Can we avoid trusting the media?
A version of this article was first published: as an address to representatives of the media in Tasmania - July 1994
In some respects an invitation to speak at a conference about media ethics and accountability is quite like being asked to participate in an expedition to shoot fish in a barrel. You aim, you fire, you hit something - hopefully the target fish but probably the barrel which, full of holes, leaks until its contents are exhausted. Not a fish survives, all killed by a lack of discrimination.
Although sorely tempted by the prospect, I will refrain from exercising the easy option of taking a few cheap shots at the media. This is not through fear that the fish might bite! Rather, I am concerned that such attacks are counter-productive in that they fail adequately to discriminate between those who deserve to be brought to account and those (perhaps the majority) who make a real effort to do the right thing.
The tendency to shoot from the hip is doubly unfortunate. Firstly, because there is a certain injustice in campaigns that tar all with the same brush, the 'virtuous' may be led to conclude that they are engaged in a futile attempt to distinguish their consciously ethical behaviour from that which is, at best, indifferent. Secondly, such attacks tend to give impetus to the rising tide of cynicism that is close to inundating our community. I would argue that this second effect is of particular significance.
Although a measure of popular cynicism may be of some benefit to a community (wouldn't simple curiosity do the job as well?), there are also dangers that should be marked and wherever possible, avoided. One of the most grave of these dangers is that the acid-bite of cynicism will corrode the bonds of trust that sustain social institutions and practices. With the collapse of shared practices meaning itself can begin to disintegrate. It is then that we reach a point at which the image fractures and from which we must face the prospect of a fragmented future.
This may seem to be a somewhat esoteric point. However, it is absolutely germane to any discussion about ethics. To enter the field of ethics is to go beyond the narrow confines and relative certainties of the law. The ethical dimension is painted in shades of grey rather than in blacks and whites. We are faced with choices where no amount of calculation is going to render an unambiguous answer. This is one reason why people tend to feel uncomfortable when dealing with ethics. An innate desire for certainty is confronted with the reality of having to take personal responsibility for choices that must be justified according to standards that are always open to question.
The ethical dimension is therefore one in which shared practices are of particular importance in providing a framework in which our choices have meaning. Allied to this is a common-sense understanding of the need to think about ethics within the context of community. After all, the ethical dimension confronts us on every occasion with questions about the nature and quality of our relationships.
In short, the erosion of a sense of community makes it increasingly difficult to make sense of what it might mean to live an ethical life. Hugh Mackay(i) makes the point in the following way:
The sense of ethics has always been, inescapably, a social sense: we have always needed the experience of living in a community to develop an understanding of what is right and wrong. All the important moral questions arise from trying to live in a social context, and it is only from a sense of mutual dependency that we learn to appreciate the force of mutual obligation.
If we accept that disintegrating communities kill off our moral sensitivities, it is clear that an urgent priority is to rebuild our sense of being a community. In the workplace, in the retail environment, in the neighbourhood at large, the challenge is to find new ways of putting people back into closer personal contact with each other.
Now what might all of this have to do with the media? After all, my argument so far has only been to advocate caution in the way we criticise the media lest a lack of discrimination give rise to an increase in personal and public cynicism. Yet I would also argue that the corollary of my concern about the way the media is criticised is that the media itself be concerned about the way in which its own distinctive practices give rise to cynicism and undermine a sense of community.
It is against this background that I want to go on to examine the general framework within which a discussion about media ethics and accountability (and particularly the ethics of journalists) might be undertaken. In examining this framework I explore three dimensions of the journalist's role:
- the journalist as a member of a profession
- the journalist's relationship to the truth
- the effect of new technology on the community
Some journalists claim that they practice a craft and belong only to a guild. Others claim that they are members of a profession. And some are unable to see the point of the distinction.
But there is a distinction, and an important one at that!
While a society might be expected to tolerate (and even welcome) all manner of associations as a proper expression of a commitment to the principles of liberty, it is a little more difficult to see why it should allow any group, defined by a common occupation, to enjoy privileges not available to other occupational groups. A moment's reflection will lead one to conclude that a society founded on the idea of the formal equality of all can accept only one reason for positively discriminating in favour of one group over another. This is that to do so must promote the interests of the community as a whole.
