The Irony of Journalism Ethics

The overshadowing attitude within some newsrooms, that the story is more important than the people involved, is why ‘journalism ethics’ is gradually being considered oxymoronic.

The tainted history of some media newsrooms, markedly Rupert Murdoch’s empire which breached ethical journalistic practices by illegal phone-tapping, has sadly left a dark cloud over much of the field, which threatens the perception and reputation of journalists, all-over.

This sparks the questions: Is it possible to be a good and successful journalist, whilst maintaining the ethical standards of any good citizen? And if journalists are falling short in their promise to be the society’s watchdogs, who can society trust?

The November 2014 Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus”, has been a more recent stir in journalistic fields, concerning the ethical standards that journalists can neglect in favour of the cash and reputational reward. The article in question, written by investigative journalist, Sabrina Erdely, was a widely researched, high-profile, calculated piece, describing an account of a sexual assault on a girl, at an elite university. The article alleged that seven men of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity of the University of Virginia, gang-raped another student in autumn 2012. Once the article had been published in December 2014, investigations into the attack were prompted but questions were raised regarding Erdely’s newsgathering process which consisted of interviews with the elusive, alleged victim, “Jackie”, and a few friends. The interviews with the friends had not taken place as stated and statements were not corroborated until after she had penned the article, and even then, fact-checking was not done by Rolling Stone. Other journalists, including those at Columbia University, reviewed the piece and began to find inconsistencies which concluded in Rolling Stone issuing a formal apology for “discrepancies” in the accounts in the article and a lack of fact-checking, and the article was eventually pulled. Erdely finally apologised in the spring of 2015, admitting misconduct and unethical behaviour.


Image Credit: New York Magazine

This basic misconduct and journalistic malpractice raised a furore over the reliability and moral standpoint of journalists. A lack of journalistic conscientiousness and disregard for fundamental journalism ethics and morals is simply inexcusable and has resulted in necessary revisions of the reporting process, in order to uphold media ethics and give back to journalists, the credibility and authority they should possess.

It is no wonder, then, why journalists get a bad name when journalism ethics take such a big hit. As much as journalism ethics need to be rejuvenated, it is an overwhelming concern that journalists may have compromised their position of power, and flouted ethical standards in the effort to compete with emerging innovative storytelling.

Former editor of The New Republic and Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan, defeatedly says,

“there is no longer any sense of an ethical line… It is survival at all costs.”

That is exactly my sentiment, Andrew. Worryingly, journalism may be struggling and we’re not paying enough attention. In a growing digital era, where the Internet swallows up society and journalism is so readily accessible, it has never been more crucial to establish well-practised journalistic skills and standards to ensure unbiased and reliable reporting. Until then, journalism ethics will ponder its failures and may remain an oxymoron in limbo.

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