06 December 2018

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: The ethics of journalism

Dear Friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: The ethics of journalism

First of all I must apologise for two things, the first is I wrote a
rather long essay and secondly I might have been biased towards
photojournalism. However, for those who do not feel like reading a long
essay here is a brief summary:

Article 19 of the UN Human Rights declaration, recognises our right to
freedom of information, the freedom to gather information and to
"impart" such information. And in a recent debate in the House of
Commons the principle of informed consent was invoked as a necessary
condition for referendums and elections. We also recognise that
journalism is one of the pillars of democracy.

Journalism is also well covered by code of conducts, constitutions,
legislation and the law courts. But the issue is always the same, what
is in the public interest? Investigative journalists (Muckrakers) are
quite good at identifying what is in the public interest, and the courts
are equally good at deciding what is: eg the News of the World phone
tapping scandal vs Watergate.

Journalism in effect is rather a methodology like science and not the
opinions of the journalist. Hence, what concerns journalism are the
facts and not necessarily the truth; which is not the same as lying.
Lying is not part of journalism. A dilemma is that the facts do not
necessarily tell the truth. Compare the images "The vulture and the
little girl" and "The Blue Marble".

Finally, technology has created what is called the fifth estate
(bloggers, citizen journalism etc) so we can distinguish from the fourth
estate of classical journalism. Digital technology means we all have the
tools to gather information and share it. In the past, facts
(supposedly) were confirmed by professional supervision, under the fifth
estate system facts can also be verified by strength in numbers;
different people capturing and imparting the same original information
as it happens plus meta data control. Consider the image what I call
Sunrise over Gran Via.

Hence, as consumers of journalism are we also bound to use information
intelligently or rationally? And having the right to gather and share
information are we also duty bound by the ethics of journalism?

The ethics of journalism (Full essay)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1947, includes
Art 19 which reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and
expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without
interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas
through any media and regardless of frontiers"; reference

For our purposes we only need the last part of Article 19 "……and to
seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media." This
Article recognises the right to seek to be informed and to inform. We
can, therefore, legitimately accept that "journalism" is one of those
human endeavours that appeal to our rational self rather than our
physical existence. And for this reason alone we need to have a
philosophy of journalism and in particular an ethics of journalism.
Though, this might not always be evident in non journalism studies in
formal education.

Journalism is also accepted to be a pillar of democracy and today
countries that do not have a free press are not regarded neither to be
free nor democratic. This also happens to be a well covered topic so I
shall not discuss these assumptions.

So what is the ethical connection between having the right to
information, to gather information and then share it and democracy? On
the 5th December 2018, last Wednesday, a Member of Parliament, at the
House of Commons, in London, during the debate on the Withdrawal Bill
(EU) invoked the medical principle of informed consent to justify a
second referendum, strictly speaking a third, on whether Britain should
leave the EU without a deal or Remain member of the EU.

Of course, we are too busy to go about government departments, big or
small companies, the law courts, or even our neighbourhood looking for
information about events and acts of omission or commission simply to
exercise our right to information. Does this mean that we also have the
right to sub-contract, so to speak, our right of freedom to gather

Our subject is about a specific ethics or moral code for journalism; and
by journalism we mean both the journalists who gather information and
the outlets who impart the gathered information. Indeed most countries
have legislation, including articles in their constitution, affirming
and limited the scope of journalism; each media outlet have a code of
conduct and guidelines for their members, every association for
journalists has a similar code of conduct and every functioning
democracy has an independent judicial system overseeing what is decent
and reasonable in a society. We are, therefore, not lacking moral oughts
and legal duties for journalists.

I would argue that for our purpose we need not examine what ought to be
done (by journalists) but rather what kind of values should we, as a
society and consumers of journalism, employ in an ethics of journalism?
What are the philosophical issues (some issues for now) associated with
sub contracting our right to information?

To illustrate my question, all codes of conduct, either expressly or
implied, guide journalists to seek information that is in the public
interest. For example, me drinking brand T of tea in the morning is not
news, but do we have a right to know what brand of tea the Queen drinks?
Of course, we already know this from the British Royal Warrants system;
but what about a government minister? Do we have the right to know what
tea brand a minister uses at home? Moving the question to another level
what are the ethics of paparazzi and gossip journalism as opposed to
investigative journalism.

So are paparazzi photographers also journalists? If you like this genre
of journalism is at the rough end of information gathering. Do
journalists have a right to take photos of or report on the private
activities of famous people, be they celebrities, politicians, or
royals? There is no doubt that there is a demand for such journalism but
where do the private domain end and the public domain starts? Indeed,
what is the down side of being a public figure when the up side is
wealth, power and glamour?

Theoretically in many democratic countries there is the principle that
we do not have a right to privacy when on public property. This is the
theory, in practice this is a huge minefield: jurisdictions vary from
country to country regarding what is public, and today governments use
all sorts of justifications to limit photography of people in public,
from terrorism, child abuse, the right to privacy, and sometime go to
huge measures to turn public areas into private properties precisely to
limit the scope of photography and journalists. However, people mistake
the right to take a photo in public and the use of the photo. In
general, and subject to the caveat above, the principle is that such
images can be used for editorial and art purposes. But these images
cannot be used for commercial without prior permission, for example to
endorse a brand or product.

It's one thing to take a photo of people in a street as an historical or
artistic record, and another of taking a photo of a politician with
their lover walking down the boulevard. An ethics of journalism must be
able to guide us on what is in the public interest. At one level, it is
the courts of the land who decide what is in the public interest; this
does not always help up since we have to decide at the time whether to
send a message or a photo to social media.

