Journalists have a responsibility to the facts of an event. This is an aspect of journalism that is often lost in the sensationalism that often follows the news in the modern era. Ethics and standards in journalism are principles that give the journalist a structural framework for conducting the practice of reporting on events, people, or places; they are designed to help the journalist navigate specific situations and challenges that journalists often face. Journalists do not exist in a vacuum; they are people with their own opinions and feelings about the things that they are reporting, and it follows that they may sometimes fall victim to having those feelings and opinions leak into their practice. However, the ethical guidelines that are set up for journalists are designed to help them minimize their personal interaction with the facts of the case that they are reporting on (Herrscher, 2002, pp. 277--289).
Acting journalists are often part of specific professional organizations; these organizations frequently have their own code of ethics set forth for members. These ethics may vary slightly from organization to organization, but on the whole, they remain the same (Herrscher, 2002, pp. 277--289). The Society of Professional Journalists suggests that a journalist’s responsibility is to “seek truth and report it,” “minimize harm,” “act independently,” and “be accountable” (Society of Professional Journalists, 2013). Herrscher (2002, pp. 277-289) suggests that all working codes must include provisions for truthfulness, impartiality, fairness, and accountability to the larger readership (Herrscher, 2002, pp. 277--289). For the purposes of discussion, the ethical standards of the Society of Professional Journalists will be used to discuss and compare two articles written about a recent incident in the United Kingdom: the murder of a man in a crowded shopping mall by two unrelated men, in front of many onlookers.
Generally, standards for journalism ethics also ask the journalist to consider whether the information that the journalist has obtained should be released to the public; that is, the journalist must consider whether the public will receive benefits or harm as a result of the release of the information that the journalist has acquired. If society will be harmed by the release of information-- for example, if the journalist has acquired military or state secrets that put the public in danger-- it is ethically wrong for the journalist to release this information to the public (Herrscher, 2002, pp. 277--289). However, refusing to reveal information for personal gain is also ethically forbidden for journalists; in short, journalists must always act in the best interests of society if they are to be considered good, ethical journalists (Herrscher, 2002, pp. 277--289).There are differences in the way different societies approach journalism and journalistic ethics; many of these differences are often attributed to different values within society. According to Hafez (2002, pp. 225-250):
Norms protecting the private sphere are, in fact, more pronounced in countries of the Near and Middle East, North Africa, and in the majority of Muslim states in Asia than is generally the case in EuropeAlthough ideas of freedom have entered formal media ethics in the Middle East and the Islamic world, only a minority of documents limit the interference into freedom to cases where other fundamental rights (e.g., privacy) are touched, whereas the majority would have journalists accept political, national, religious, or cultural boundaries to their work. Despite existing differences between Western and Middle Eastern/Islamic journalism ethics and in contrast to the overall neoconservative (Islamist) trends in societal norms, formal journalism ethics has been a sphere of growing universalization throughout the last decades. (Hafez, 2002, pp. 225-250)
Because this discussion will focus on the western, European world, it is important to note that the focus on personal privacy by the journalists is not as pronounced as it may be elsewhere in the world.
Before discussing the different reporting styles used in the articles, it is important to understand the facts of the case. The victim was a 22-year-old male by the name of Jonathan Fitchett, who was kicked to death by Gerard Childs and Stephen Price in a Merseyside shopping plaza (Cables Retail Park murder: Two men jailed for life, 2013). The two articles quoted for use in this discussion come from the United Kingdom’s local BBC news report, and the Daily Mail’s local report. All of the information contained within these articles has been cross-referenced for comparison; the various aspects of ethics in these reports will be discussed utilizing the framework given by the Society of Professional Journalists.
II. Seek Truth and Report it
The first and, perhaps, primary job of a journalist is to obtain the facts of whatever case that he or she is reporting on. According to Richards (2005), there are problems with sculpting a news story, no matter how accomplished and successful the journalist may be. As the old adage goes, there are often two sides to a story, and discovering which side is the truth and reporting on that truth can be problematic for journalists, especially when news is new and just breaking. Richards (2005) writes, “The representation of complexity and diversity is characteristic of much journalism about many aspects of contemporary life. Critics often fail to understand that this representation occurs over a period of time and may not be evident in single reportsthe important point is that, in a society where there are multiple opinions and interpretations about most major issues, maintaining the truth becomes for journalism the refusal to simplify an issue to a monolithic, singular entity” (Richards, 2005). In short, the sheer complexity of modern life makes it difficult to report cohesively on certain topics; indeed, Richards (2005) seems to suggest that maintaining a party line on a topic is ethically irresponsible for a journalist.
