Stick to core values - plea to journalists

Professor says it's timely to re-examine codes behind mainstream media's work

Separating truth from rumour and deciding what to publish after the Boston Marathon bombings was a test not all news media passed with honours. Photo / Boston Globe
Separating truth from rumour and deciding what to publish after the Boston Marathon bombings was a test not all news media passed with honours. Photo / Boston Globe

For an industry corroded by criminality and scoured by fast-evolving technology, journalism professor Mark Pearson has some hopeful advice.

The Australian thinks the time is ripe for mainstream journalism to re-examine the codes behind its work if it is to shore up its relationship with its audience and rebuild trust.

Dr Pearson, who teaches at Griffith University south of Brisbane and who last night delivered the Unesco World Press Freedom Day address at AUT, believes the values which guide what he terms "mindful" journalism might be a handy place to start.

"What I have in mind are what we might consider core religious values - respect for others, showing some compassion, truth-telling with a conscience where other traditions and cultures are respected, and where you've done your homework before you enter the fray in a major conflict which you might not know much about," he said.

He agrees these touchstones already underpin the best reporting work, but says his search for a new model reflects that not everyone producing commentary or journalism holds to traditional, ethical codes.

And even where codes exist they have been trampled on or ignored,as the UK phone-hacking scandal revealed.

The blogosphere, he notes, bulges with citizen journalists, and traditional media has fragmented as the web made it easy for anyone with social media tools to become a reporter.

Not that the Twittering citizen army will always be both first and right with the news, as the often wildly inaccurate noise on the night of the Boston bombings illustrated.

In 24 or so frenzied hours, as the mainstream media managed to identify (wrongly) two bombing suspects, thanks to Twitter and Reddit a missing student became an instant suspect.

Sadly the body of that young man, Sunil Tripathi, was later recovered from a river. He was thought to have taken his own life.

Reddit has since apologised, general manager Erik Martin admitting that what started with noble intentions "fuelled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiralled into very negative consequences for innocent parties".

But News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch defended the New York Post's coverage, tweeting "'All NYPost pics were those distributed by FBI. And instantly withdrawn when FBI changed directions."

All of which goes to the heart of the ethical idea Dr Pearson is promoting.

He says: "A mindful journalist in that situation would pause to reflect upon the consequences of identifying suspects prematurely. Waiting briefly to confirm the identities with the authorities would also follow the long-held journalism adage: 'If in doubt, check it out. If still in doubt, leave it out'.

"Every time a news organisation rushes to publish unconfirmed rumour, it erodes the credibility of journalism as a brand and give their audiences less reason to turn to them for authoritative news next time. A commitment to accuracy, attribution and ethical standards is what separates respected journalism from the sea of misinformation on social media."

It's an approach, he says, "mindful of the vulnerabilities of sources, the potential impact of a story on the lives of those involved and the social good emanating from a story and which might work better for both journalists and serious bloggers."

Dr Pearson suggests mainstream media might have some self-interest in reviewing its great liberal fourth estate traditions.

The fallout, at least in Britain, from the News of the World's demise and the arrest of about 40 journalists for allegedly hacking phones or paying off police officers has severely damaged the reputation of the mainstream press in particular.

Because of the failings of the media's moral compass, it was no surprise that politicians had lined up to impose new press regulations "so we need to find a model that works because the public no longer buys a 'publish and be damned' mentality".

Press freedom day

The safety of journalists and media workers is the theme of this year's World Press Freedom Day, a UN initiative marked now for 20 years on May 3.

Besides recognising the fundamental principles of press freedom, the occasion is also meant to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 100 reporters and media workers last year died doing their work. So far this year, at least 20 have been killed.

In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "These are individual tragedies; collectively, they are an assault on the right of all people to the truth. I am especially concerned that so many of the perpetrators escape any form of punishment."

Mr Ban added: "When it is safe to speak, the whole world benefits."

- NZ Herald

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