Tag Archives: Australian Press Council

Press Council launches Reconciliation Action Plan and welcomes Koori Mail to fold

By MARK PEARSON

The Australian Press Council has launched its first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) and welcomed the first indigenous newspaper, the Koori Mail, to its membership after a symbolic ceremony at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern, Sydney.

Journalist and Reconciliation Australia board member Kirstie Parker launches the Reconciliation Action Plan as APC Chair David Weisbrot looks on.

The Reconciliation Action Plan documents the objectives and strategies the press self-regulator vows to employ over the next two years to promote understanding and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Launching the plan was former journalist Kirstie Parker – a Yuwallarai woman from NSW, board member of Reconciliation Australia and former editor of the Koori Mail (@koorimailnews).

She is now CEO of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE).

She congratulated the Press Council on its Reconciliation Action Plan.

“You have grasped that Aboriginal representation in media extends beyond media outlets to representation on the adjudicatory body, the Australian Press Council,” she said.

She noted the Council had recognized “the importance of Aboriginal voices in media; of managers, editors, producers, journalists framing our stories our way.”

“I cannot emphasise enough the importance of Aboriginal representation in media has been high on our agenda since the 1970s when the first community controlled Aboriginal media outlets formed,” Ms Parker said.

“That the Koori Mail – the most respected and successful Aboriginal newspaper in Australia – is now the first black media member of the APC is no accident. Media outlets come and go, I don’t have to tell you it’s a cutthroat and ever-shrinking business.”

“The Koori Mail’s longevity is a result of strong leadership, in strong roots, with a strong sense of purpose and a strong commitment to our stories and our culture.

“The paper has never given up on that and you have a lot to learn from them, your newest member.”

The Press Council’s draft RAP was endorsed after review by Reconciliation Australia.

The Chair of the Press Council, Professor David Weisbrot, explained the challenge was to implement the plans ‘fully and effectively’.

The Press Council’s RAP commits the organisation to:

•   encouraging membership by Indigenous newspapers, magazines and online news and current affairs sites;

•   engaging and consulting with Indigenous groups, individuals and organisations regarding the Press Council’s work;

•   promoting employment and internship opportunities for Indigenous people at the Press Council and among member publications;

•   promoting Indigenous cultural competence among staff;

•   considering the impact on Indigenous peoples of current and proposed Standards of Practice;

•   encouraging the Australian news media to report issues of importance for Indigenous communities in a respectful way; and

•   endeavouring to promote high quality reporting in relation to Indigenous peoples.

The Australian Press Council was established in 1976 and is responsible for promoting good standards of media practice, community access to information of public interest, and freedom of expression through the media. Press Council membership encompasses over 900 mastheads, accounting for approximately 95 per cent of newspaper, magazine and online readership in Australia.

Read the Press Council’s Reconciliation Action Plan here.

[I attended the ceremony as a member of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research which has a strong record of research into indigenous media.]

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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New Australian Press Council standards start August 1

Guest report from JASMINE LINCOLN, Griffith University media freedom intern

THE Australian Press Council (APC) has released its new Statement of General Principles as part of its Standards Project where it is reviewing its Standards of Practice and creating new ones.

It applies to all print and online news material from August 1, 2014.

Mark Pearson ( ) recently had the chance to interview Australian Press Council chair Professor Julian Disney on the role and direction of the Council.

In this interview he discussed the recent reforms to the Council, the move to improve its editorial standards, and the future for media ‘self-regulation’ as broadcast, print, online and social media formats continue to converge.

(12 mins, recorded 17 March 2014). Apologies for some audio sync issues!

The Council states on its site:

The revised Statement of General Principles does not seek to change substantially the general approach which has been taken previously by the Council. The main purposes are to ensure that the Principles accurately reflect that approach, are as clear as possible and are succinct.

Amongst other things, the new Statement of General Principles clarifies

• the principle that reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading applies to material of that kind in all types of article;

• the principle of reasonable fairness and balance applies to presentation of facts (including presentation of other people’s opinions) but not to writers’ expressions of their own opinion.

The Principles focus on four sets of key values:

• accuracy and clarity;

• fairness and balance;

• privacy and avoidance of harm;

• integrity and transparency.

The first phase of the Council’s ongoing changes has involved a review of the General Principles and the development of Specific Standards.

The next phase of the project includes a number of developments, including reviews of Privacy Principles and new Specific Standards on technological media outlets.

Also amongst these developments is a “systemic monitoring of compliance” (Australian Press Council, 2014) regarding the practice of the new standards.

This will directly affect the work of journalists because they will have their articles examined by the APC.

According to Press Council chair Professor Julian Disney, there are two main reasons for this Standards Project: so that the Standards of Practice are clearer and so they appropriately reflect the modern media context.

As a result of this project, the APC hopes that the new standards “will deal more effectively” with numerous complaints that they receive each year.

