Writing Tips: Ethics

Michael Arkus

Are journalistic ethics merely subjective, dependent on the prevailing culture, religion or ethos of a particular region? Or do they transcend such balkanization to reach the level of global objectivity by the very nature of the profession? Is it wrong for a journalist with a good salary in a developed country to be paid by a source to write a story, but OK for a journalist working for a pittance in a developing country to do so because he needs the extra money to feed his children? At a time when the issues of a universal moral code versus regional values (of Asian values, for example, versus the imported codes of former colonialist powers) still raise heated debate, where does journalism stand?

The debate can be divided into two main spheres, the overarching definition of journalism as a profession and the practice of the profession once it is defined. This column will deal with some issues arising in the second sphere. As to the first, the basic argument comes down to the view of journalism as a tool for the achievement of a “greater good,” or that of a journalism which, by its very definition of searching out the truth and conveying that information in an accurate, unbiased way to a public credited with the maturity to handle it, is itself a “greater good.”

The former is the journalism of an authoritarian society, of Father-knows-best, be it the Soviet Union, Cuba, Lee Kwan-Yew’s Singapore, or the Osservatore Romano of the Vatican, in fact of any regime that claims possession of the “ultimate truth,” to which journalistic truth must be subservient. For instance the Cuban journalists’ code calls for "absolute veracity and objectivity" but defines journalism as embracing a "revolutionary duty, communist attitude towards work, socialist patriotism and proletarian internationalism." It is clear here that what many would regard as objective truth could easily contradict what the authorities proclaim to be revolutionary duty or socialist patriotism. It is equally clear who will win, and what will die - freedom of the media as most people would define it. In other countries journalistic codes include the need to promote national development, ethnic cohesion, harmony and other social goals, which could also clash with truth and objectivity. These issues warrant separate columns in themselves. But what is interesting is that even the subservient view of journalism still recognizes the universality of journalistic ethics by paying lip service to fairness, accuracy and all the other usually recognized canons. Beyond the authoritarian government there is also the related issue of to what extent a journalist can be a neutral observer but also socially or patriotically committed.

Two of the many issues dealing with the practice of journalism under the second definition, as an inalienable right to the free flow of truthful information, are sourcing and the role of money in journalism. What follows should be debated by all who are interested in journalism. It is by such debate that issues gain even greater clarity.

1) Sourcing:

A reader in Indonesia recently wrote to IPD on the question of confidentiality of sources: “There have been many incidents where reporters in Indonesia write stories that include one too many anonymous sources. It would be good if they know who and how to quote, so the public will understand that the story isn't based on ‘rumors.’

Two issues are involved here, confidentiality and ‘too many’ anonymous sources.

a) Confidentiality:

This principle is upheld in journalistic codes from all regions, whether in developed or developing countries, whether in the actual reporting or presumably later in court or some other forum. Just a glance at them will show you how universal it is. For instance point 5 of Nepal’s journalist code says: ‘Journalists should not disclose the confidentiality of the news source.’ The Pakistani code says: ‘The journalist should be entitled to protect his source of information revealed in confidence.’ Sri Lanka’s code says: ‘The journalist should be entitled to protect his source of information revealed in confidence.’ In Latin America the various codes stress the universality of the principle, as in Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia etc. In Europe it is the same story. The Lithuanian code states: ‘The journalist should identify the source of his information. For this reason he has to obtain a permission to refer to the informant's name. In case the source of information requests not to disclose his/her name, the journalist has no right to disclose it.’ The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is quite clear on the matter: ‘The journalist shall observe professional secrecy regarding the source of information obtained in confidence.’ And in the United States the American Society of Newspaper Editors states: ‘Pledges of confidentiality to news sources must be honored at all costs, and therefore should not be given lightly.’

There’s little doubt here then. Two principles are at work, one moral, the other practical. Firstly, you’ve given your word to guard the confidentiality, so you do so. Secondly, if you don’t keep your word, just see how long it takes for all your sources to dry up.

b) Overuse of anonymous sources:

This is more complicated and involves the credibility of the source, and hence your own credibility. If you have complete confidence in the sources because they’ve proved correct in the past but they insist on anonymity, then you have no choice. Use them anonymously. The Washington Post’s policy can be a guidance in some cases: ‘Before any information is accepted without full attribution, reporters must make every reasonable effort to get it on the record. If that is not possible, reporters should consider seeking the information elsewhere. If that in turn is not possible, reporters should request an on-the-record reason for concealing the source’s identity and should include the reason in the story. In any case, some kind of identification is almost always possible - by department or by position, for example - and should be reported.’

This latter point is important. If you can somehow narrow down the source’s identity, with his/her agreement, to something more than ‘usually reliable,’ your story will be that much the stronger, e.g. ‘a source close to the president,’ ‘a source who says he saw the document,’ ‘a source with connections to etc.’

Basically anonymity can be a nuisance especially when it recurs frequently, but sometimes it is inevitable. What should the Washington Post have done in the Watergate Scandal -- stopped using Deep Throat because too many anonymous sources were used too many times? Clearly not. This is an issue of faith. If the source or sources are truly credible, then the anonymity is no problem. If they are not truly credible, then they shouldn’t be used in the first place, either anonymously or named.

