Formulating a code of ethics for the media
May 11, 2004
Monday, May 3, 2004 was World Press Freedom Day and around that time, the role and the work of the media came under scrutiny in several quarters.
On this topic, perhaps the most interesting commentary on the state of the media came from Prime Minister Patrick Manning of Trinidad and Tobago, who appealed for a code of ethics to curb perceived excesses of Caribbean journalists.At a Commonwealth Caribbean Media Conference in Trinidad and Tobago last week, he forcefully asserted that there is a pressing need to protect people’s rights from regional media practitioners who trample on others’ rights to enjoy the very freedom the media demand for themselves.This call by PM Manning echoed a similar call by Prime Minister Kenny Anthony of St Lucia at the formation of the sub-regional Eastern Caribbean Press Council (ECPC) in St Lucia last year. At that event, 14 Eastern Caribbean newspapers pledged to support a self-regulated Code of Conduct for professional journalism. Signatories to the ECPC Code also agreed to facilitate complaints by the public and abide with the body’s disciplinary procedures, if necessary.Calls by Regional Heads of State and others for a code of ethics for the media seem reasonable and fair.
Press freedom certainly does not mean freedom to violate the rights of others. However, while it is valid to try to regulate excesses by the media, it is equally important to regulate censorship of the media. Any code of ethics to regulate press freedom should be balanced and complemented by regulations that guarantee the media’s access to information in the public’s interest.To foster true democracy, it stands to reason that press freedom and freedom of information must be synchronised and work harmoniously together.Also, any code of ethics for the media, whether it is a local code or a regional code, should be based on careful research and ample consideration of what professional standards the public requires of the media today. Those who craft the code should scrupulously avoid accepting the opinion of influential individuals or groups as representing the opinion of the public as a whole.
Many of the most strident lobbyists for regulation of the media do so for glaringly partisan reasons. Moreover, what is acceptable to public taste is dynamic and fluid, changing with time. Therefore, the code should be flexible enough to adapt to shifting social standards.A code of ethics for the media should also be formulated on the basis of a clear distinction between media activities and public relations. The media are in the business of informing the public, that is, getting and presenting news fearlessly and without bias and commenting fairly on it. In doing so, the media is not obliged to tailor news to create or preserve any type of image, good or bad. However, the media have the prerogative to present news in the most compelling way, using dramatic words and images as they see fit.
Sometimes, the media publicise issues from angles that offend the sensitivities of some in society. In such cases, the overriding consideration should be, whether the issues were presented in a way that serves the public’s interest. In relation to the media’s activities, the public interest is best defined as: detecting or exposing crime or serious misdemeanors; protecting public health and safety; and preventing the public from being misled by the statements or actions of Governments, organisations, or individuals. To facilitate this role, the principle of freedom of the press needs to be upheld by four supporting pillars – the media; the public; the government of the day; and the law of the land.
The effectiveness of the media and the value of their contributions to the democratic process derive from their freedom balanced by responsibility and professionalism.
A genuinely free and fair nation deserves genuinely free, fair and responsible media. If a code of ethics will contribute meaningfully to this, then let us move in that direction.