However, despite this difficulty, the most important thing for journalists to do is to verify the accuracy of the information that they are reporting. Inevitably, there will be times when journalists report incorrectly; however, verifying information to the best of their ability is part of the responsibility given to each individual as a journalist (Herrscher, 2002, pp. 277--289). The Daily Mail reports, “A plasterer was kicked to death while shopping with his girlfriend's nephew in a row over 'petty name calling'. Jonathan Fitchett, 22, was chased across a car park outside a JD Sports store in Prescot, Merseyside, and then subjected to a 'barrage of punches and kicks' while shopping for a football. As he lay dying on the ground one of the killers boasted 'That’s how you knock someone out lad' and walked away, a court heard” (Plasterer, 22, kicked to death in front of horrified shoppers in packed town centre after long-running feud that started after he called one of his attackers 'a muppet', 2013). This is a very sensationalist way of reporting the facts; although they have not been disputed or altered in any way, these facts play directly into the voyeuristic nature of humanity. Rather than dealing with the death of the man in a dignified way, the Daily Mail is more concerned with relaying all the facts available, regardless of whether or not it is ethically advisable to do so. The ethics of causing harm in reporting will be covered in-depth in the following section, but the fact remains that the most important fact of all-- the fact that a man died as a result of a beating-- is glossed over with extraneous details in this article.
The BBC, reporting on the same story, writes: “Jonathan Fitchett, 22, from Prescot, died after suffering serious head injuries at Cables Retail Park in the town in July. Gerard Childs, 28, of King Edward Road, Rainhill, and Stephen Price, 28, of Hayes Avenue, Prescot, had denied his murder at Liverpool Crown Court” (Cables Retail Park murder: Two men jailed for life, 2013). The Daily Mail article and the BBC article report the same facts; however, the Daily Mail article is much more willing to expound upon the facts given by the investigators in the case, reaching an almost sensationalist reporting style in the first sentences of the report. The BBC, on the other hand, reports only the barest facts of the case, and builds on them as the article progresses (Cables Retail Park murder: Two men jailed for life, 2013). Unlike the Daily Mail article, the BBC is more concerned with the death of the man and the facts of the case than the hearsay of what happened to prompt the attack.
III. Minimize Harm
When considering journalism and journalistic ethics, there is often a feeling that “harm” constitutes the kind of harm that can occur when sensitive information is relayed to the public-- for instance, the kind of harm that occurred when Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent was leaked to the public via the American news media (Richards, 2005). While this is certainly harm-- Valerie Plame’s career at the CIA as an agent was effectively ended as a result of the leak and her subsequent exposure by the American media-- there are other kinds of harm that can be done by the media as well.
The Daily Mail is often considered to be a “low” form of reporting, as it often sensationalizes stories and fails to properly fact-check all the facts that it reports before publishing them. However, even for stories that are factually accurate, harm can still be done to the general public and the individuals involved in the story as a result of the report. For instance, in the case of the man who was killed at the shopping center, the Daily Mail fails to show the appropriate compassion for the victim. The Society of Professional Journalists writes that a journalist should “show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or griefRecognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance” (Society of Professional Journalists, 2013). The Daily Mail, with its concern for attention-grabbing headlines, fails to properly show sensitivity towards the family of the man who was killed in a brutal assault.
