Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age

Denis Muller


For more than 500 years, from Europe’s discovery of printing in about 1450 until the digital revolution at about the turn of the second millennium AD, the power to publish was the preserve of those who had access to a press. From the early twentieth century, this power was extended to those with access to a radio microphone; and from the midtwentieth century, to those with access to a television studio.

These technologies conferred a privilege — the privilege of the platform. This privilege brought responsibilities, which have been laid out in professional codes of journalism ethics. Where radio and television are concerned, they have also been built into government licensing conditions.

The creative destruction wrought on this settled landscape by global digital technology has forced us to confront some fundamental questions. What is journalism? Who is a journalist? What is a media organisation? What will be the new economics of media? What is the relationship between sovereign states and their media? Do the professional norms of journalism have meaning any more? What are the implications for media accountability? What are the opportunities offered by digital technology? What are the risks?

Digital technology now extends the privilege of the platform to anyone with a computer and the skills of basic literacy. This raises large questions of legitimacy and authority deriving from the term ‘journalism’. People who work as journalists for established media carry the prestige of those corporations, and this prestige confers legitimacy and authority on their journalistic function. This, in turn, gives them access to people and places — such as the press galleries of parliament, or the press benches of courts — that are not easily accessible, or accessible at all, to other citizens. Whether and how to give institutional recognition to those engaged in journalism outside those corporate structures are questions that are yet to be resolved by our democratic institutions. In the meantime, they have implications for the capacity of nonprofessional journalists (that is, those who are not attached to an established media outlet) to conduct journalism.

In the world created by the digital revolution, the definition of ‘journalist’ is more fluid than it once was. For our purposes, this does not matter. As Tom Rosenstiel said, ‘Anyone can be a journalist … The question is whether their work constitutes journalism.’1 The ethical issues are the same for the self declared journalist and for the professional. What matters is how we define ‘journalism’, because of key implicit promises that use of the term conveys to the public. The public will be the victim of deception if merely like-seeming activities are allowed to masquerade as journalism. This is not just about semantics. An early entrant into the ranks of Australia’s first bloggers was the writer and commentator Dr Tim Dunlop, who understood the distinction perfectly. Greg Jericho, in chronicling the rise of the Australian blogosphere, recounted this early post by Dunlop in which he described the nature of blogging:

Let’s just say the idea here is to pick apart the issues of the day in the way that normal human beings talk about such things. This is less about journalism than it is about citizenship, the idea that all of us have a say in how the country is run and that participation is a good thing in its own right.2

To engage in journalism, by contrast, is to establish an implicit contractual relationship with the community. This relationship contains promises about factual and contextual reliability, impartiality, and separation of factual information from comment or opinion. If these promises are broken, the community is robbed of something essential to the healthy functioning of democracy: a bedrock of trustworthy information they need so they can make informed choices as voters, consumers, and participants in social life.

And this is only the half of it — think of it as the ‘audience’ half. The remaining portion is what could be thought of as the ‘subject’ half — how we treat people in gathering information, how we portray them, how we use the information they give us. If we present ourselves as people who are seeking information for the purposes of journalism, we are making some implicit promises to our subjects, too. These are promises about truth-telling, portraying them fairly, treating them decently, being respectful of them as human beings, and keeping any secrets they confide to us. We are also implicitly promising to use the access we gain to them for the purposes we say we have obtained it — the purposes of journalism — and not for anything else.

Delivering on these promises, both to audiences and subjects, is what gives journalism its legitimacy. Without this legitimacy there would be no reason for society to confer on journalism the privileges it does. But with privileges comes accountability; and already it is apparent, in the way some legal privileges for journalism are being framed, that entitlement to some of those privileges is conditional on the practitioner’s signing up to a recognised code of ethics backed by some mechanism of public accountability.

One example can be found in the Commonwealth Privacy Act, which confers certain exemptions on the media; another is in the so-called ‘shield’ laws that provide some protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. The shield laws of the Commonwealth extend this beyond the traditional boundaries of journalism — defined by employment in a recognized media company — to others engaged in disseminating news and information to the public. This is intended to include people who publish on digital platforms. The equivalent laws of the states, however, do not contain this extension: they apply only to employees of media organisations that are signed up to accountability institutions such as the Australian Press Council.

In the digital age, this raises practical as well as theoretical complications.

The practical complication is that if there is no mechanism of accountability to which self-declared journalists can sign up, they will be deprived of privileges that others will receive for doing essentially the same kind of work. More than this, there is no mechanism of accountability for individual journalists in Australia other than being subject to the ethics panel of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which is primarily an industrial organisation with limited recognition inside and outside the profession as a body with an accountability function.

The theoretical complication is that this distinction is manifestly unsound, since it is deals differently with people who are doing the same kind of work, when the imperative to be accountable is just as strong for people doing journalism on their own as it is for those doing it as employees of media organisations. Australia has not yet developed institutional arrangements that resolve these complications.

There is another reason for being clear about the meaning of journalism. It is that journalism sometimes entails doing harm — causing pain, hurt, embarrassment, and loss of livelihood or reputation — in pursuit of the public interest, or in placing the public interest ahead of someone’s private interest. Ethically, there needs to be a justification for this, which rests on the importance of fulfilling the public-interest functions of journalism.

If our use of the term ‘journalism’ is to have integrity, then, for all the reasons already outlined, the work done in that name needs to be grounded in the professional ethical framework of journalism. This applies equally to professional journalists and to those who practise journalism in some other capacity. A professional ethical framework provides professional norms. Such norms are essential to good and credible ethical decision-making; otherwise, we have a situation where what is ethical is what any one practitioner thinks is the right thing to do at the time. This kind of relativism helps no one. Professional norms provide a standard, independent of the individual, that can guide an individual’s ethical decisions, and against which they can be tested.

However, established professional norms also need to be reconsidered in the light of the digital revolution. Through digital technology, it is possible for huge quantities of information to be made available globally by the keystrokes of a single individual. Obvious examples of this are the leaks of security and diplomatic material by Private Bradley Manning to WikiLeaks in 2010, and by Edward Snowden to The Guardian newspaper in 2013. The capacity for global republication of material like this to do harm to individuals as well as to national interests, while at the same time providing information to the public on matters of great public interest, confronts us with having to take into account ethical questions of truth-telling, editorial independence, source relationships, censorship, and the harm principle — and to do it on a global scale.

These are matters of applied ethics, and that is what this book is about.

Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age Denis Muller