Ethical journalism a necessity for survival in South Africa

What is Journalism? “The answer to that question was once easy” wrote the Christian Science Monitor. “Until the Internet, journalists were typically attached to an established organization that could afford to own and run a newspaper, magazine, radio or TV station, TV network, or cable news outlet. Their credibility was both individual and institutional.”

Not so today. In the Internet age, “the cost of distributing news has become minimal. Almost anyone can set up a web log (“blog”) or send a mass e-mailing, and present themselves as someone who surveys the public scene and presents “news.” Some of these lone-wolf reporters are a refreshing challenge to the usual pack journalism of old media. Reputable reporters hear the howl and see if the yapping is worth pursuing. They benefit from the range that bloggers offer.”

While the new marketplace of ideas has flourished online, traditional print media is taking flack from both government and the public for not doing enough to insure fairness and accuracy in reporting. Although journalists “know that transparency and fairness in how they cover the news are critical,” there is very little stopping the kind of yellow journalism which is prevalent in South Africa today. A  jingoistic and corporatised press caters largely to vested, sectarian interests instead of the truth.

South Africa may have widely divergent schools of thought concerning the practice of Journalism, but it is not immune from the kind of factory-produced fast-food news-making trumpeted by the big three, Independent Group, Media24 and Avusa.

Although the press has flourished in post-apartheid South Africa, with  a relatively open environment, one in which practically anybody and anyone can publish and become a journalist, it is beginning to engage in the kind of self-censorship and brainwashing tactics better left to Orwellian societies like the Soviet Union.  Luckily no one single “Journalese” exists — the profession is neither monolithic, nor constrained by the same kind of legislative oversight which restrict other professions such as medical doctors and lawyers — ( now is not the time to be arguing any differently!), the debate about the Media Appeals Tribunal is thus  a moot point.

If journalism is merely a tendency within the public sphere, and  not the feudal and hierarchical fourth estate it once was, then who or what exactly will the proposed media tribunal be targeting if not you and I? What are its exact terms of reference if not our Bill of Rights, and who will sit in judgment over our freedom given that we already have a legal system in which constitutional guaranteed freedom of the press is every South African citizen’s birthright? Yes, in today’s Internet Age, we are the media and the old school no longer prevails.

Now is the time therefore for a truly public debate about journalism. What is it really? As Billl Kovach curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists once put it: ‎”It is crucial to the survival of a journalism that truly serves the needs of a self-governing people that journalists themselves engage in a period of national conversation and reflection to clarify the common  values and the common responsibilities that journalism holds.”

In the interests of such a debate, Medialternatives republishes the Ethical Code of the  Society of Professional Journalists, a wholly voluntary code which best describes the kind of values we see as informing any discourse of Journalism in our country


Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.

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. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.

For an expanded explanation, please follow this link.

Seek Truth and Report It
Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
— Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
— Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
— Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.
— Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story
— Never plagiarize.
— Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
— Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
— Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
— Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
— Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
— Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
— Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.

Minimize Harm
Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
— Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
— Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

Act Independently
Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

Journalists should:

—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

Be Accountable
Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

Journalists should:

— Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
— Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
— Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
— Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
— Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.

The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of writers, editors and other news professionals. The present version of the code was adopted by the 1996 SPJ National Convention, after months of study and debate among the Society’s members.

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