Media ethics and accountability
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 16 winter 1994
In some respects an opportunity to comment on media ethics and accountability is 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.
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 tie a community together.
This may seem a somewhat esoteric point. However, it is very important in any discussion about ethics. To enter the field of ethics is to go beyond the narrow confines and relative certainties of the law and to enter a domain painted in shades of grey rather than in blacks and whites. It is here that 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.
Now what might all of this have to do with the media? After all, the point of this piece, so far, has only been to advocate caution in the way the media is criticised. But the other side of the coin would seem to require that the media concern itself with the ways in which its own distinctive practices give rise to cynicism and undermine a sense of community. That is, the media has to find a way in which it can be trusted.
Indeed, 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.
For example, 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 discrete, 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 overlaid 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.
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.
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 my opening paragraph, we should recall the ancient Greek proverb 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.