The great ethics debate
The video in this blog is part one of a six part series on ethical journalism. Veteran journalist Abbas Nasir sits down with Hosh media and explains how to deal with different ethical issues that may arise for reporters, be it citizens or members of the press.
News vs. Opinion:
Gunny bags, chopped body parts and a kidnapping. Were you sick to your stomach when you read the horrific tale of Shamsul Anwar that recently went viral on social media sites? Were you equally appalled when Facebook status updates and tweets started to suggest the story was a hoax? We really need to ask ourselves: how did we get here?
Ten years ago for a few hours everyday, we could tune into our radios and TV sets to get the latest state approved news bulletins through PTV and Radio Pakistan. Now, 24 hours a day and seven days a week we can surf between two dozen independent news channels and numerous radio stations that bring us the sights and sounds of the latest political fiasco, tragedy and terror attack.
Few would argue that the liberalisation of broadcast media, in a country where few can read and write, has changed the way Pakistanis are informed. But many question the massive proliferation of the industry without appropriate institutions and colleges to train its professionals. Some have even called for regulation of the industry and the enforcement of a ‘code of ethics.’
Which is easy to demand, but difficult in practice.
Around the world
There are different schools of thought when it comes to the enforcement of journalistic ethics.
Most journalists would argue that if the government comes up with a code, or is any way linked to enforcement, then our media is entering water that threatens its very independence.
Globally, most credible news organisations have drafted their own code which they make public like the New York Times guidelines, the BBC’s editorial guidelines, the Guardian’s editorial code, and Al-Jazeera English’s code of ethics.
Currently no news outlet in Pakistan follows this practice.
Many smaller companies voluntarily follow the code prescribed by the Society of Professional Journalists — an independent organisation of journalists that came together in 1923 in the US.
From their website: ‘The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of “rules” but as a resource for ethical decision-making.’
In fact, their code has been translated in dozens of different languages and is used as a guide in many countries around the world.
The code dilemma
But in recent times, leading academics in journalism, Theodore L. Glasser of Stanford University and James S. Ettema of Northwestern University have called for codes to be developed organically through the consensus of its consumers rather than being imposed from the top by news organisations or journalists. Their argument is that there is a conflict of interest in the media regulating its own behavior. In a paper published in the journal Journalism Studies in June of 2008, they argue:
“Written by and for professionals, codes of ethics normally serve to isolate professions by insulating their members from outside pressure; they protect professionals by letting practitioners decide for themselves and by themselves what matters in the realm of ethics.”
For them, “being ethical requires the facility to argue articulately and deliberate thoughtfully about moral dilemmas, which in the end means being able to justify, publicly, compellingly, their resolution. The aim of ethics, in a word is accountability.”
While Glasser and Ettema are calling for something that has never been done before — developing a code outside the tight grasp of professional journalists — the SPJ has laid out some ways in which the larger public can play a greater role. In their code, which was revised in 1996, the Society calls for journalists to “be accountable, to their readers, listeners, viewers, and each other.”
Everything they suggest can easily be enforced in Pakistan in today’s age of technology.
On websites, news outlets can open up all their stories to comments and respond to criticism and feedback. Some news organisations already do. But you rarely see an editor responding publicly to the criticism. Some news sites, only allow comments on select sections like blogs and opinions. To be truly accountable, all content should be opened up to debate. And news sites should set aside staff to handle moderate comments and respond to queries.
Pakistan’s broadcast problem
But let’s not kid ourselves; the real problem is the 24/7 beast — TV. I worked in the industry from 2005-2010, and saw Pakistan go from five news and entertainment channels to 24 round-the clock news channels. I also witnessed what we in the industry call modular news (pre-recorded segments) quickly transition to live 24/7 bulletins through satellite and new-bee TV reporters. So I speak guiltily, from the inside.
The availability of DSNG (Digital Satellite News Gathering) vehicles changed everything. First, a news organisation invested in one in 2006, a few others quickly followed suit. By the time General Pervez Musharraf pulled the plug on media in November of 2007, dozens of DSNGs were everywhere. The same year also marked the year our news cycle was on fire — starting from the lawyer’s movement, to the Lal Masjid siege, to the return of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Simultaneously, there was also a tangible spike in violence. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 2006 witnessed 1471 terrorism-related deaths; in 2007 there were more than double, with 3599 fatalities, 6715 deaths in 2008 and 11585 lives were lost to terrorism in 2009.
From 2004 till 2010, the broadcast industry grew six-fold to 24/7 news channels. Our universities offering journalism courses did not grow with the same ease nor did they adjust their curricula to the needs of 24/7 live news. Many untrained and inexperienced reporters were pushed into a dizzying environment of breaking news.
To be fair, some news channels did hire international journalists and consultants to train their team as they prepared for their launch. But few offered or offer refresher courses for its existing employees or new courses for its incumbent employees, despite their massive growth.
Besides continuing to train their reporters and staff, these news organisations need to draft their codes, either through public consensus or through discussions with their editors. Once complete they need to make their guidelines available on their news sites. They also need to open up to greater public scrutiny, as is suggested by the SPJ code.
As a first step, the ‘letters to the editors’ format in newspapers needs to translate on to our TV screens for news channels to be held accountable and to be considered ethical.
Journalist Matiullah Jan launched an interesting cross-industry experiment in 2011 with his show, Apna Gareban where journalists were called out on some dubious ethical issues. Sadly, the show did not last beyond a few episodes. In an interview with Slate magazine Jan said, “(I’ve) reconciled to the fact that there were pressures on the organisation from the highest levels of the media industry.”
Some news channels have opened their tickers to SMS comment streams. But unfortunately, many are usually moderated to show the good, rather than the bad. This feedback mechanism should be taken seriously. News outlets should respond to the criticism they receive either through a half-hour weekly show hosted by their editors with live calls or through short segments scattered in their news bulletins.
The media has to remember to ‘abide by the same high standards to which it holds others.’ Otherwise, soon the industry will be in murky water, where our readers and viewers look at us with more skepticism than trust.
Sahar Habib Ghazi worked as a TV producer and editor in Pakistan from 2005-10 and later launched Hosh Media. The volunteer-based organisation of bloggers and journalists recently put together a crash course on some of the stickiest ethical dilemmas journalists in Pakistan face.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.