As the NCTJ’s new module on ethics is introduced into the training syllabus Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors and an NCTJ board member, puts it into context of life in the newsroom.
Bob is an Associate Press Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge, and a frequent broadcaster and speaker, debater and lecturer on media issues, press freedom, freedom of information, business ethics, leadership, business in the community and strategic public relations.
The new NCTJ practical ethics module should not be onerous. It is about raising awareness of ethical issues and making them obvious to trainee journalists.
They should follow industry codes of practice but broadcasters’ codes are huge and even the newspaper industry code is not something that should be referred to on every story. The essence and spirit of the codes should be in the minds of every journalist and hopefully they should only need to refer to the codes, or up the editorial chain, on occasions when difficult and specific issues are raised.
In essence journalists should always think twice about what they are doing. If, for instance, they are invading someone’s privacy they should ask themselves if they have good reason to do so and if they could justify the intrusion in the public interest.
Journalists should seek no special privileges but in return there should be no special laws targeting journalism. They should usually obey the law – unless there is a clear and justifiable public interest in breaching it. That is one occasion when the decision should normally be made at the most senior level.
The teaching of journalism ethics is about the kind of practical dilemmas journalists might face in doing their jobs. It is the job of the editor to set the moral tone and therefore the ethics of the media organisation. Debates about those are for the pub rather than the classroom, and certainly not the newsroom when decisions have to be made quickly.
Journalists might also consider the Private Eye test – if your behaviour were to appear in Private Eye would you be embarrassed? If the answer is yes, don’t do it!
They should know from the outset that their behaviour is monitored and can affect the public standing and credibility of their organisation e.g. if they are charged with drink driving they should tell their boss to make sure the court case is covered or how can we justify reporting the crimes and misdemeanors of others? These are ethical issues but realistically they should be in journalists’ contracts of employment. Another example might be when a relative is charged with an offence. That should be reported to avoid suggestions of nepotism or cover up.
The outline module refers to facility trips and journalists gaining benefits from their work. It is not that benefits are banned but they must not affect our objectivity or sense of fair play. Those issues can usually be dealt with through openness and transparency.
These are all really matters of common sense and personal integrity that should apply to everyone – not just journalists. It is simply that any media organisation relies heavily on its credibility in the chosen marketplace – as well as being right, of course!
Most of the time, most journalists and most news organisations behave perfectly properly in the public interest – that was what Lord Justice Leveson concluded, so where’s the problem?
The pressures on journalists and news organisations in terms of time and economics and competition are particularly heavy now, and may well get heavier.
Journalists have to be able make decisions under pressure and to know when to seek advice when there is time.
The key messages are therefore – think twice, use common sense – and do the right thing.