For example, it is accepted by most people that the community would suffer if I had the right to perform open-heart surgery on my kitchen table. Instead, the right to perform such operations is restricted to those properly qualified and registered as medical practitioners. Similarly, it has been concluded that society would suffer if each individual was permitted to take the law into his or her own hands. Civil peace is thought to be enhanced if a properly accountable State is able to exercise a monopoly in the administration of force. Thus, powers of arrest are limited. An impartial cadre of judges supervises the trial of alleged offenders and the State (on behalf of the community) punishes the guilty.
None of this is controversial. At the heart of the position described above is the idea of a social compact made between society and particular occupational groups and associations. Certain privileges are accorded in return for the provision of social goods that would not otherwise be available. It is within this general scheme of arrangement that an understanding of the role of the professions in Australia must be located.
The guild is a form of association made up of people who have attained a defined level of mastery of their chosen craft. It sets standards of performance, both in terms of the members' personal and public life, and regulates conduct accordingly. Above all, a guild acts in a manner designed to ensure mutual aid and protection and to advance and secure the interests of its members. 'Provisional' association with the guild is open to apprentices in the craft.
Traditionally, guild members have enjoyed high status and incomes. They have exercised special privileges, especially in terms of the work that they might carry out to the exclusion of all others. They have been possessed of skills equal to any professional. To many contemporary observers, it would seem that this description is nothing more than that which applies to a profession. So at what point lies the supposed distinction?
Professions are very like guilds - except in one important respect.
There is a further dimension to the discussion of professions. Rather than flowing from a consideration of the external environment in which the professions are sustained, this other dimension relates to what have been held to be the internal standards of a profession per se. One can observe that all manner of occupational groups can make bargains with society in return for privileges or other social goods and yet still not be considered to be professions.
For example, traffic wardens have special powers not normally conferred on ordinary citizens. Yet, to be a traffic warden is not to be a member of a profession. So where does the distinction lie?
One particularly influential definition of a profession was offered by Roscoe Pound. It goes as follows(ii):
The term refers to a group ... pursuing a learned art as a common calling in the spirit of public service - no less a public service because it may incidentally be a means to livelihood. Pursuit of the learned art in the spirit of public service is the primary purpose.
The point should be made that to act "in the spirit of public service" at least implies that one will seek to promote or preserve the public interest. A person who claimed to move in a spirit of public service while harming the public interest could be open to the charge of insincerity or of failing to comprehend what his or her professional commitments really amounted to in practice.
In August of 1993, the Australian Council of Professions issued a discussion paper, Professional Services, Responsibility and Competition Policy (iii). Significantly, a press release about this paper was issued under the title, In The Public Interest. Both the paper and the release sought to distinguish a profession from "more commercially minded occupational associations". As opposed to others, professional practitioners:
... must at all times place the responsibility for the welfare, health and safety of the community before their responsibility to the profession, to sectional or private interests, or to other members of the profession.
If the idea of a profession is to have any significance, then it must hinge on this notion that professionals make a bargain with society in which they promise conscientiously to serve the public interest - even if to do so may, at times, be at their own expense. In return, society allocates certain privileges. These might include one or more of the following:
- the right to engage in self regulation
- the exclusive right to perform particular functions
- special status
At all times it should be remembered that what society gives, it can take away. It only accords privileges on the condition that members of the profession work to improve the common good. Having said this, there should be no doubt that all citizens are served by the existence of independent professions that are free to interpret the common good as being something other than that which a government of the day decrees. Once again, it should be noted that a capacity for a profession to fulfil this role depends on the extent to which the broader community trusts its judgement and motives.
Deciding to take up the full and proper responsibilities of a professional career is akin to the old idea of finding a vocation. In most cases, the actual rewards on offer hardly seem to cancel out the sacrifice that is made when the narrower pursuit of self-interest (common in the market) is eschewed in favour of the public interest. Instead of relying on the operation of the ‘invisible hand’, the professional must choose - and choose well! The burden of choice is sometimes felt to be intolerable. This may explain the move towards a world in which journalists claim that they do nothing more than provide a commodity for purchase.
Perhaps the idea of 'vocation' has become foreign to most of those who make up the contemporary professions. Perhaps the belief in intrinsic goods has faded. But even if one is motivated by a spirit of public service, how is one to determine what may be in the public interest? One answer, from as far back as the ancient Greeks, is to try to identify certain core goods. Some of these immediately come to mind. For example, a good society is likely to be one in which people are treated with justice, in which good health is commonplace, in which the environment is rich, rewarding and safe.