Sources:

Australian Press Council (2014). The Standards Project. Retrieved from: http://www.presscouncil.org.au/the-standards-project/

Robin, M (July 2014). Higher standards for opinion writing as Press Council refocuses for digital age. Retrieved from: http://www.crikey.com.au/2014/07/22/higher-standards-for-opinion-writing-as-press-council-refocuses-for-digital-age/

© Jasmine Lincoln 2014

Disclaimer: While this blog is about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Australian Press Council Chair Julian Disney with @journlaw

By MARK PEARSON

I recently had the chance to interview Australian Press Council chair Professor Julian Disney on the role and direction of the Council.

In this interview he discusses the recent reforms to the Council, the move to improve its editorial standards, and the future for media ‘self-regulation’ as broadcast, print, online and social media formats continue to converge.

(12 mins, recorded 17 March 2014). Apologies for some audio sync issues!

© Mark Pearson 2014

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Regulating the interaction between journalists and the vulnerable

By MARK PEARSON

This week I am in Shah Alam, Malaysia, for the 2012 Asian Media Information and Communication Centre Conference. The paper I am presenting Thursday is titled ‘Regulating the interaction between the news media and the vulnerable – the Australian experience’.

It will eventually be published in an academic journal, but I provide a summary here.

It reports on a selection of findings from a national collaborative research project examining the interaction between the Australian news media and so-called ‘vulnerable sources’.

It surveys the codes controlling journalists’ behaviour via in-house industry-based codes of practice and those administered by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), the Australian Press Council (APC) and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

It looks particularly at codes and regulations controlling privacy, intrusion, grief, children, mental illness and discriminatory reportage. It considers the vulnerable source issue in stories collected during a year’s selective sampling of the national daily newspaper, The Australian.

Special attention is paid to three years of decisions by the APC and the ACMA which have been coded and analysed according to the type of vulnerability involved, the guideline allegedly breached, and the result of the complaint.

It explains that there are many ‘moments of vulnerability’ that escape the hard and fast letter of laws and codes that seem to be left to the moral and ethical judgment of individual reporters and editing teams, demanding a fresh approach to in-house self-regulation.

I collaborated with five other academics and industry partners (listed below) in a $92,000 Australian Research Council Linkage project over two years to examine how journalists interacted with those who might belong to a ‘vulnerable group’ (such as the disabled, indigenous, children, those who have undergone trauma or grief, or those with a disability or mental illness) or those who might simply be ‘vulnerable’ because of the circumstances of the news event.

We decided instead to direct our inquiries, particularly during the newspaper content analyses, to identifying potential ‘moments of vulnerability’ rather than restricting our search to mentions of the pre-identified source groups.

Similarly, the analysis of the complaints decisions of the APC and the ACMA worked to the principle of moments of vulnerability rather than being driven particularly by a source’s membership of a pre-determined vulnerable group.

Taken at its broadest definition, all citizens are ‘vulnerable’ when they engage in any media interview. There is a potential for that interview or its resulting publication to go wrong, with associated embarrassment, emotional pain and in extreme cases even physical retribution from hostile audience members.

A total of 33 items were identified as depicting ‘moments of vulnerability’ from the coverage analysed for The Australian newspaper on the selected day in each of the 12 months of the 2009 calendar year. The sample was too small for quantitative analysis, so no statistical breakdown of the findings will be provided other than a simple count on some criteria. The analysis mainly takes the form of a qualitative study of the items, selecting key examples to explore the ‘moments of vulnerability’ and to offer a backdrop to the matters raised before the complaints bodies examined in the subsequent section.

We identified 33 ‘moments of vulnerability’ identified in the published stories, based upon 31 stories on the selected 12 days’ coverage in The Australian.

The 33 moments of vulnerability were categorised into PTSD/grief (14), mental illness/suicide (9), children (3), disabled (3), privacy (2), aged (1) and discrimination (1). All such moments were also assessed for the level of competing public interest/social importance value evident in the matter being reported to eliminate examples where the public interest arguments were so strong that it could be seen that editors could easily argue their decisions were driven by legitimate matters of social importance.

A process of elimination left us with seven key ‘moments of vulnerability’, centred on Australia-based stories, where public interest issues did not clearly excuse the type of coverage or interaction with vulnerable sources as presented.

The seven selected are summarised in Table 1, grouped according to the type of vulnerability, and each is then considered as a brief case study.

Table 1: ‘Moments of vulnerability’ identified in The Australian on selected days during 2009

Date Page Headline Type of vulnerability Summary and issues
3-2-09 3 DOCS urges fugitive mother to return Child This was a custody issue where a mother had allegedly kidnapped her son and fled overseas. Potential impact of comments by child welfare expert upon mother’s decision to remain at large.
9-4-09 16 D’Arcy puts head down amid crisis Mental illness/suicide Both articles juxtapose champion swimmer’s axing from the national team with that week’s suicide of top cyclist.
9-4-09 16-15 No repeat of headline acts which delivered day of shame Mental illness/suicide
6-6-09 43-44 The night Symonds was cut adrift / Symonds comes to end of the road Mental illness/suicide Links champion cricketer’s alcohol problems with allusions to suicide possibility, with risk of prompting that outcome.
13-11-09 3 Suspect may have killed himself Mental illness/suicide Speculates murder suspect may have self-harmed or suicided, potentially triggering that course of action.
11-8-09 3 Son dead, mother acute PTSD/grief Clearly a ‘death knock’ telephone attempt to speak to family or close colleagues after murder-suicide attempt.
9-9-09 3 Sandilands offends again Discrimination Story repeats a radio host’s offensive remarks about the weight and race of a female comedian in its own recount of the matter.