The BBC, on the other hand, handles the case with a cold detachment that is wholly different from the eager sensationalism of the Daily Mail. The BBC is one of the most popular news sources around the world, and the level of reporting noted in the BBC article is vastly different from that in the Daily Mail article. However, this begs the question of whether the BBC’s method of handling the news is superior to the Daily Mail’s method in regards to this specific type of story, especially because both news sources have reported the same facts and the reader can assume that these facts have been verified by one or more sources of information. The Daily Mail’s method does harm to the family by suggesting that the victim had some part in his own death by calling his attacker(s) a ‘muppet,’ while the BBC says little, choosing instead to quote from officials involved in investigating the story (Cables Retail Park murder: Two men jailed for life, 2013 and Plasterer, 22, kicked to death in front of horrified shoppers in packed town centre after long-running feud that started after he called one of his attackers 'a muppet', 2013). Even the title of the article by the Daily Mail subtly blames the victim, by indicating that his death was, in some way, caused by his own actions or due to his own behavior (Plasterer, 22, kicked to death in front of horrified shoppers in packed town centre after long-running feud that started after he called one of his attackers 'a muppet', 2013).
The Daily Mail does not do “harm” in the traditional sense, but it is ethically wrong to blame a victim of a violent crime for his own victimization-- the victim, in this case, was set upon by two men and kicked to death as a result of a childish feud (Plasterer, 22, kicked to death in front of horrified shoppers in packed town centre after long-running feud that started after he called one of his attackers 'a muppet', 2013). Article headlines like this do harm to the friends and family of the victim who are grieving for his loss, which sets this type of reporting directly at odds with the theory of “do no harm” that is set forth by the Society of Professional Journalists. Indeed, someone not reading the article closely could obtain a very skewed view of what happened to the victim on the day of his murder, incorrectly assuming that he began the fight that eventually led to the two accused men beating him to death.
The BBC article, alternatively, is clinical and calculating in its reporting of the case, and does not engage emotionally with the subject at all. Instead, the BBC article reports only the important facts for the case, and even then, most of the reporting is done second-hand, as the reporter clearly interviewed an official assigned to the case. The BBC writes, “Gary Simpson, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "Jonathan Fitchett was subjected to a deadly and sustained attack by Childs and Price in a busy shopping centre on a sunny summer's day. ‘The prosecution successfully disproved their claims that they were acting in self-defence. Several witnesses confirmed that they had seen Childs and Price punching and kicking Jonathan who was unable to defend himself’” (Cables Retail Park murder: Two men jailed for life, 2013). There is no room in this article for the reader to gloss over the fact that a man was killed, and that the two men responsible for his death were tried and convicted of his murder. This article, while perhaps not sympathetic, meets the minimum requirements of the spirit of the ethical code for journalists when the code suggests that journalists must do no harm.
IV. Act Independently
Objectivity is difficult, even for the best journalists; it is difficult to maintain distance and emotional separation from a topic, especially when the journalist is thrown into the midst of a highly emotionally-charged situation. Objectivity is one of the more difficult aspects of journalism. However, the theory that journalists should act independently is twofold: first, the journalist must maintain objectivity to the best of his or her ability while reporting on a story, but also, the journalist must remain free from any kind of conflict of interest while in his or her capacity as a reporter (Society of Professional Journalists, 2013). This means that journalists must refuse any kind of bonus or bribe that may indicate that they have a bias; for high-level journalists who report on well-connected and rich people, the temptation may be great. However, maintaining objectivity and refusing to cave to bribery is fundamental for the journalist.
As far as objectivity is concerned, there are a variety of different issues that the modern journalist faces insofar as objectivity in reporting is concerned. Ward (2006) writes, “Traditional news objectivity is, by all accounts, a spent ethical force, doubted by journalist and academic. Two options loom for journalism ethics. One is the invention of a different norm that can take over objectivity;s role of restraining and evaluating reports. Another is a redefinition of objectivity so that it is more appropriate for the journalism of today and the foreseeable future pragmatic objectivity sees contingency, vulnerability, and fallibility at the heart of all things humanRational inquiry is the activity of one fragile species at the heart of an expanding universe” (Ward, 2006). As issues become more complex and multi-faceted, the way that objectivity looks in reporting has changed; for this reason, Ward (2006) suggests that objectivity often takes the shape of multiple articles on the same topic, looking at the issue in a variety of different lights. However, for the issue of the murder, addressed in the Daily Mail and BBC articles, there is no need for multiple articles expressing multiple points of view; the duty of the journalist in this case is to report the facts of the case in an unbiased manner, in a way that does not bring undue pain or harm to the family of those affected by the tragedy.