And it is likely to be an environment in which members of the public have access to information prepared and disseminated by people who are committed to the aim of seeking and presenting the truth. This is not to say that it is always easy to find the truth. But surely, there must be a predisposition amongst journalists to seek out the truth and a corresponding aversion to the publication of falsehood by act or omission.
The idea at work here is that the profession of journalism (if that is what the journalists wish it to be) is, in part, defined according to the distinctive end that its practitioners pursue.
For example, arguments going back at least as far as the time of Plato have suggested that medical practitioners need to have a particular understanding of the concept of health, and that lawyers should have a particular relationship with justice. I would want to suggest that journalists should have a particular relationship with truth. To the extent that they do, then they should be interested in understanding its particular character and demands. And they should be its protectors and promoters.
It is easy enough to identify ends. The trouble is that discussion about ends can easily conclude at a point where participants feel convinced of the rightness of pursuing ends as a matter of course. They can then make the slip of thinking that the ends somehow justify the means. Once this slip is made, then it is but a short step to arguments in favour of adopting any means thought to be likely to secure the preferred ends. For example, some journalists have been tempted in the past to lie and to cheat in order to uncover the facts of a story.
While it is understandable that extreme circumstances may necessitate extreme methods, and while the investigation of weighty matters of public interest may depend upon the adoption of extraordinary means, it is still important for journalists to appreciate fully the significance of the means that they adopt from time to time.
That is, it should be no light thing for a journalist to adopt means that compromise the end to be served. In particular, this suggests that journalists will need to exercise discernment when evaluating whether or not a certain course of action is appropriate. For example, when it comes to invading a person's privacy, can the same weight be given to the principal and overriding aim of boosting circulation as to that of seeking information about a matter of significant public importance?
It is sometimes argued that journalists should not impose their judgement about the relative value of news:
Let the public decide through the operation of the market-place. If they want to purchase 'info-tainment' then so be it. If they wish to participate in a charade in which everyone discounts the reliability of that which passes as news, then so be it!
There are at least two difficulties with this position. Firstly, it is somewhat disingenuous to suggest that the public can decide about anything other than a limited choice of material that has already been filtered and edited by journalists. Secondly, when an information hungry population is faced by a fairly limited range of options, then it is sometimes difficult for it to monitor a progressive, incremental reduction in standards.
None of this is meant to suggest that there ought to be a homogeneity about the style and content of material produced by journalists. But it is to suggest that the professional journalist will be especially conscious of his or her duty to the community and of the need to exercise judgement in order, and of a kind, to promote its interests.
So to summarise: it has been suggested that the idea of journalism as a profession gives rise to some specific obligations and relationships. At the heart of this discussion has been an unspoken assumption that journalists, who enjoy both power and privilege, should exercise both in a manner not injurious of the common weal. But why should the community trust journalists and why is it important that they be able to do so?
The focus of the argument can be sharpened by considering a paper by Bella and King (iv) in which they argue for the importance of what they term "common knowledge of the second kind" and, in particular of trust.
The general thrust of their argument is to establish that much of that which we regard as knowledge is, in fact, only considered as such because it is taken on trust. That is, people rely on the expertise of those who warrant that the knowledge is true. This type of knowledge, which is frequently repeated and 'known' by most people only on the word of others, is called "common knowledge of the first kind".
On the other hand, "common knowledge of the second kind" is that which is 'known' through direct involvement with a thing-in-itself, or through participation in a shared practice. Bella and King give the example of our experience of our coming to know "water' by drinking it, splashing in it and so on. In a similar vein :
... words like push, pull, life, see, hear, and many others only gain their meanings from practices and involvements that we both participate in.
(Bella and King, ibid, p.419)
The ticklish point to be grasped here is that given that experts can disagree about what should be counted as knowledge, and given that there is a competition of ideas, then most people have to rely on the fact that the whole process of negotiation about knowledge is being conducted by people who can be trusted to seek the truth. That is, the community assumes that there is a climate at work in which the 'experts' really care about what is said in the name of knowledge.
If such communities truly care about their claims, then they will not cover up their disagreements and inconsistencies. Indeed, they will be drawn to them because they care about what they say. But such communities, whether they be scientific, religious, professional, educational and the like, must participate within a history of care, for only then are their claims worthy of trust.
