.

The ethical constraints of journalism make it a distinct and special branch of free expression. Press freedom, if you like, can be viewed as other-regarding.

This is in stark contrast to the self-regarding principles of most internet communications.

In the open world of the internet – that is, where people choose to share their views in public rather than keep their opinions to themselves – information is almost always self-centered.

The four pillars that dominate the public online space are corporate communications (including commercial and non-commercial interests); political and state institutions; journalism; and citizens’ voice, that ever-growing sector of social networks, blogging and individual speech.

Of these, only journalism has a well-established connection with ethical obligations. The most powerful players – as Tim Berners-Lee warns – are governments and commercial corporations. The rise of citizens’ voice has been both sweet and sour; its liberating potential weakened by acts of intolerance, bullying, misogyny, racism, and malicious speech, often made in a protective cloak of anonymity. This has made the web sometimes a threatening place, particularly for marginalized and vulnerable groups.

If we are to restore the internet to good health and recreate a technological ecosystem in which democracy can flourish we need to promote a new, ethical vision for how the open internet works.

But how is that to be done?

Although media have a key role to play in that task it would be absurd to promote the ethics of journalism as a universal remedy. We cannot expect the internet to become bias-free or a haven of fairness, impartiality and tolerance. These may be journalistic values but they cannot be imposed on others. And nor should they. People are entitled to be biased and to be unfair.

However, that does not mean the internet is value free. At least three of the core principles of journalism set out above (factual accuracy, humanity and to strive to do no harm, and transparency and correction of errors) are worthy of support across all pillars of the open internet.

Even non-journalists including corporate communicators, political spin doctors, and opinionated bloggers and social networkers should be expected to meet these standards.

By promoting voluntary self-regulation, establishing kite-marks for quality, and giving added recognition to those who sign up to minimum standards, much can be done to make the internet more civilised, compassionate and democratic.

Media can play their part by strengthening the craft of journalism and

  • improving the governance, editing and management of news and information;
  • respecting privacy and the rights of others;
  • moderating user comments on journalistic work more effectively and limiting access to anonymity to those who need it; and
  • launching public campaigns to encourage more critical thinking about online communication.

Berners-Lee speaks for all of us when he argues that we must stop government predators and corporate greed from destroying the web, but we should go further. A focus today on quality content will secure the future of journalism and the networked society of tomorrow.