Media & PR

Journalism ethics: the profession that treats itself differently

The way journalists venerate the pursuit of a story can bring brilliant investigative scoops. However, it also comes with a high risk, because even textbooks setting out how to be a journalist often praise those who have lied or cheated, as long as it was in aid of getting a good story.

Consider the case of two of the most famous – even inspirational – journalists of the twentieth century. The pair admitted in a book about their work that they had deliberately lied to one of their sources in order to trick him into revealing information that he had not been happy to share.

Deceit was central to their stories.

But is this pair of journalists famous for their deceit? Are they held up as a warning to aspiring new writers? Far from it. They are regarded as heroes, idolised and even had their escapades made into a successful movie featuring two fo the twentieth century’s biggest stars: Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.

Their names? Woodward and Bernstein, of Watergate fame. Their lies? To their source Deep Throat. Their cause? Bringing down President Nixon.

Nearly everyone, quite possibly including yourself as you read this, will excuse their deceits as white lies that did little harm in the pursuit of a noble and necessary goal.

But the idea that it is okay to lie as long as the end justifies the means is one that other professions do not sign up. Lawyers, doctors, the police – they all can lose their jobs and be chucked out of their profession for lying. Misdemeanours such as lying police officers are (not only in theory, but also very often in practice) considered so serious that they can invalidate a whole case.

But a lying journalist? That doesn’t stop the front-page splash. And the idea of individual responsibility? That is very rare too, for while the regulators of other professions make judgements on individuals, media regulators only look at the media outlet. A lawyer can be struck off by their regular. A journalist gets the cover of their employer instead.

The upsides of this approach, in terms of press freedom and investigative journalism, are significant. However, it also makes for dangerous territory for journalism as a profession. At its heart is veneration of getting the story. Being honest, being ethical and being truthful all take second place.

This explains much of what goes wrong with journalism, and how the wise consumer of stories need to know how to untangle the truth from what gets into the news. For the full story on that, see my book Bad News: what the headlines don’t tell us.

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