(Bella and King, ibid, p. 420)
The argument then proceeds to demonstrate how it is that the process of giving weight to considerations that are 'external' to a tradition of care can, of itself, erode the very foundations for participating in practices involving "knowledge of the second kind". Bella and King warn against allowing functional justifications to usurp the place of those that are internally related to such practices as caring and trusting.
Thus, it is argued that people who are involved in relationships only so that they can 'get something out of them' need to be distinguished from others whose involvement allows them to participate in ways that will reinforce their understanding of what specific practices actually mean. On this argument, questions of motivation assume great importance.
Arguments such as those advanced by Bella and King go a long way to demonstrating both the foundation for the community's expectation that journalists should care about the truth and for explaining why it is that they should. Any group that accepts a role in providing information (common knowledge of the first kind) to the community must accept that its approach to the task has implications that go beyond questions of 'info-tainment", profits for the corporation or even technical competence. A cavalier approach to truth by journalists has the more serious effect of undermining the shared practice of trusting itself.
This then is the theoretical framework in which the observations that follow are to be set.
- Professional journalists ought to act in a spirit of public service,
- Professional journalists ought to develop a particular relationship with truth,
- Professional journalists ought to act always to merit the community's trust.
And this, of course brings us back to the key concerns expressed in the introduction to this paper. I believe that one of the key challenges facing the media is to find a way in which it can operate effectively and efficiently without undermining social institutions and practices on which society is founded. That is, the media have to find a way in which they can be trusted.
As the title for this paper suggests, I do not think that we can avoid trusting the media for much longer. The world is becoming too complex and inter-connected; technology is changing our patterns of interaction with information in ways that suggest we can no longer afford the 'luxury' of unbridled cynicism. I will mention just two changes that should affect the public's relationship with the media - the advent of interactive personal news services and the digital image.
Firstly, it has been suggested that interactive cable and satellite services may soon create a smorgasbord of options such that each person will be able to consume a discreet, individual diet of information, entertainment and so on. It is predicted that news and current affairs will be tailor-made to the specifications of the individual consumer and then narrowcast into the home or printed out by way of a personal computer. In some senses this could represent a marvellous increase in freedom of access to information.
However, in another sense such developments give rise to a whole raft of concerns. For example, will such developments further dissolve public space as each individual becomes locked in an isolated world of personal information? Will we see the evolution of information rich and information poor people? And if 'information is power', then will new inequities be overlayed on more ancient forms of injustice?
It is evident that journalists, subeditors and so on are still going to play a critical role in the primary collection of news and in its subsequent analysis. After all, even the most advanced technology will not (at least in the foreseeable future) allow individuals to be eyewitnesses to all of the world's happenings. When awash in a sea of information, it becomes incredibly important that there be a trustworthy navigator who can be relied upon to care about setting a true course; a person who has the skill and disposition to assist by making an accurate interpretation of the mass of data that washes aboard.
Similarly, the advent of the digital image means that the community can no longer rely on the usual confirmation provided by a picture. In the past, most have looked to the picture as a way of confirming that something has happened. After all, “seeing is believing”.
Of course, it has been possible to manipulate images ever since the first picture was drawn with a stick in the sand. However, until recently, the sophisticated (and effective) manipulation of images has required great skill and effort. Only the highly motivated have been bothered with such matters. It is now becoming increasingly easy to manufacture images and, by doing so, radically alter the representation originally captured by the image. Because it is easy, it is now more tempting to engage in deceit.
Both forms of technological change make it an imperative that we be able to trust the media to assist as we try to sort the dross from the gold. This is not to suggest that journalists will discover some new alchemy for surely determining the absolute truth. However, it is to suggest that they will work from a tradition of care and concern about the truth. Difficult as it may be to discern, journalists and their colleagues in the media will try their best to find and present it to the community.
As noted above, we may not be able to avoid trusting the media. Yet, there are countervailing influences that may conceivably work against the media rising to the challenge that it and the community must face. Firstly, it will be important that the principle of freedom of the media be confirmed within a context in which the media commits itself to the highest standards of integrity. It is essential that the balance be struck in this way - otherwise freedom becomes license of the worst kind. Although the media may be held accountable by the community, there is no way that something like integrity can be manufactured or enforced by laws or regulations. Ultimately, a commitment to higher standards must flow from those who work in the field.
