The BBC defines ethics as ‘a system of moral principles, affecting how people make their decision and lead their lives,’ and put simply, the way in which we determine what is good and what is bad. Ethics are particularly relevant to the media, especially with journalists (professional, free-lance or amateur) being a prominent presence in areas of conflict. Ethics are important to ensure that we as a society understand what is acceptable and adhere to those standards to ensure peace and understanding. If only it were that simple.
A significant problem associated with ethics are their subjectivity. Standards of ethics depend on various different factors such as; ‘discipline, political system, legal system, religious/social system, research content, setting/institution and time in history’ (McCutcheon, 2015). Factoring in these aspects, an act that appears ethical and good to one person, may be bad and unethical to another. A recent example of how media ethics are not universal and can be misunderstood is the imprisonment of Al Jazeera staff in December of 2013.
Greste, along with two other Al Jazeera staff, were arrested in Cairo, Egypt for ‘broadcasting news which was damaging to national security by meeting with recently declared terrorist group, The Muslim Brotherhood’ (BBC, 2013). To the Egyptian government, their work was completely unethical. Illegally meeting with a terrorist group which was interpreted as ‘damaging.’ Whereas the Al Jazeera staff were looking to uncover the truth in a conflict ridden area. A movement to free Peter Greste with the slogan ‘telling the truth is not terrorism,’ and the hashtag of FreeAJStaff went viral, however in this case the Egyptian court viewed the ‘truth’ as terrorism.
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Journalist’ Code of Ethics states standards to do with accuracy and honesty to upkeep image and credibility. The first standard is ‘report and interpret honestly, do not suppress relevant available facts.’ This guideline can be interpreted in various ways such as; Peter Greste and the Al Jazeera staff were trying to uncover the truth and did nothing wrong, or, the facts and information were not readily available and breached this code of ethics, or violated the political ethics of their host country, Egypt and thus their imprisonment is justified.
A problem with media ethics is that there are no ‘fixed right answers’ (Gordon, 1996). For example, the code of ethics mentioned above are are similar yet different to the Al Jazeera code of ethics, which are different to the Telegraph’s code of conduct. With all these different ethical codes, how are we supposed to know what is right or wrong? Ethical or unethical?
We need ethics to get by in life as smoothly as possible, but we cannot impose our personal ethics on others and must understand that ethics are subjective from people, institutions and countries.
Controversies with journalism ethics can be seen in many media stories;
Julian Asange and WikiLeaks.
BBC, 2013 Egypt Crisis: Al Jazeera journalists arrested in Cairo, http://Http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25546389, accessed 29 March 2015
Gordon, D., Kittross, J.M., Reuss, C. & Merrill, J.C. 1996,Controversies in media ethics, Longman, White Plains, N.Y.
McCutcheon, M. 2015 Research Ethics, BCM210, University of Wollongong, accessed 29 March 2015
Ward, S.J.A. 2013, Global Media Ethics: Problems and Perspectives, Wiley-Blackwell, GB.