Reflecting on Professional Issues in Journalism

An inherent conflict exists between philosophies underlying the profession of journalism. The ethics of sensitivity and a commitment to ‘do no harm’ clash with the journalist’s obligation to maintain a policy of ‘full disclosure’. This is a basic philosophical dilemma underlying the profession of journalism.

Journalist Margaret Simons says journalism is “dirty, vital work”. Journalism may be considered “vital” because it upholds democratic society and freedom of speech. Thomas Jefferson said our liberty depends on freedom of the press. Journalists hold a responsibility to facilitate and protect freedom on the public sphere and ensure equality of representation and diversity of opinion. They should push boundaries in order to hold authority accountable and ensure government transparency. Australian journalist Peter Greste said free media is key to free society, free debate and free ideas.

The right to freedom of speech underlying the profession of journalism was developed during the Enlightenment. Australian journalistic antecedents Andrew Bent, William Wentworth, Robert Wardell, Gilbert Robertson and Edward Smith Hall among others fought for free speech and free press during the nineteenth century. Enlightenment philosophers believed truth and knowledge would emerge from diversity of opinion on the public sphere including what one may deem to be ‘wrong’ opinion.

Enlightenment thinkers and colonial Australian journalists challenged authority and informed society as journalists do today. Nineteenth century journalists pushed legal boundaries to achieve freedom of the press and free speech in Australia. Andrew Bent and Robert Wardell were jailed for criticising government.

Journalists in Australia today do not have a guaranteed right to freedom of speech. Australia has no Bill of Rights like America which enshrines the right to free speech and free press in the constitution. An implied right to freedom of speech and the press exists in Australia but judges are able to interpret existing legislation on the basis of each individual case. Court cases of defamation, contempt of court and trespass limit the journalist’s freedom of speech.

Metadata retention laws passed in March in Australia similarly limit journalist’s freedom. Phone and internet providers will be required to store the identity of the messenger and receiver, destination, date, time and duration for two years under new laws. Journalists will no longer be able to interact with confidential sources without government knowledge. But the Australian Government considered metadata retention a “national security measure”. Laws aimed to allow police to access metadata to investigate serious crimes and terror plots, exemplifying the philosophical dilemma of freedom of speech versus national security. Senator Nick Xenophon said metadata laws would lead to a “dark age of investigative journalism” and “our democracy will be poorer for it”. “Accessing metadata to hunt down journalists’ sources, regardless of the procedures used, threatens press freedom and democracy,” Media Entertainment Arts Alliance Chief Executive Officer Paul Murphy said.

Government censorship encapsulates the basic philosophical dilemma of ‘full disclosure’ versus ‘do no harm’. Economic, political and cultural factors in a country determine the level of censorship. Australia’s relatively stable economy, political system and culture means media freedom can be handled to a great extent. The case of SBS presenter Scott McIntyre provides an example of what some may consider “censorship” in Australia. McIntyre was sacked after posting “inappropriate” and “disrespectful” comments about ANZAC Day on Twitter. Academic John Henningham said freedom of speech means to speak without breaking the law, not the right to keep your job when giving offence.

A policy of ‘full disclosure’ and complete media freedom can cause great harm in an unstable society. The media in Thailand is tightly controlled because frequent military coups have created an unstable democracy. Thailand’s economy is developing and tension exists between cultural and ethnic groups.

John Cleary revealed the difficulty of deciding whether to broadcast Jim Cairns’ admittance to an affair with Juni Morosey in SBS program Fine Line. Cleary’s internal ethical conflict exemplifies the underlying philosophical dilemma of ‘do no harm’ versus ‘full disclosure’ in the profession of journalism. Cleary ultimately decided to disclose information about the affair despite the great harm he knew it would cause to Cairns’s reputation. Cleary’s reportage of the affair was in the public interest because Cairns had sworn in a court of law in 1982 he had never had an adulterous relationship. A journalist must decide if revealing information is in the public interest rather than of interest to the public before committing to fully disclosing information which may cause great harm.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodword’s reportage on the ‘Watergate scandal’ fulfils a commitment to full disclosure in an ethical manner. The revelation of Nixon’s bugging of political opponents and a political scandal was in the public interest.

John Cleary demonstrates many journalists do engage in a process of self censorship and reflect on ethical standards and codes of conduct when reporting. Full disclosure should be limited when covering incidences of suicide to ensure ethical journalistic practices are followed. The Press Council says journalists should avoid describing the method and location of the suicide to “reduce the potential for imitation by others”. Support information such as the number for Lifeline should be included in articles covering suicide.

The story must remain balanced, fair and accurate. Geelong Advertiser Journalist David Lannen’s practice when covering incidences of suicide is now embedded in industry guidelines. Lannen asked local health professionals for advice when reporting on suicide. He waited for the families permission to publish images from Facebook and expressed sorrow for the families loss. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance code of ethics states journalists should “respect private grief and personal privacy”.

The article Mayor’s Son Dead written as a tutorial exercise required reflection on ethical journalistic practices. The ideas of ‘full disclosure’ and ‘do no harm’ had to be considered when deciding information to be included in the story. Carl Lomas’ identity was revealed in the story because the family was notified and an official police statement was released. The specific location and method of suicide was not published according to Press Council guidelines. The two school boys who found Lomas were not quoted because they were interviewed in a vulnerable situation. The MEAA Code of Ethics states a journalist must “never exploit a person’s vulnerability”. Support helplines were included in the article as the Press Council guidelines for reporting on suicide recommend. The MEAA Code of Ethics states journalists must disclose all “essential facts” and report accurately. But certain information must not be reported when covering incidences of suicide to prevent further harm.

Journalism is about reporting with balance and accuracy and pursuing the truth. These aims must be achieved ethically by being fair, sensitive, respecting sources, protecting the vulnerable and doing no harm.


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