Such a commitment is only going to arise if the proprietors, editors and senior personnel send the right signals. Bearing in mind the opening paragraph of this paper it should be recalled that Mark Twain observed that “fish go rotten from the head first”. There are some in the media who see their role as being confined to the business of making profits. Perhaps consumers will finally realise the need to reward the trustworthy and competent. Or perhaps the media will arrive at a collective view of the bounds within which it will operate. That is, the media might come to agree on a common framework or orientation within which the competition to accumulate profits will be conducted.
Having said all of this, it is important to note that talk of 'the media' can be misleading in that it suggests that there is a monolithic institution that can be assessed. Instead, it is worth remembering that the media is formed by nothing more and nothing less than an amalgam of people. These people live in community and are equally affected by the actions of their colleagues.
More importantly, we should never lose sight of the fact that human institutions derive their character from that of the people who comprise them. This means that there is a pressing need to encourage a climate of inter-personal accountability so that a concern about ethics can come to be seen as an essential element in all practical deliberation.
In the current social environment there are many who would argue that a genuine commitment to ethics is an unrealisable ideal. Many think that sound ethical principles are fine in theory but that they can't really be applied in practice. To try to do so is to be nostalgic. They say that to promote virtue is to be old fashioned, to hark back to ideas only useful in a different era. They ask us to be 'realistic' and to embrace the 'modern' way of doing things.
This plea is often nothing more than an ill disguised call to allow for the survival of the fittest. Perhaps such people are right. Perhaps a dog-eat-dog world will be the most efficient. And perhaps efficiency is the only value that we need to embrace in the search for a worthwhile life. Or perhaps efficiency is only one of a number of important values that we must learn to juggle across an unpredictable landscape.
Those of us who are serious about the need to make ethical considerations an explicit concern in our daily lives must face up to this challenge. After all, what if our critics in the market place are right? What if the prime (and exclusive) aim in life really is to maximise our satisfaction of wants (and not just needs)? What if the liberty of the individual (important as it is) transcends all other considerations? What if it is through competition alone that we find the ultimate expression of our humanity?
Most people have a fairly good feel for what it means to live in a ‘society’. But what about an ‘enterprise association’? John Casey (v) has tried to describe the latter:
We might imagine a city founded purely as a trading post. The laws of the city will reflect its original purpose, and have to be understood in relation to this purpose. Contracts will be vigorously enforced however unreasonable or unjust, because it is of the highest importance to retain the confidence of those with whom the city trades. Indeed, the notion of a contract being 'unjust' will have no meaning. All education will be subordinated to the need to produce an ‘enterprise culture’, and no subject will be studied as an end in itself. The rulers of the city will regard themselves essentially as the managers of the enterprise. Their tasks will be to maximise wealth and promote trade.
(Casey, 1990, p. 191)
Is this so very far away from what we now experience? Some may say that this is an accurate and even attractive picture of the type of world in which we live. But does such a view of our relationships miss something of vital importance? For example, do we exist simply to "facilitate the exchange of commodities" or is there something more? Is there, for example, a need to value friendships, to realise that other people can make a claim on us? Is living in a society only possible when we recognise that each person is bound to others within a network of formal and informal relationships?
The challenge facing us today is to make a choice about which alternative we want. Do we want a society of citizens in which something like the virtues of justice and benevolence make sense? Or do we want the enterprise association in which each of us is little more than a purveyor or consumer of commodities? The latter consigns us to a place where the exercise of virtue will seem an unattainable luxury, where no person can afford to display moral courage.
As noted above, the possibility of leading an ethical life depends on there being a community in which shared practices can flourish. We face the prospect of a world in which images fracture as part of a fragmented future. It will strike some as a supreme irony that the media may have to play a crucial role in supporting a sense of community. Bearing in mind the image of a society awash with information, it may give some comfort to learn that the word 'fish' is also a nautical term referring to the a long strip of wood or iron used to strengthen a mast!
i. Mackay, HC (1993), 'Heed the wisdom of the elders', City Ethics, issue 13, spring 1993
ii. Pound, R (1986) quoted in American Bar Association Commission on Professionalism, (1966), ... In the Spirit of Public Service: a blueprint for the rekindling of lawyer professionalism, ABA, p.10
iii. Australian Council of Professions, (1993) Professional Services, Responsibility and Competition Policy: a discussion paper prepared for the Permanent Advisory Committee, August 1993, p. 1
iv. Bella, D and King, J (1989), 'Common Knowledge of the Second Kind' in Journal of Business Ethics, Vol 8.
v. Casey, J, (1990), Pagan Virtues, Cambridge, CUP, p. 191, July 1994