IT WAS a swift, and effective blow that struck at the heart of the very belief system and raison d’être of journalists everywhere.
When Donald Trump sent his now infamous Twitter missile late last week (see below) falsely proclaiming the news media as “the enemy of the American People,” he surely knew the reaction he would elicit.
Given that the very mandate and purpose of journalism in a democracy is to serve the public interest – meaning the citizenry, and what impacts them – by seeking truth, making sense of what’s happening in the world, and holding the powerful to account – he surely knew how deep the blow would strike. And usually, when someone picks a fight – particularly with a potentially deadly weapon, as Trump’s words are – the other side engages and fights back.
But Mr. President: the news media are not at war with you, or anyone else.
In a democracy such as Canada or the United States, the news media serve as an important check against totalitarian abuses by those in power.
Or as the former Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, told NBC’s Meet the Press in an interview that aired Sunday: “We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital.
“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free – and many times adversarial – press.”
Because without the news media, he said, everyday citizens would “lose so much of our individual liberties,” as in, the very rights that we in democracies like Canada and the United States hold dear.
“When you look at history,” McCain boldly continued, “the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press. And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”
And that caution is important not just for Americans and their newly minted leader, but for citizens of democracies everywhere, as well as members of the international news media.
Media must prove themselves to a skeptical public. How? Stick fast to ethical principles, and call out those whose reporting is irresponsible
At a time when technology has so rapidly changed much of the way journalists work and get news to the public, it’s perhaps more important than ever for the legitimate news media to step back and uphold traditional principles of ethical, responsible journalism practice. At a time when literally anyone with a computer can “publish” their views via the Internet and call it “news” – whether that information is truthful or fabricated – it’s also vital that those who are practicing ethical, responsible journalism call out those from their ranks who are being reckless, irresponsible or mean-spirited in their reporting.
In Canada, our key journalistic ideals as set forth in the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Principles for Ethical Journalism include striving for accuracy and fairness, acting with independence and transparency, keeping promises, respecting diversity, and being accountable. And though ethics and law can often conflict, the Supreme Court of Canada embraced many of these same principles when it established in 2009 what’s known as the “responsible communication defence,” which in essence, allows skilled journalists to sometimes be wrong if they are reporting in the public interest, and can prove they acted diligently and responsibly in their quest for the truth – similar to how the law treats doctors who are accused of negligence.
Established standards of practice for American news media, of course, are quite similar to Canadian journalistic ideals. The U.S.-based Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics advocates the main principles of “seek truth and report it,” “minimize harm,” “act independently,” and “be accountable.” Journalists, the SPJ code says, “should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”
Just some of the sub-points within the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code include:
• Test the accuracy of information from all sources…. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
• Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
• Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.
• Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.
• Support the open exchange of views, even views (journalists) find repugnant.
• Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
• Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
Humbly reviewing these established principles of ethical practice may help journalists who are understandably deeply offended by the assaults of Trump and others like him.
Difficult as it may be when goaded by a president dismissing you to the nation as “fake news” and “the enemy,” as he’s done repeatedly to the likes of CNN and even the venerable New York Times, the North American press corps must hold fast to their principles, or, as the SPJ code puts it: “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable”; and, “abide by the same high standards” to which journalists hold others.
Fairness and accountability demand that responsible journalists stick to the facts, explain what the actions of government will or could mean, and denote how executive orders and policy directions are likely to impact citizens, the economy, healthcare, the environment and other important aspects of our lives. And journalists “return society’s trust,” the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethical principles state, “by practicing our craft responsibly and respecting our fellow-citizens’ rights.”
And that diligence requires still further action if the news media hope to regain the public’s trust, including doing a much better job of explaining their work – and the principles they uphold – to their audiences.
In addition, as clearly highlighted in the U.S. Society for Professional Journalists’ code, journalists must “encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media,” as well as “expose unethical practices” within the journalistic community.
What they must not do is take the bait from those trying to pick a fight, even when it’s the American president calling you “the enemy.”
Shauna Snow-Capparelli teaches media ethics and the impacts of journalism in society as an associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary. A former Los Angeles Times reporter, she is also a longtime member of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Ethics Committee, and chaired the sub-committee that in 2011 published the CAJ’s “Ethics Guidelines” and “Principles for Ethical Journalism.”
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