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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 1 November, 2014

Column: The digital world can support journalism – but who is supporting journalists?

A code and compass is needed to guide journalism through the challenges of going online, writes an NUJ Ethics Council member.

Michael Foley

WHAT MUST RANK as one of the most bizarre episodes of modern journalism occurred last summer when spooks from British intelligence ordered The Guardian newspaper to destroy computers containing information from the US whistleblower, Edward Snowden, concerning mass surveillance by US intelligence.

Security officials came into The Guardian’s offices in London and with the agreement of the editor, Alan Rusbridger, journalists watched as the computers and their hard disks were broken up with hammers.

The handling of the Edward Snowden affair by British security was as if the internet did not exist and that The Guardian had not become a world newspaper, publishing digital editions in London, New York and Australia. Soon after the computer hard drives were destroyed, Rusbridger was tweeting about it and then photographs of the broken machines were posted.

Of course, as Rusbridger explains here, the breaking up of the hard drives made no difference to the material getting out, nor did the harassment of Guardian journalists by British authorities. The material from the outset was handled in the New York office, under US law, and was then made available in Britain and elsewhere.

The issues for the journalists, as with the earlier Wikileaks disclosures, were ethical rather than ones concerning access to information and the ability to publish it. That was a given. The issues facing the journalists were principled ones. What should they publish? What dangers did the information put people in, if any? What names should be left out and what about the whistleblower?

A press code for an online age

Here were a group of journalists dealing with very 21st century amounts of information made available via the internet that could be published across the globe and so avoid jurisdictions with particularly strict media laws. Had they wished to call on a code of conduct for guidance, would such a code exist? Probably not.

Journalistic codes of conduct, or codes of ethics, still reflect a time before the internet, with separate codes for broadcast and print, with online expected to fit into one or other. Even the Leveson inquiry, with its 2,000 page report, hardly touched on digital media at all and whatever press council that might emerge in the UK is likely to be just that, a Press Council, that might tip its hat towards news websites that are part of traditional newspapers.

Of course traditional codes offer general guidance to all journalists. What’s not to support in codes calling on journalists to be accurate, honest and to verify information. But some of the values taken for granted in codes are scrutinised today.

Wherefore, privacy online?

Privacy is now a very different thing today than when most codes were written. And what about only getting information by straightforward means? Or what about: “A journalist does not by way of statement, voice or appearance endorse by advertisement any commercial product or service…” What does that mean to the blogger who has just been asked to endorse a line of makeup in return for free stuff?

Do we have the same attitude to private grief, when people post their views of a deceased celebrity on media websites?

The issues are not only for those working in digital media. All journalists today are working with digital media. Journalists are tweeting from the meetings they are covering. Journalists who might have valued their objectivity now have blogs where they voice opinions. Newspapers have taken private photographs from Facebook; the Daily Mirror only recently used a picture taken from Flickr of a little American girl crying over an earthworm in 2009 and suggested she was an English girl living in poverty in 2014. That might illustrate an ethical point, but which one? Would it have been more ethical for the Mirror’s photo editor to have used a picture, a real, identifiable, child living in poverty in Britain today?

There is a real need to address ethical issues raised by working with new tools and the implications that has for working practices, funding and even fundamental questions such as to who is a journalist in a world of tweets and blogs.

Challenges

The digital world throws up a whole range of challenges for journalists, the speed with which information flows, the possibility of wholescale plagiarism, the dominance of opinion, but it also allows a digital publication like the French online publication, Mediapart, to publish with no conflict of interest because it does not need to take advertising and is funded only by subscription. Its thirty journalists write serious journalism and break big stories about major scandals.

The Guardian, as already mentioned, can use the internet to become the world’s largest left-of-centre publication.

Journalists can benefit from the new technology, just as they benefitted from previous technology: from the rotary press, to radio and television.

As the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger says:

Journalists have never before been able to tell stories so effectively, bouncing off each other, linking to each other (as the most generous and open-minded do), linking out, citing sources, allowing response – harnessing the best qualities of text, print, data, sound and visual media. If ever there was a route to building audience, trust and relevance, it is by embracing all the capabilities of this new world, not walling yourself away from them.

But another factor needed to ensure trust is for ethical codes that reflect the changing world of journalism and to make sure it is possible to know who to trust to bring you accurate and verifiable information.

Michael Foley is a lecturer in the School of Media at DIT and a member of the NUJ’s Ethics Council.

A discussion entitled Journalism and the Internet, part of the Ethics and Society series, will be held tonight at 6.30pm at Gleeson Hall, DIT Kevin Street, Dublin. It will be opened by Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, mediated by broadcaster Karen Coleman, and feature TheJournal.ie’s editor Susan Daly, Irish Times editor Kevin O’Sullivan, NUJ Ireland secretary Seamus Dooley and Index on Censorship editor Padraic Reidy.

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