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COVID-19 pandemic’s assaults on journalism ethics

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IN THIS edition one will pander towards academics as the issue in context will require some intellectual excursion into the foundations of media practice. Amid the current coronavirus pandemic, there has been a high wave of mass media activity but in the rush to be first to break the news and update audiences on the latest development journalists in both conventional and new media abuse or breach a lot of professional ethics. Some of them I discoursed in the paper entitled, ‘Ethics and Principles of Journalism in COVID-19 Pandemic: Feats, Flaws’ which I presented recently during the Association of Digital Media Core Advocates (ADMCA) Anambra Independent Media Anti-Corruption Summit in Awka. Excerpts:

INTRODUCTION

Ethics and Principles of Journalism are knotty issues to discourse. Given the very dynamic nature of journalism, many factors come into focus when the morals and standards of its operation come up for discussion.

The pace of changes in gadgetry; technical mode of operation of contemporary equipment in the industry; news consumption appetite and mode of feedback rub off heavily on the general understanding of what journalism is and should be. Hence, there is a flux of trends that influence the topic. For example, only some days ago the social media platform makes some remarkable changes to its mode of podcasting. Within year 2020, particularly, since March 11 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the 2019 Coronavirus respiratory ailment outbreak from Wahum, China,  a pandemic, the world have witnessed, far-reaching landmark changes in the operation of the mass media given the novel emergence challenges of the virus which has brought a global ‘new normal’ way of life. Method of news gathering, collation and dissemination has changed and keeps changing regularly with unending advances in information and communication technologies (ICT).

However, there are basic standards that should guide journalism and news communication operations in the entire mass media.

This presentation will largely use very current and on-going mass-media-related issues, particularly developments in the coverage of the 2019 Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) to highlight salient contemporary matters of ethics and principles in journalism. 

EXPLAINING CONCEPTS/TERMS

Ethics is a set of or core moral principle that governs a person’s behaviour in his or her conduct of an activity. The Oxford Reference Dictionary defines ‘ethic’ as “a set of moral principles” derived from the Greek word ‘ETHOS’. The same dictionary defines ‘ethics’ as “the science of morals in human conduct” and as “moral principles or code.” The later explanation, especially, captures the thrust here.

Principle here refers to “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning”.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, principle means “a basic idea or rule that explains or controls how something happens or works.”

Therefore, in this context, Ethics and Principles of Journalism will be approached from the perspective of how operatives in the field do their jobs in compliance with the principles of objectivity, impartiality, fairness, truthfulness, accuracy and public accountability as they acquire and disseminate newsworthy information to their audiences – the public.

In furtherance of the explanation, it will also be appropriate to note that while ‘truth’ (derived from the concept of “truthfulness”) is a very high ethical value in journalism, a maxim in the industry is “facts are sacred”. Facts are not exactly the same as truth although they are synonyms. Our forefathers in the field know that. This is an important poser for anybody, appraising ethics of journalism.

Maybe our ancestors in the field viewed facts as information that is citable or stated and clearly ‘referable’ while one human person’s truth may be another’s falsehood which hints that one could be empirical and the other ethical. That issue is still debatable.

But it must be noted that any social communication without moral compass is a mass-poisoning of society which is why Nigeria’s flagship newspaper, The Guardian, Lagos, has “conscience nurtured by truth” as its motto.

PRINCIPLES OF JOURNALISM

There are, therefore, operational guides in journalism which constitute the core principles of the field. Among them are ideal values which the well-grounded operator in the field must uphold at all time. Notable among such ethical values is that the journalist must ensure that he/she reports with truth and accuracy; independence of mind; fairness and impartiality; humaneness and concern for humanity as well as establish good sense of accountability.

1. Truth and Accuracy

This establishes that journalists cannot always guarantee ‘truth’ but they must ensure they get their facts. They should always strive for accurate figures and accounts by checking and crosschecking (fact-checking) their information. In journalism, the maxim is, “When in doubt, keep out.”

2. Independence

A journalist’s report should express the result of his or her investigation not that of another source who teleguided(s) him or her. The reporter must be independent not an actor of another’s script even if he or she is his or her agent. The reporter must make his or her editors and/or his audience aware of his or her political affiliations, financial arrangements or other personal information that could constitute a conflict of interest.

 3. Fairness and Impartiality (Balance)

No story has only one side. Though it is not compulsory to wait for the point of view of a side that opts not to come up with his or hers before deadline, the thoroughly schooled journalist is obligated to present every side of the matter in every report. Journalism reports must be balanced and additional information on commonly known facts of the matter. “Objectivity is not always possible, and may not always be desirable (in the face, for example, of brutality or inhumanity), but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence,” says The AccountableJournalism.org.

4. Humaneness and Concern for Humanity

Journalists should ensure that their report tend not to do harm even if to the villain. Though there is hardly any published or broadcast that does not have someone hurt, the reporter should, at least, be visibly conscious of the impact the words and images he or she deploy make on the lives of others, especially the one on the negative end of the story.

5. Self/Public Accountability

A major sign of responsible journalism is the ability of the journalist to hold himself or herself visibly accountable. When he/she commits errors, he/she must correct it and the expressions of regret (corrigendum) must be sincere not sarcastical. Listening to the concerns of the audience. Ensuring that the receiver sees the reporter as fair is part of being accountable to the public. In marketing, it is said that the customer is king. In journalism, getting accepted by the public is the real McCoy.

6. Sense of Sanity (Sensation), Safety of Society and Journalist

There are also other ethical bastions that distinguish the professional news man or news organisation from the quack such as self-distancing from sensationalism and sense of safety of the reporter, the newsroom and the society in general. The sense of safety of the news man is noticeable mostly among the crew of reporters of conflicts, wars, epidemics, pandemics and violence. This upshoot of post-19th century journalism which was mostly evident in the second half of 20th century (era of celebrity war reporting) works with the maxim of ‘safety first’ because a dead reporter cannot file reports no matter how outlandish or adventurous his or her investigations was. The ‘safety first’ etho which sees the journalist as a vital resource of the news organisation and society, advocates that journalists who cover any tensive beat must acquire requisite knowledge in how to stay safe or at least protect themselves in the job.

This practice became more established globally, in the media with the emergence of such news organisations as the CNN which from the period of the 1980s Gulf  War elevated the news and thriller-content of war reporting by taking cameras and reporters to close-up coverage of warfront gunfire exchanges. Other news organisations followed suit. Given that and further advancements in crises reporting since the last quarter of 20th Century, war reporters, for example, wear military gear and learn basic military skills, for example, the same with reporters of other specialised areas. As a principle, media people in such high risk beats are paid very motivating hazard allowances. This has become global norm in the media since the 1980s.

JOURNALISM ETHICS, PRINCIPLES IN COVID-19 ERA

  Almost all the core values of journalism from objectivity to impartiality, fairness, truthfulness, accuracy and public accountability as well as sense of safety have been breached in the current global pandemic era. Worse abused is the ethical value sense of humanity. One reasons that this is at the heart of the increasing public disenchantment or general apathetic response to the global anti-Coronavirus campaign. Journalists seem to have been preoccupied with a fast-paced race to be first to disseminate information on the pandemic instead of roundly communicating it

and getting instructive feedback from it. 

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