ICE blogs

July 26, 2014

The need for highest standards in brave new world exploding with social media

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 3:53 pm

William Morris reflects on the current state of media ethics on becoming Chairman of the International Communications Forum (ICF)

Few are old enough to remember the heady days before the newspaper revolution when computers replaced hot metal. But having been brought up in and around newspapers as a copy boy, I can remember the smell of the ink and the dirt and the clatter of the little presses and the deafening hum of the big monsters that rolled rivers of newsprint three stories into the air and back down again. For many of us those days are gone. Gone too are the great teams of investigative journalists. The Sunday Times’s ‘Insight’ team was, perhaps, the last of these but even they have long disappeared into the mists.

In those days who were the guardians of ethical journalism? The broadsheet proprietors cared about their reputations. And even the tabloid newspaper owners cared in some measure. Editors in chief took pride in the standards they adhered to. Even subeditors had a conscience, though then as now they could be staggeringly ruthless.

Have things changed? Well yes and no. Men and women of conscience still run some of our newspapers. Men and women of vision and mission still comprise many of our radio and television broadcasters and newspapermen. But the pressures are perhaps greater. For most journalists, spending a week working on a story is a luxury they can only dream of. Was it ever thus? Perhaps they always had to churn out copy but there was, I believe, more space for investigative journalism, if only because proprietors once had deeper pockets and more journalists to share the load.

Many Western papers have less than little time to sub copy anymore because of ever tighter budgets. There are the exceptions such as the Washington Post with its awesomely professional and well-staffed Foreign Desk (I must confess a bias because my daughter works for the Post) but such exceptions are rare.

What then does this mean for ethical journalism? It means that the journalist becomes the guardian of media ethics. It is a world in which we each take our own responsibility for what we do. We no longer have the moral conscience of the sub or the editor to fall back on. The editors themselves – for the most part – are still great women and men of conscience and principle. They still do heroic work shaping the overall vision of their publications. The great names are there. Alan Rusbridger, Editor in Chief of the London Guardian is a classic current example. But can Rusbridger even begin to read more than a small proportion of the vast quantity of copy the Guardian churns out in its online and print editions? Most modern editors are simply too busy to concern themselves on a day-to-day level with being the conscience of their junior reporters.

So, is xenophobia an issue? Sure it is. Media stories about classic pariah groups, the gypsies, the Romanians, the Arabs, the ‘Islamists’ and so forth, can descend into obscenity so easily and we don’t even notice. One Jewish writer I know wrote a whole opinion piece titled ‘LONDINISTAN’ and does not understand, to this day, that the mere headline (and it was of her choosing) was pejorative. She would be horrified to be called racist and, of course, she is not, just more than a little thoughtless perhaps.

In a similar vein, is desensitisation to violence an issue? Of course. Here in the West we think nothing of broadcasting images of brutality and torture if they are screened past the ‘9 o’clock watershed’, with little consideration given to the fact that many pubescent, vulnerable children are unlikely to head for their beds before midnight. And in the rest of the world things can be worse. The images of blood and violence on television sets in countries such as Israel and Iraq are breeding a generation desensitised to gore to such a degree that it is truly flabbergasting.

Is disinformation an issue? Absolutely. The current Syrian civil war has bred such a flood of intelligence agency feeds, as did the Iraq war little more than a decade ago, that it is near unbelievable. And most, I repeat, most, of these stories are published without serious qualm or question. My late father, a newspaper editor himself, had a maxim: ‘A story without a source is a source of trouble.’ This maxim we still use in our Media Ethics Code. He had a far better one too. It ran: ‘When in doubt, cut it out.’

So where do we go from here? Perhaps the key is that a number of prominent journalists make a public commitment to truth in Gandhiesque fashion. An affirmation that Absolute Truth is their standard. Or is that too extreme? Too fanatical? Undoubtedly we need to do something. If the editors can no longer always be our bellwethers we must find new heroes, new women and men we can point to and say: ‘They believe in fair play.’

Ethical journalism requires standards of vigilance that are unprecedented precisely because we are our own moral guardians and cannot lean on our bosses any longer. We should embrace that challenge with excitement. It heralds a better age. We are no longer children. We must stand up for ourselves. Gandhi once wrote (and I paraphrase slightly): ‘By experience I have found that people rarely become virtuous for virtues’ sake. They become virtuous by necessity. Nor is there anything wrong in becoming good under the pressure of circumstances.’ Raghvan Iyer, Gandhi’s main disciple, added: ‘Human life is an aspiration, a continual striving after perfection, and the ideal must not be lowered because of our weaknesses.’