Bias due to bribery or outside influence is not really an issue in this case, because none of the people involved are particularly important politically or socially; all of the people involved in this case are average people involved in an extraordinary situation. However, this does not mean that there cannot be a lack of objectivity in reporting; the BBC article does not struggle with objectivity, but the Daily Mail article struggles a lot with the issue of objectivity. The Daily Mail introduces the facts of the case by stating, “Jonathan Fitchett, 22, was chased across a car park outside a JD Sports store in Prescot Subjected to 'barrage of punches and kicks' while shopping for footballHad a petty long-running feud with attackers that started after he called one of them 'a muppet'” (Plasterer, 22, kicked to death in front of horrified shoppers in packed town centre after long-running feud that started after he called one of his attackers 'a muppet', 2013). The implication that the victim was responsible for the feud that led to his death is certainly a lapse in objectivity on the part of the reporter.
V. Be Accountable
The advent of the Internet age makes it much easier for reporters to be held accountable for what they write about and report on. Today, anyone with an Internet connection is able to access vast amounts of information that would not have been available to the general public in the past; in addition to this newfound information technology, new social technologies allow any and all people to leave comments on news reports and articles on newspaper websites. This creates a much more interactive form of news media that is a relatively new development (Rao and Wasserman, 2008). This allows news media to integrate more easily with the public than ever before; new developments in technology allows reporters and news websites to collect and address issues and information in real time, rather than with a delay. This allows news sources to be highly accountable to the people who consume their media.
Although the BBC and the Daily Mail attract different readership, the options for engaging with the news source indicates that people are willing to engage with news they find interesting or offensive in some way. For instance, a user on the Daily Mail site writes, “The courts once again demonstrate the small value they put on a man's life terminated by these thugs Prescot is a worthless human being, two men beating to death one man and making self defence his excuse. In earlier times both of these men would have been hanged, the value of life has been devalued. Shame on the judicial system and the law makers[sic]” (Plasterer, 22, kicked to death in front of horrified shoppers in packed town centre after long-running feud that started after he called one of his attackers 'a muppet', 2013). While the comments are disabled on the BBC site, there is a button that allows users to share the article on social media, and an option that allows users to contact an editor with comments or concerns over an article. In this way, however, the Daily Mail shows more willingness to release control over what people post on their website and allow for dialogue and discussion in the comments section of the site.
The BBC and the Daily Mail cope with the issue of accountability differently, especially in terms of fact-checking in media. For instance, the Daily Mail does not invite users to check the facts of an article or articles, instead inviting them to express their opinions on the facts presented in the article as they are. The BBC is much more concerned with fact-checking, and invites people to share the article and contact the local editor if they find any factual issues within the articles that they read on the site. These are two very different forms of journalism; one is journalism for the sake of entertainment, while the other is journalism for the sake of knowledge, information dissemination, and community advancement.
The Society of Professional Journalists suggests that to be ethically sound, a journalist must: “Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media [and] Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others” (Society of Professional Journalists, 2013). The Daily Mail does not abide by all the rules that defines a good, ethical publication; the BBC, on the other hand, is considered to be one of the best publications in the world. By looking at these two articles, it has become clear that there are distinct differences in the methodology that each uses to report on similar issues.
Setting aside preconceived notions about the quality of both the BBC and the Daily Mail, it is clear to see that the Daily Mail has developed some problematic tendencies insofar as reporting style is concerned. Because the Daily Mail serves a more entertainment-oriented purpose, the articles written by the reporters at the Daily Mail are more sensationalistic and overblown than those reported by the BBC. The BBC has taken on a more clinical, reserved air for reporting, even when it comes to reporting on issues that are local, personal, and would otherwise inspire some form of sympathy in the reader. Maintaining objectivity and ethical behavior in reporting is hard in a complex, complicated world; every story that is told by reporters must be vetted and researched heavily before being composed, because the Internet does not allow for mistakes to be made without someone discovering them. As the cache of collective knowledge grows, the job of the reporter will only become more difficult and complex. When things become complex and difficult, reporters must fall back on their ethical guidelines to ensure that they are maintaining their ethical responsibilities as stewards of the news.
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