The common framework of journalistic ethics that is being adopted by radio, television and newspaper associations is a fair and balanced one. Having said so, adhering to such guidelines are not without challenges. The rest of this essay will try to demonstrate why these ethical guidelines are difficult to implement in a media atmosphere dominated by private and political power.
One of the basic premises under which all journalists compile their reports is the fact-checking aspect of their information. In other words, testing the accuracy of the information being reported and taking efforts to make sure that no mistake is incurred due to oversight. In reality however, there are systemic challenges to adhere to this principle. Given that most of the media coverage revolves around information released by government spokespersons, the veracity of the information given cannot be easily verified. For one thing, it is implicitly accepted that any message from government sources is an authentic and accurate one. To question or suspect elected representatives and authorities is not natural to many journalists. Hence, there are practical difficulties in implementing this particular code of journalistic ethic.
Further in the code of ethics one finds mention of separating the two distinct functions of news media, namely editorial opinions and factual news reports. The former is an area of subjective judgment and opinion while the latter is supposed to be objective and factual. While this dichotomy is more relevant to the print media, it is also applicable to the radio and television news media as well. Maintaining this dichotomous separation is easier said than done. What one finds in reality though is the imprint of the editorial policies on the process of selecting stories to report. A factual report is not in and of itself a neutral and objective one. Editorial pressures usually decide which stories are picked and which are left. Hence, under the apparent disguise of objectivity and factuality there can be an ideological thrust, which can serve against the interests of the common consumer of the particular news media, be it radio, television or newsprint.
Another area of consensus that journalists from various mediums have agreed upon is in the judicious choice of facts and photographs that is published or shown in their reports. This code was accepted on the grounds that blatant truth can sometimes offend or hurt the sentiments of certain communities. But the flip side of this argument is the subtle “censorship” that this subjects journalists to. A recent case in point is the directive from the government of the United States to all broadcasting houses to not publish or show pictures of coffins of dead soldiers being transported back home. The rationale was that such a display would affect the morale and confidence of the family members and other fellow soldiers presently in Iraq. But the sad fact is that most of the American public does not have a clear grasp of the number of American casualties in war as a result of this policy. While this editorial obedience did succeed in keeping the minds of family members of the marines less gloomy, it inadvertently distorted the reality of the ongoing war. In the end, the truth should be put forth to the public for effective functioning of democracy. Hence the code of ethic in this case is subversive to democratic principles.
The association of journalists has pledged to act independently, without taking orders from the powers that be. While theoretically this is a sound ethical standpoint, it seldom translates into quality journalism. The fact of the matter is most of the mainstream media organizations are dependent on advertisers, be it radio, television or newspapers for their revenue. In this context, reports and analysis that are adversarial to promoting consumerism will never be acceptable for the business community. Hence, the journalism will inevitably suffer. The only way of mitigating these constraints on quality journalism, one would suppose, is to promote subscriber supported news media as opposed to an advertiser supported one. Things are already looking up in this regard. Alternative radio channels are already on the rise; and it is only a matter of time before television and newspapers catch up with it. This would revolutionize the way news is perceived and consumed. But, till then, the shortcomings inherent in the present media setup will thwart all efforts toward ethical journalism.