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University of Wisconsin–Madison

News of the World and the poverty of journalism ethics

The controversy swirling around the closing of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World shows, once again, the dreary truth that journalism is often a poor place to look for serious and honest ethical discussion.

Whenever journalists get caught acting unethically, as in the phone hacking scandal, we see a number of typical and unedifying responses:

1.      Circle the wagons and impute unethical motives to their critics. Point the finger elsewhere. Instead of dealing with facts, attack other people. Try to dodge ethical questions aimed at their own behavior.

2.      Claim they follow “strict standards” although they don’t.

3.      Amid well-justified public outrage against ethical abuses, argue that nothing can be done. Raise the specter that any talk of holding the press more responsible means the end of a free press. Claim that the press is perfectly capable of regulating itself and, even if it is not so capable, there is no other press system worthy of consideration.

All of these unsavory tendencies are found in the writings of journalists in England and elsewhere over the past few days.

Much of the English press has attacked British Prime Minister David Cameron for raising the valid point that the existence of a powerful press capable of paying police for information and hacking into ordinary people’s phones should cause us to ask how the press can be accountable.

The line was that only a (completely) self-regulated press can be a free press.

As usual, these journalists want to force us into a false dilemma – a free press must be almost or completely self-regulated or we have a Communist-style lapdog press.  This dualism does not hold.

The journalists who argue in this manner seem to be oblivious to the fact that “self-regulation” as the sole form of media accountability is a joke, and has been a joke for decades.  Don’t these editors get it? Telling the public “just trust us” won’t work. It hasn’t worked for years. The News of the World debacle is a crystal clear example of what happens when you rely only on the thin reed of self-regulation. How can such journalists expect the public to take their mantras of “free press” and “self-regulation” seriously while they avoid issues of media power and media corruption of major institutions?

The truth is that the journalists who make these arguments are not truly serious about ethical standards or responsible journalism. When no scandal threatens, they pour scorn on those who talk about journalism ethics, calling it an oxymoron. Then suddenly, once a scandal breaks, they try to take shelter behind the fig-leaf of ethics. They use and abuse ethical language. They talk about “standards” and make stirring appeals to a “free press”  that serves the public.

The abuse of ethical language in the case of the News of the World was a shameful act of hypocrisy. When the paper went out of business Sunday, it claimed it has insisted on tough “standards”. How could the paper say this when its practices have been for years the antithesis of journalism according to ethical standards?  Are these editors that out of touch with the public or do they talk the public to be a fool? Better for the paper to reject calls for ethical journalism and standards altogether. Some honesty, please.

The sad thing about this abuse of ethics, and the hypocritical use of ethical language, is that it makes more reasoned, nuanced discussion on the issues impossible, such as how we can build media accountability structures, or how we make ethics a stronger force in newsrooms.  It also avoids nuanced discussion of how to balance the freedom to publish with the ethical imperative to not abuse that power.


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