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NCTJ Student Council 2017: Ethics is more than just sticking to the rules

Former editor turned journalism training consultant Paul Watson reports on the 2017 Student Council organised by the National Council for the Training of Journalists.

In a world of “post truth”, “fake news” and “alternative facts”, the demand for trustworthy sources of information rises.

It may mean a resurgence for the traditional, mainstream media that has been battling the headwinds caused by the new kids on the block.

The hope that this perception might change was expressed by NCTJ chairman, Kim Fletcher, during his opening remarks at the 2017 NCTJ Student Council at Sky in Osterley, London, on Friday 3 February.

If Fletcher’s wish comes true, Diploma in Journalism students will be well placed, having become well versed in the ethical dilemmas of the news business, where there are often no easy answers.

A panel of editors debates ethical issues at last week's NCTJ student council.

A panel of editors debates ethical issues at last week’s NCTJ student council.

Regulation and ethics have long been part of the NCTJ curriculum, but it was put on a much more formal footing following the Leveson inquiry.

Ethics, the NCTJ said, was to be embedded through the whole course and spotlighted areas for students to consider during their practical work.

These included standards in journalism, integrity, propriety and the morality of journalism.

It was made clear that ethics was more than just adhering to the rules of Ofcom and the PCC, and its successor, IPSO.

Of course, regulation also remains a key part of students’ learning, with a new online test introduced this academic year for non-broadcast students, whose knowledge of regulation is tested in a separate exam.

The NCTJ Student Council returned more than once to the issues of ethical journalism and regulation.

The Meet the Editors panel grappled with the issue in answering a number of questions from students.

In a world of instant news where we can all be broadcasters, what do you do if you are using Facebook Live and someone drops dead in front of you?

The panellists also drummed home the message of fact-checking information, no matter what its source.

Panel chairman and executive editor of Sky Sports News Andy Cairns summed up by saying trust was everything and advised students to “be wary”.

There was much to feel positive about from the Student Council as a whole, but it was the willingness to question and consider issues of ethics and regulation that stood out for me as a beacon to counter the “fake facts”.

* Paul Watson is a freelance journalist and an editorial consultant for the NCTJ where he helped develop the practical journalism ethics programme of study. He is a former local newspaper editor in East Anglia and Sussex.