If individuals are to play their roles effectively and efficiently in society, then they must be adequately informed with sufficient facts upon which to make rational judgements and decisions.
Freedom of the media in the widest sense represents the collective enlargement of the freedom of expression of all citizens. It is a fundamental right.
This has been reinforced by Prof. Kofi Kumado who notes that “the right to information is an integral part of freedom of expression. Self expression is an end in itself. Speech is undeniably an important way in which we fulfil ourselves as human beings.
Secondly, freedom of expression enables us to participate in the processes by which our public affairs are managed, namely government. Thus in a sense, the right to information defines both our humanity and our citizenship”.
The effective discharge of media responsibility commences with the generation of interest, awareness, knowledge and understanding. People need to have access to views, opinions and facts, as well as the opportunity to express their own viewpoints.
The media and journalists are there to serve as bulwarks against corruption and oppression, as defenders of the fundamental rights of the people and the safeguard for the rule of law. These are the only means to give meaning and function to democracy. They are to work towards the promotion of the liberty of the people. And as Richard Brinsley Sheridan has noted, no matter how powerful a government or a politician is, once the media operates freely and responsibly, they can hold them to account to the people.
Journalists and media practitioners are made to appreciate the fact that the guarantee of media freedom must be understood in the context that whereas no one has the power to stop another from saying whatever they want to say, whoever makes a statement which affects others must take full responsibility for the opinion so freely offered. That is why there are codes of journalism ethics, which emphasise the need to always tell the truth, be objective and accurate.
The codes of ethics involve morality and accepted rules of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable conduct in terms of social norms and human behaviour. Ethics are essential to stability and decency. Since journalists are in the forefront of social change, advocacy and democracy, they need to work within rules and regulations.
Journalists have to weigh the consequences of their actions on the larger interest of society. How do you broadcast a story on conflict that may require balance between the public’s freedom to be informed on an important topic and the sensitivity of the topic?
Assuming you are writing a story on the Bawku Conflict, if there has been an outbreak of conflict in Kumasi, under what circumstance could you use that to supplement or illustrate the intractable nature of the Bawku case? How would you feel about a report of a recent road accident if the accompanying visuals of fatalities relate to an accident which occurred several years back, but this fact is not stated in the story?
Or consider that around X’mas you were invited by a biscuit factory to their premises where you learnt part of the flour used was contaminated. As you left, you are given products and an envelope containing a large amount of money. Would you write the story on the contaminated flour or as a journalist you have been informed by your MP that he wants to offer 10 scholarships to needy pupils but on first come first served basis. Would you leak the information to your family members and close associates to apply before the matter is made public or you will wait?
Ethical journalism demands fairness, accuracy, competence, professionalism, reaching for the truth, completeness of story, understanding, objectivity, avoiding bias, test of harm, retraction, rejoinders, public service, trust, escape from manipulation influence, acceptance of criticism and accountability.
The Ghana Journalists Association thus sees its code as “representing an effort by journalists themselves to set the high professional standards in order to ensure that Ghana enjoys not only a free but responsible media in the hope that this code will serve its purpose as a guide to journalists.
The society of Professional Journalists in the US holds the belief 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 and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all the media and specialists strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of the journalist’s credibility. Members of the society share a dedication of ethical behaviour and adopt this code to declare the society’s principles and standards of practice”.
The Code requires journalists to seek the truth and report it, which means journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. They are to minimise harm, since ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving respect. They are to act independently since they have to be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.
Above all, journalists have to be accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and one another. This means they must abide by the same high ethical standards to which they hold others. They also need to admit to their mistakes and correct them.
The Code insists that “good faith with the public is the foundation of all worthy journalism, with truth as the ultimate goal” stressing that “sound practice makes clear the distinction between news reports should be free of opinion or bias and must represent all sides in an issue”.
It notes further that “the primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgements on the issues of the time. Newspaper men and women who abuse the power of their professional role for selfish motives or unworthy purposes are faithless to that public trust’.
It is instructive to note that both the West African Journalists Association and the International Federation of Journalists in their codes expect journalists to be truthful and accurate and must report only information whose source they can identify and whose import they can verify.
Journalists are also enjoined never to disclose their sources of information, unless the source is a charlatan. The IFJ code provides that “the journalist shall regard as grave professional offences the following, plagiarism, malicious misinterpretation, calumny, libel, slander, unfounded accusations, acceptance of bribe in any form in consideration of either publication or suppression”.