I want to argue that the public interest argument is based on the
premise that the right to gather or receive information is a necessary
condition to an informed consent (the basis for a second Brexit
referendum). Investigative journalists have no problem making a value
judgement when deciding what is and what is not in the public interest.
Of course, this does not mean that the courts will always agree with the
journalists; the News of the World telephone tapping scandal in the UK
is a case in point. On the other hand the Watergate case is a case when
journalists get the public interest right and the gold standard of
investigative journalism.

So what is journalism? If you do an internet search of "journalism as a
methodology" you will come across a plethora of articles on the topic.
Suffice it to say, and this is my opinion, that journalism is a
methodology. This is more or less the idea of what science is, what
makes some information scientific is not who makes the information but
rather the methodology employed to arrive at that information. I submit
that what makes some information journalistic, and thus entitled to be
classified in the public interest, is the methodology.

This idea, therefore, is not something like the Ten Commandments, but
more like serious common sense. There is a belief that journalists
should tell the truth, but this is a strange belief on the grounds that
what is the truth is different from not lying. Journalists should not
lie, but even the courts are cautious when venturing into what is the
truth; indeed the courts tend to start with the evidence.

Let's take two examples, we are all familiar with the photo by Kevin
Carter known as "the vulture and the little girl" (search the internet):
the photographer was not lying but the truth is completely different
from what we see in the photo. The girl was a boy and his parents where
nearby collecting food supplied by the UN in Sudan. Indeed the
photographer simply thought it was an interesting composition and after
he did shoo the bird away.

Compare this with the other famous image "The Blue Marble" of the Earth
taken from Apollo 17 and published by NASA and reproduced by most media
on the planet. Today, and then, we know that the Earth is not a perfect
sphere (search Figure of the Earth) but did NASA lie? Some argue that
NASA manipulated the image to conform to accepted beliefs while others
argue more reasonably that seen from a long distance away a mass such as
the Earth would look more or less like a perfect sphere. The question is
not whether NASA lied, but rather do journalists have a duty to report
the fact that the Earth is not a perfect sphere. Why wasn't there a
"health warning" with this image to the effect that the Earth is not a
perfect sphere?

But the foregoing presents journalists and consumers of journalism with
a dilemma: the facts might not represent the truth and the truth might
not be the impression we get from the facts. There is no doubt that the
first commandment of journalism is to report the facts. This explains
why today there are such sites as FactCheck.org.

The "imparting" part of journalism might not be a key issue for us, but
it has certainly changed these past few years with the advent of
internet technology. Indeed technology itself influences who gathers
information and how we gather information.

Article 19 is clear, we all have the right for freedom of information
and we all have the right to gather information, this is not in doubt.
However, journalism is the specific activity of gathering information to
share with others. And like science we need to follow an accepted
methodology, but this is by nature very difficult to put to practice in
the real world.

Many times gathering information takes time and resources, not to
mention that usually there are other events and information of equal
importance competing with each other. Fortunately, today we can easily
gather information from our mobilephone and share with others in real
time over the internet.

A mobile phone is a real enabler today, but just because we can it does
not follow that what we are doing is journalism. But nature, it seems,
has its own way of overcoming deficiencies in the "system". Under the
older model of journalism the ethical standards were established by
professional supervision of the chain of information gathering and
sharing: i.e. editors, proofreaders, picture editors, fact checkers and
so on. Today we just point our phone at something or write an account of
a few words and send it one of the social media.

Nature sorts out the validity of a message by having many messages sent
by many different people from an event with each one writing about what
they see or photographing from where they are. But this strength in
numbers approach is not the same as utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is
maximising the numbers of "happy" people. Social media and every other
news outlet are different sources of the same original information each
validating or negating others sources of the information.

It's not that there are many people sending messages that legitimise
social media as a source of information but rather there are many
original sources of the same original information; consider troll-bot
messages and authentic comments. And technology, up to an extent,
enables us to authenticate the information whether it is genuine or
manipulated, for example from meta data. To illustrate my point, there
is a photo doing the rounds on some social media of the Metropolis in
Gran Via corner with Calle Alcala in Madrid. The image purports to show
what looks like an array of light rays from a rising sun behind the
building; a pretty picture but fake. A quick check on Google Earth or
one of the sun position apps will show that this building is facing
South East but behind it (the image) is West North. There are even
software to analyse whether the image is manipulated.

At face value, an ethics of journalism must be a part of the ethics of
politics. It is not by chance that classical journalism is called the
Fourth Estate and now bloggers, citizen journalists and self publishing
journalists are called the Fifth Estate. The first three estates are the
separation of powers. Journalism is indeed powerful and there must, in
this day and age, a reasonable standard of ethics to guide the gatherers
and imparters of information and I would also add the users of journalism.

But it is also true that journalism being a rational activity is easily
corrupted and abused. If, therefore, journalism requires a body of moral
values, does it also follow that consumers of journalism ought to use
journalism intelligently/rationally? Indeed, as the right holders of
freedom of information and freedom to impart such information are we
also bound by the code of ethics of journalism?

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/
MeetUp https://www.meetup.com/PhiloMadrid-philosophy-group/
Gran Clavel (Café-Bar): Gran vía 11, esquina C/ Clavel, 28013—Madrid

#journalism #ethics #fifthestate #article19 #humanrights #information

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: The ethics of

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