Exactly! Herein lies a role for organisations like the International Communications Forum. We should extol virtue and excellence where we find it, through every means possible from the razzmatazz of the International Award to the private and personal accolade. And where necessary we should gently and respectfully cajole and criticise, through conferences and seminars if nowhere else. And we should support, nurture and foster media ethics, by doing everything from extolling the merits of media ethics codes to encouraging training in best practice.

Just as physicians and other health care professionals swear a Hippocratic Oath to practise medicine honestly, perhaps the ICF should promote our own oath of journalistic integrity which members of the trade could swear to in an effort to bolster internationally recognised standards of media ethics. After all, the world has changed. In a brave new world exploding with social media, demonstrations are called on Facebook, corruption is exposed in blogs, and reputations are destroyed by Twitter. In an era in which the internet provides an arena in which citizen journalists abound, it is the professional press that must adopt the highest standards of media credibility if they are to have a distinct place of their own, a territory that is truly theirs, in a world peopled with rumour and the viral tweet.

And it is exciting, truly exciting, that that should be the case.

The war of lies and deception

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 3:50 pm

The press have sunk to a predictable new low in their reporting of the air disaster in Ukraine - as Cold War rhetoric and misinformation returns, argues Barry Turner

The reporting by the world’s press of the destruction of a Malaysian airliner is a reminder of how nasty and manipulative the press can be when a tragedy arises from the current civil war in Ukraine.

Both sides of what has now become an entirely polarised debate about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine are equally to blame in producing the crudest of propaganda in the name of journalism. The Western press howls with moral indignation at the Russian president going so far as to blame him personally for shooting down the aeroplane. The Russian media and its international propaganda platform, RT, continually refers to the disaster as a ‘crash’ or at worse suggests the aircraft was a victim of the Ukrainian government’s actions in the Russian-speaking part of the country. The resignation this week of RT’s Sara Firth in protest at the coverage of the disaster is an embarrassment to the station perhaps as much as the sight of Sky TV’s news reporter Colin Brazier rummaging through a dead passenger’s luggage while the Western press howls about looting.

While the UK tabloids scream in horror at the treatment of the bodies and the alleged looting of passengers’ luggage and the Russian press blames Ukrainian military and air traffic control, the most obvious explanation for this tragedy is almost entirely missing from the popular press. The Western press continually insinuates that the use of a ‘sophisticated’ surface-to-air missile is evidence that the Russians were behind the attack. But this is nonsense. The system most likely to have been used is an old-fashioned but highly effective radar-guided missile. At least one of the vehicles carrying four of these is known to be in rebel hands. And, let’s remember, the rebels are not ‘farm boys’: the majority of them have served in not only the old Soviet forces but in the Ukrainian army too. There is no shortage of civilians in former Soviet republics with the knowledge of how to use this weapon.

The most likely explanation for this appalling tragedy is that an over-zealous rebel in charge of a powerful weapon system fired it at the commercial airliner by mistake. This does not seek to mitigate what is still a criminal act but it does place it in a proper context. What benefit would it have been for the rebels to have deliberately shot down a neutral civilian jet? At the time of the missile strike 478 civilians had been killed in the Donetsk region and 1,392 severely injured by bombing and shelling. On 15 July, a Ukrainian military aircraft bombed a civilian apartment building in the city of Snizhne. Little has been reported on these outrages with the exception of a very good article in the Economist (of 19 July)

In short, the reporting of the fighting in Ukraine has now descended into the pits of cynical propaganda – just as it was promoted by the press 100 years ago at the beginning of World War One.

• See also http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2014/06/propaganda-war-ukraine.html

July 3, 2014

Protests over moves to jail journalist for not revealing sources

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 10:33 am

Some 50,000 people have already signed a petition protesting at threats by the Obama administration to jail a journalist for not revealing his sources.

In State of War (2005), New York Times reporter James Risen revealed a bungled CIA attempt to set back Iran’s nuclear programme in 2000 by supplying the Iranian government with flawed blueprints for nuclear bomb design. The CIA’s tactic might have actually aided Iranian nuclear development.

Now five organisations – RootsAction.org, the Nation, the Center for Media and Democracy, the Progressive, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) and the Freedom of the Press Foundation – have launched a campaign to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to end legal moves against Risen.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation has condemned the administrations effort to force Risen to reveal a source ‘one of the most significant press freedom cases in decades’ while Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg comments: ‘The pursuit of Risen is a warning to potential sources that journalists cannot promise them confidentiality for disclosing executive branch criminality, recklessness, deception, unconstitutional policies or lying us into war. Without protecting confidentiality, investigative journalism required for accountability and democracy will wither and disappear.’

• The online petition can be read at act.rootsaction.org. See also http://zcomm.org/zmagazine/an-assault-from-obamas-escalating-war-on-journalism/.

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