For its part, WAJA encourages journalists, in all circumstances “to refrain from accepting any form of inducement, ill-will, retribution and participation in any activity opposed to the public interest”, and stresses that “avoiding plagiarism and disclosures of professional secrecy are among the journalist’s obligations”.
The Code of the British Press Complaints Commission equally calls for accuracy, right of reply, respect for privacy, refrain from harassment, intrusion into grief, resort to unorthodox, identification of victims of sexual assault, exposure of confidential sources and respect for the public interest, defined as including detection and exposure of crime, protecting public health and safety as well as the protection of the public from hoaxes or cheats.
The Code of Ethics of the Swedish Press Council states that as a way of providing accurate news, “the role played by the mass media in society and the confidence of the general public in the media call for accurate and objective news reports. The first article stresses that “respect for truth and the right of the public to the truth is the first duty of the journalist and that the journalist shall report only in accordance with facts of which he/she knows the origin”.
The Code of Professional Ethics of the Journalists Union of Russia requires among other things that the “journalist is strictly obliged to separate the facts he is reporting and that which comprises opinions, versions and assumptions”.
Similarly, the National Code of Conduct of the Denmark Press Council emphasises that, “the safeguarding of the freedom of speech in Denmark is closely connected with the free access of the press to collect information and news and publish them as correctly as possible and that as a basis of providing correct information, it shall be made clear what is factual information and what are comments”.
The South African Union of Journalists requires journalists to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards which include a mandatory demand that “a journalist shall strive to ensure that the information he/she disseminates is fair and accurate, avoid the expression of comments and conjectures as established fact and the falsification and distortion, selection or misrepresentation”.
The preamble of the Statement of Principles of the American Society of Editors, states that “journalism demands of its practitioners not only industry and knowledge, but also the pursuit of standards of integrity, proportionate to the journalists singular obligation”.
Accordingly, it directs that to maintain trust and accuracy, “good faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context and that all sides are presented fairly”.
The Code of Ethics of the Nigerian Union of Journalists provides that journalism entails a high degree of public trust. To earn and maintain this trust, it is morally imperative for every journalist and the various media houses to observe the highest professional and ethical standards. It accordingly calls for editorial independence, accuracy and fairness, respect of privacy, confidentiality, decency, plagiarism, avoid discrimination and never to demand reward or gratification for publication.
Finally, the Code of Ethics of the GJA states that our people are entitled to truthful and unbiased information and requires that comments must be separated from facts.
If media personnel are able to stick to their codes of conduct, they would, in the words of Aidan White, General-Secretary of the IFJ, make a meaningful impact since the “open-minded search for solutions produce a remarkably sensitive non-sensational mix of journalism and the telling of the story to illustrate just how the media contributes to build public confidence by doing the simple things right,
promoting open debate, providing reliable information, exposing wrong-doing and corruption and explaining the impact of events of the world in which we live”.
White submits further that “the imperatives of journalism, truth-telling independence and awareness of the impact of words and images on society bolstered by political freedom and open government provide the backbone of democratic pluralism but reporters are right to ask what becomes of scrutiny when journalism is the creature of political or social movements, no matter how well-meaning they may be”.
Journalists must pursue their profession with conviction, dedication, commitment and determination to uphold the interests of all irrespective of status. They have to recognise that there can be no freedom without a corresponding obligation or responsibility. It is only when they strive for a balance between freedom and responsibility that they would be contributing to national development and social cohesion.
Despite whatever excesses of the media, Ghanaians feel more comfortable and assured in Ghana today than at any other time in our political and national history, since independence, especially after the repeal of the criminal and seditious libel laws.
That is a charge ingrained in our people as a consequence of the guarantee of media freedom. That is in consonance with the objective of Mr George Chaplin, a Honolulu newspaper editor when he submitted that, “If people learn to take charge of change and guide it well, all of humanity is the beneficiary. If we fail, we invite disaster. What an exciting and wonderful challenge to our intelligence and our compassion; and so our dedication to the proposition that the betterment of the individual is the noblest of all dreams”.
This is an edited version of a paper on International Media Ethics and Reporting Standards, presented at a seminar on Media Responsibility and Accountability, organised by the National Media Commission with support from the UNDP for journalists in the Ashanti and Brong Ahafo regions in Kumasi on May 27, 2011.
Author: Yaw Boadu-Ayeboafoh