Thu, 03 Aug 2000

Why press freedom is like owning and driving a car

The following is based on a presentation by Jim Carden at the Ethics in Journalism Conference held in Jakarta on July 12.

JAKARTA: With the blurring of the boundaries between what is news, information, entertainment and business, journalists are at a critical point in the evolution of the profession.

In many media, it is sometimes impossible to tell where news ends and entertainment begins. And it is equally difficult to distinguish between genuinely objective news items and what we might call "public relations fluff", "advertorials" and "contra" deals.

This is especially the case in countries such as Indonesia, in which "press freedom" has come only recently, and where issues of ethics, accountability and responsible journalism are being debated in a new atmosphere. But as many working in the media industry are discovering, journalistic freedom and journalistic responsibility go hand in hand and are inseparable.

In many ways, being a journalist is like owning and driving a fast, powerful car, and having a license to drive it on public highways. You can thrill at the power of the engine, relish the freedom to go wherever you like, and explore new and exciting horizons.

It is a great freedom, but it also comes with great responsibilities. Your freedom to drive is balanced by your responsibilities to the laws of the road, to the rights of other drivers, and to the passengers, pedestrians and innocent bystanders who could be affected by your driving.

So-called "press freedom" is a lot like owning and driving a car. Yes, it is exhilarating to explore, discover and uncover things, to tell stories, and to express your creativity and your opinions. But there is always a cost that must be weighed up, and impacts that must be considered.

Journalists must examine what the "rules of the road" should be, and what their responsibilities are to each other. When they write, or broadcast, or produce, they have a responsibility, because their behavior can have a devastating impact on others.

Excellence in journalism revolves around the key concepts of transparency, accountability, objectivity and credibility. Transparency means a number of things. It means, for example, implicitly or explicitly declaring the source of information (even if it is "government sources" or "a person who did not wish to be identified").

The journalist must apply an objective test to their work, to satisfy in their own mind that the information they are passing on to their audience is as verifiable and truthful as it can be before it is published -- not after, when it is often too late.

As we know, once a piece of misinformation, rumors, or half- truth, or outright lie is published, it is very hard to "unpublish" it.

To be transparent, journalists must put themselves in the mind of the reader or viewer or watcher of the story. If they are suspicious about the origins of a story, they may well ask: How did that story get there? Was it a press release, simply reproduced verbatim by a lazy reporter who has not checked their facts? Is there a hidden agenda? Was it paid for? Was their bribery involved?

But ethics can be a very slippery concept. It differs in application and interpretation from profession to profession, and from country to country. In that sense, it is important to acknowledge that ethics must be "contextualized" -- that is, seen in the context of the cultural dynamics of the individual country.

There is, for example, a blurred distinction between things like: giving money to a journalist to publish a story; giving money to a journalist to attend a press conference; paying expenses to journalists to attend an event or interview; and enclosing gifts of products in press kits, in the hope of encouraging journalists to write "good" stories.

Journalists in different countries will differ in their opinions on which of these is acceptable and under what circumstances. But it highlights the need for journalists to try to come up with a uniform set of moral guidelines to ensure that transparency is foremost in their minds when considering a news or feature story.

In Australia recently, there has been a trend towards reporters being compelled to declare their personal financial interests in disclaimers, or declarations, at the end of their stories. Examples of this include when a business journalist writes about a large public company -- for example a corporate takeover -- and is required to add words such as "the journalists owns shares in ABC Holdings" to the end of the story.

Other examples of disclaimers include travel writers who are required to declare how their trips have been funded, to allow the reader to judge the "objectivity" of the review.

But transparency is also about being able to justify the selection of stories -- that is, what "news values" have been applied when the editors, journalists and subeditors decide what stories are selected, how they are written, and what treatment they are given.

Transparency means not having a hidden agenda, and not operating as the mouthpiece or journalist puppet of government, or business or other puppet masters. A journalist's audience places a great deal of faith in the writer, and trusts that they are telling "the whole story".

Journalists must therefore apply a high standard of quality and thoroughness in the production of their stories, because as professionals, they cannot afford to take their credibility for granted.

Journalism that abuses this trust undermines the very foundations of the fourth estate. It corrodes the public's faith in the institution of the media, and without credibility, journalism is merely a form of cheap entertainment with no social value.

We are living in an era of CNN, the Internet and instant news, and information is having an increasingly rapid impact globally. The journalism of today has powerful reach, and can have repercussions not just on people, but also on societies, cultures and economies.

We only have to remember the April tech stock meltdown, and the monetary crisis that gripped Asia only a couple of years ago to see how quickly news carries, and how massive its impact can be.

Ethical journalism must therefore involve the journalist considering and analyzing that impact of a story as part of the process of constructing it. Indeed, false news can become "fact" simply because it has been reported by someone else, and if no- one checks the story initially, the error is compounded and the damage is done before it can be corrected.

Ethics is a difficult concept to define. Is there a pure, objective moral code that we can all share? Or are ethics flexible, and adaptable, and subject to individual interpretation?

Ethics in journalism should be a blend of two basic principles: Being true to yourself and your own moral code, and being true to the readers, listeners and watchers of your product.

Over the past few years, Indonesia's media has enjoyed unprecedented freedom to report, comment, editorialize and campaign on issues that only a decade ago would have thrown journalists in jail.

But as many journalists are discovering, there is no true freedom without responsibility -- and like the young hot-headed driver getting behind the wheel of a fast car, a journalist must respect the power they have, and be constantly vigilant of the reverberations of their work. Journalistic freedom and journalistic responsibility go hand in hand and are inseparable.

Journalists are the caretakers of a precious tradition of excellence, paid for literally in the blood, sweat and tears of generations of courageous writers and broadcasters.

They should hold that tradition in deep respect, and uphold its principles in every aspect of their professional work -- for the sake of their audience, their profession, and ultimately themselves as professionals.

The writer teaches at the Deakin University in Australia.