In today’s 24 hour news cycle, the race is on, and the pressure to get there first is immense. This mentality of ‘publish now, fix mistakes later’, is challenging the media with issues never faced before.
There’s a fine line between the public’s right to information, and the invasion of privacy – and to help journalists to navigate that line carefully is the Journalism Code of Ethics, developed by the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA). The media landscape is incredibly competitive, so are journalists taking these guidelines seriously enough? What do their actions mean for the future of journalism?
The consequences of the ‘race to be first’
Journalists no doubt need to write and report fast, but not at the expense of accuracy, or the thorough verification of information.
Unfortunately, at times, media companies have fallen under pressure. Fairfax Media made a grave mistake when it sourced photos from a Facebook account of a person they assumed was responsible for the alleged stabbing of two police officers. The image of Abu Bakar Alam was published on websites and the front pages of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times. When Fairfax discovered he had nothing to do with the attack, the company “unreservedly” apologised. However, the consequences for Abu Bakar Alam and his family were devastating. As Nigel Phair, Director of the Centre for Internet Safety stated, “What is the value of an apology when the internet never forgets?”
Media intrusion during tragic events
When tragedy strikes a community, the media are often first to swarm on an area. During Australia’s worst bushfire on Black Saturday in February 2009, many residents of the stricken towns complained about the media intrusion. Yet others claimed the public had a genuine right-to-know about the events unfolding, and journalists found that many people wanted to talk about their experiences.
How then do journalists manage the delicate balance between reporting and interviewing victims in shock? Following the disaster, Dr Denis Muller of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, conducted research that found when under acute pressure, ethical lapses by journalists can occur. However, his research also made some very positive discoveries, one being that the media coverage was credited with “generating the massive public support that flooded in for the survivors and victims”.
It could be argued that there is no finer line than the one between tabloid gossip, and the public’s right-to-know when it comes to governments and their private lives.
When the story broke in The Daily Telegraph recently that the Deputy Prime Minister had an affair with a former staff member, there was a lot of debate about whether the situation was a private matter, or one of public interest. While Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, and other members of the Liberal party, argued that the situation was private and of no concern to the public, not all media agreed. The editor of The Guardian Gay Alcorn said questions still remained, which justifiably, should be pursued. However, Alcorn questioned The Daily Telegraph’s decision to print a front page picture of Vikki Campion pregnant, stating, “She’s not the story, Joyce is.”
Why study ethics in journalism?
What’s ethical, and what constitutes stepping over the line? It’s not always easy to determine, but maintaining integrity in journalism begins with a solid education. Whether you’re working for a mammoth media company, or you’re simply an independent blogger, your choices can have a profound effect on people’s lives, and the state of the industry at large. The more people that are educated in ethics, and that are contributing fairly and accurately – the better the future of news.
At Open Universities Australia, you can study degrees that go into depth about journalism and ethics, such as UniSA’s Bachelor of Communications, Griffith University’s Bachelor of Communications, or Macquarie University’s Bachelor of Arts. You can also boost your knowledge with single subjects in journalism, media law and ethics. Studying at uni will allow you to tap into the shared knowledge of a student community, and give you the experience you need to confidently select, write and publish news.