A related issue is the number of sources needed for a particular piece of news. It is often said that you should have three. But this is arbitrary. You obviously should try to check the item with others, just as with named sources, but if your anonymous source happens to be the president, a minister, or some other truly authoritative person, that one source is more than ample. And if the sources are not well placed for the particular item, then one hundred and three aren’t enough.

There are several other source issues that will not be examined in depth here, including sources with axes to grind. This does not mean that what they are telling you is not true. They are using you, just as you are using them. But it does mean that you need to check what every source says as much as you can, and if it is a question of a controversial issue then the other side has to be given, even in the case of the impeccable authoritative source, like the president off the record. In the case where the source is giving you an opinion and not hard news -- and it is valid for you to use it, for instance, if it gives an idea of the thinking in an a government -- you are duty bound by the laws of fairness to try for a countervailing opinion from the other side.

2) Money:

a) Accepting money:

Accepting currency or some other from of compensation from a source of information to write a story will totally destroy your own currency - journalistic credibility. This again appears in codes of conduct whether in the developed or developing world. The IFJ terms ‘acceptance of a bribe in any form in consideration of either publication or suppression’ a grave professional offense. The Sri Lankan code says: ‘He (she) shall not accept any bribe in money, kind or service for any matter connected with or incidental to his (her) profession.’ The same is true of ‘freebies.’ The problem is not that accepting money or a service and writing a slanted story are inexorably linked by logic. It is possible to accept money and still write the truth, doing the dirty on the donor if necessary. The problem is that no one will ever believe you, no one will ever accept that your article is objective, unslanted, even if it is, once they find out you received some form of compensation. For them it will be a quid pro quo, however much you protest that there was no quid or quo. You will be seen as having been bribed to write what you did.

Now this is ‘easy said easy done’ for journalists in the developed world where salaries are often very good. And of course there’s always that famous quote from Humbert Wolfe:

"You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to."

But what about parts of the world where corruption is endemic, or where payments may even be a part of the ethos? And more important, what about developing countries where journalists’ salaries are pitifully low? In the newly independent Central Asian states some journalists are reported to have said they know accepting compensation is unethical, but they do so just to be able to put food on the table for their families. Interestingly, the journalistic codes for the press in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan make no mention of accepting money, while the Kyrgyz TV/radio code does: ‘Journalists should not accept any gifts or favors which could influence the objectivity of their stories.’ The trouble here is in the very especial nature of the profession, relying as it does so enormously on trust. However justified the need for the extra money, the journalist who accepts that extra money will have no more credibility than the journalist working for the government media in a totalitarian state, however true or objective any particular given story may be. He will be perceived to have been bought even in societies where ‘gifts’ may form part of the ethos.

b) Giving money:

Giving money for a story, the other form of checkbook journalism, is generally frowned upon, but it doesn’t compromise the journalist either in actuality or in perception in the way accepting money does. At its most common and pettiest level -- buying a source a drink or lunch, or giving somebody a box of chocolates at Christmas -- nearly everybody does it. What about giving a considerable amount of money for information that is true or documents that are genuine? Say you pay for documents that by their publication prevent an injustice, war, or some other major catastrophe? This clearly does not compromise the content of your story, hence your basic credibility and the faith that readers or listeners may put in you. But for many it still has a distasteful aura to it, though not for everybody. The Armenian journalists code of conduct adopted by the Yerevan Press Club when it states: ‘The journalist may collect information in the following ways: from official sources; through journalistic inquiry; by purchasing information. The object of any transaction can only ever be information - never the position of the journalist.’ The purchasing here doesn’t sound as if it means just going into a bookshop to buy a book. But a problem that could arise if the practice becomes widespread is the usual inflation of supply and demand. The price of a story continually rises, the less-well off papers can no longer afford to compete, they lose business, close down, the number of media outlets consequently decreases, and with it one of the main guarantees of the freedom of information - multiple sources.

c) Selling:

The journalist cannot at the same time be a salesman as well as a journalist without again risking the same perception as the journalist who accepts money. There are cases where journalists are also expected to sell advertising space to boost their firm’s profits. Once they do that, very few people are going to believe that the company that just bought advertising space from those journalists is being objectively covered, often by the selfsame journalists. But then a case can also be made that very few people should believe that a company is being objectively covered when it also pays handsome advertising rates to a news outlet through regular advertising sales people. Then there are also the cases where a government itself ‘buys’ a newspaper by subsidizing it with government advertising as happened in Mexico under the PRI regime that ended in 2000. Advertising is an issue where the news outlet has to establish its faith in objectivity, whether the ad salesman is a journalist or someone else.

These are just a few of the ethical questions that can arise. There are many others. For instance to what extent can one go in obtaining information? There’s the example of paying for a story mentioned above, but are there circumstances where one is justified in using unethical or illegal means, lying for example or stealing or breaking in? Are there circumstances where, while not lying or misinforming, one is justified in suppressing a story -- and the truth? What if your story with truth in every word incites a riot and death? Or tips off a wanted criminal to his imminent arrest? What do you do if the government asks you not to publish a story for apparently watertight good reasons but for what might also be an effort to avoid political embarrassment? What do you do when the information provided to you is true but you are still being used in a spin operation? But all that will have to wait for another column.

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