In this week’s blog on the new ethics of journalism, George Pitcher discusses what personal qualities make for a good journalist – and concludes that it’s not about being “nice”
What constitutes bad journalism may be relatively easy to identify – stories that are made up, poorly researched and sloppily written. Good journalism is the breaking of important stories, thoroughly researched and fairly presented.
We might argue, therefore, that a good journalist is simply one who does precisely that. Or does she or he have an in-built intuition for an ethical standard, a self-discipline for finding and telling the truth? And for telling that truth objectively, without fear or favour or bias – that is, being dispassionate and representing the wide variety of opinions in public discourse.
That might sound a tad idealistic. But, difficult as it may be for a lot of newspaper readers to believe, most journalists have held themselves historically to reasonably high standards. This is largely out of a duty to both external and internal authorities – what classically is known as deontological ethics, a model of morality based on sets of rules for good behaviour, rather than the consequences of actions.
Standing it up
Let’s take those external authorities first. The most regularly heard phrase in any newsroom, which is doing more than simply aggregating the work of other news sources, is whether a story “stands up”. To stand up, a story requires confirming the veracity of information received from possibly partial sources with secondary (and preferably tertiary) sources of independent authority on the subject in hand.
To be sure, much of this worthy effort is driven by a newspaper management’s desire to avoid the laws of libel and the prospects of costly settlements in or out of court. And to test the defences to libel hypothetically against a prospective story is one of the most effective forms of self-regulation available to a journalist.
Practically speaking, these defences are likely to be justification (the story is simply true – and that’s why second-sourcing is so important in the journalistic process); fair comment (the expression of a view that a reasonable person could have held – the “critics’ defence” that ensures that nasty things can be said about people in a free society) and absolute or qualified privilege (the freedom to say defamatory things in court or parliament and – to a degree – to report them responsibly).
But the libel laws are only seldom invoked by editors and only on the more contentious material. The workaday business of political and corporate reporting and of stories from police investigations to sports coverage to foreign events are unlikely to trouble the lawyers (and newspaper managements are rarely likely to involve the men and women in wigs, for they are costly too).
For all non-litigious journalism, there is still a deeply buried folk memory among most of its practitioners that they need to be “right” – a journalist’s primal desire is to have a story published which by most commonly held criteria can be held to be objectively true.
The motivation for this may just be high-minded. More likely is that journalists don’t want to be held in the derision and ridicule of their peers, the responses of whom are likely to restrict or enhance career prospects.
And that brings us to internalised authority. At the individual operative level, self-regulation is far less likely to be the consequence of fear of the law than the application of what has been widely held to be an instrument of practical professional ethics: The Sunshine Test.
This demands us to ask what a story looks like when we hold it up to the light. Does it look okay in the bright light of day, where everybody can see it? Held up for scrutiny by our colleagues, does the story – and the way we acquired it – look like something we would be happy for our friends and family to know about? A variant of this is the Mum Test: Would we be relaxed if our mothers knew what we were doing?
It’s important here to distinguish between ethics and decency. We may well seek to protect our parents, children or a particularly pious mother or auntie from the details of a sordid story – a child-abuse case, for example, or a hideous murder – while remaining entirely comfortable that the story meets the criteria of the Sunshine Test, because we’re happy both that it’s in the public interest and about the means through which the information was acquired.
These are self-regulatory tests that may have been, in the past, applied with ruthless honesty. But we also need to be ruthlessly honest about the ways such qualitative tests can be compromised. It’s disingenuous to suggest that such principles have always applied in the new millennial journalism, which has seen the need for speed in a brutally competitive market transform the process of journalism into a place where mere suggestion and inference are sufficient foundations on which stories can be supposedly stood up.
Where website traffic is the only criterion for commercial prosperity, then the motivation to read anything imaginary into any kind of event in order to make a story becomes a form of professional practice. A government consultation lists all available strategies, even the most absurd? Then it’s the most absurd one that the government is planning to implement. A political leader declines to disown a policy? He or she supports that policy. A bishop re-affirms the universality of God’s love? Then he or she is supporting gay marriage and/or an Islamic caliphate.
This is a form of fake news that is the more respectable background and undercurrent to the more visible clickbait of invented celebrity deaths and politically-motivated false allegations against opponents. But it is arguably no less fake.
It’s vital here to acknowledge in response that ethical virtues are not principally about being “nice”. Being nice is not a requisite of ethical behaviour. Corporates in free markets need to compete ruthlessly to succeed or survive – and that’s as true of news organisations as any other sort of corporate entity. Beating the competition, to the story or to circulation/traffic, requires guile, if not at times mercilessness. In utilitarian terms, it can serve the public interest (and meet the demands of consequentialism ); for most of the people, for most of the time.
If it smells off…
But when competitive ruthlessness breaches journalists’ internal or external codes of ethics, then their consequent actions fail the Sunshine Test. Behaviour becomes corrupt, because ethics have died – and remember, as experienced journalists as well as cooks will confirm, if it smells off then it very probably is off.
A competitive market requires journalism to be robust. Robustness means playing hard-ball, not being nice, because the public interest is served by the former, but not the latter. A barrister cross-examining a witness aggressively can’t be described as “nice” – it’s certainly not a nice experience for the witness. But it is what is necessary for justice to be served. And that is an ethical behaviour.
But should the barrister intimidate or humiliate that witness, deliberately mislead the jury or knowingly introduce inadmissible evidence, then he or she isn’t acting in the interests of justice. That is unethical.
Similarly, journalism is called to be tough, not nice, in the best interests of society. It will need to make people uncomfortable, angry and embarrassed in order to do that. That is not nice. But it is ethical. When it bullies, corrupts public officials and intrudes on the privacy of the innocent (among other crimes) then it fails the public interest and is acting unethically.
It’s about making educated ethical choices – and it’s as simple as that. What journalism needs is to be led away from the notion that ethics are for the pusillanimous and from marketers of nice images and towards the idea that ethics are about a noble service of justice and the common good, values and virtues which relate to the motivations that may have taken reporters into journalism in the first place.
Digital competition has seen a demise over the past two decades of the capacity for journalists to regulate themselves with the Sunshine Test. The question is whether the manner and practice of such individual self-regulation can be re-established and, if it can, what the environment is that needs to be created in which such personal, internalised self-regulation can flourish.
George Pitcher advises Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, on ethics and the future of journalism and is a Visiting Fellow at LSE. He formerly held senior editorial positions at The Observer and the Daily Telegraph. @GeorgePitcher
Views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Dow Jones or the LSE.