 

The conference paper explores each in detail. It then goes on to analyse five years of APC decisions between 2006-2010 and three years of ACMA decisions in 2008-10 in a similar approach to that undertaken for The Australian newspaper analysis, with interesting results.

Australian Press Council does not use the word ‘vulnerable’ or ‘vulnerability’ in its Statement of Principles, which addresses other criteria, many of which go to the issues we address in our study. Thus, we are placing (retrospectively) a different lens of analysis on the items of complaint.

The fact that we identified only 12 complaints regarding journalists’ interaction with ‘vulnerable sources’ adjudicated by the Australian Press Council over the 2006-2010 period indicated either:

  • News media interaction with vulnerable sources is not as negative as portrayed by inquiries such as the Independent Media Inquiry;
  • Alternative dispute resolution techniques offered by the APC in the earlier stages of the hundreds of complaints it receives annually are effective; or
  • Complainants are not pursuing their complaints or are withdrawing them at an earlier stage.

Vulnerable sources may well have a desire to complain, but not the energy or competence at the time to do it. Reforms to the Australian Press Council’s structure processes recently announced by its chairman, Professor Julian Disney, might consider some of these concerns.

Our study also examined the reports of the ACMA investigations in the 2007-10 period and identified the following 11 as pertinent to our study of the interaction between the news media and vulnerable sources.

A key problem of the ACMA process is that journalists are working under a variety of codes of practice controlling similar behaviours. Added to this are various ‘guidelines’ documents issued by the ACMA providing further counsel for broadcasters in their handling of sensitive issues. One such set of guidelines is the Privacy Guidelines for Broadcasters. These were reviewed during 2011 and our ARC team made submissions to that review on issues of interactions with the vulnerable, and particularly with issues of consent and withdrawal of consent by the vulnerable, particularly children. Their revised guidelines addressed these issues.

The regulatory, co-regulatory and self-regulatory mechanisms in operation in Australia have been under serious review in 2012, with new models proposed by the Independent Media Inquiry for a statutory News Media Council and by the Convergence Review for an independent self-regulatory news standards body.

There is a separate government proposal for statutory tort of privacy which extends beyond the news media but may include media or public interest exemptions. All acknowledge public concern at the confusing array of ethical codes and processes across media platforms and workplaces.

The news media interact with vulnerable sources in a range of circumstances, but the rules controlling that interaction vary markedly across media platforms and employment groups. The small sample of case studies from The Australian newspaper serves to demonstrate that some interactions with the vulnerable are not prevented by in-house codes and escape the attention of the relevant self-regulatory bodies unless a complaint has been made and remains unresolved. The APC and ACMA cases show that the outcomes of complaints are far from predictable and that sometimes elements of vulnerability appear obvious but are not even examined by the inquiring body. The examples demonstrate there are many ‘moments of vulnerability’ that escape the hard and fast letter of laws and codes that seem to be left to the moral and ethical judgment of individual reporters and editing teams.

Whatever new regulatory system is put in place requires a simple statement of ethical principles covering the usual fairness and accuracy elements, with an additional responsibility placed upon journalists and editors to identify individuals who are particularly ‘vulnerable’ in a news media interaction so that warning bells sound and informed decisions are taken on issues like consent and privacy.

This can only be achieved via genuine newsroom-driven training programs, accompanied up by routine protocols for assessing individual cases of vulnerability as they arise in the field and in the production process. Decisions taken in such circumstances should be documented thoroughly for later review and any rationale on ‘public interest’ grounds should carry justification well beyond audience curiosity, going to serious matters of public importance that could not be offered by less intrusive or traumatising ways.

Line-ball decisions should be made only after consultation with an independent psychologist and an explanation for the decision should be published on the outlet’s website. Only then – when ethical decision-making can be audited in a publicly accountable way – can Australian media organisations lay legitimate claim to effective self-regulation.

Research team

Professor Kerry Green from the University of South Australia led the ARC Linkage Project LP0989758. Other chief investigators on the project included Professor Michael Meadows (Griffith University), Professor Stephen Tanner (University of Wollongong), Dr Angela Romano (Queensland University of Technology) and this author, Professor Mark Pearson (Bond University). Industry partner investigators were Ms Jaelea Skehan (Hunter Institute of Mental Health) and Ms Cait McMahon (Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma- Asia Pacific). Mr Jolyon Sykes was the research assistant for the larger project, while Mr John Burns, Mr Jordan Lester, Mr Roger Patching, Ms Kiri ten Dolle and Mrs Leisal DenHerder provided research assistance for my AMIC paper.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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The Privacy Mandala: A tool for ethical newsroom decision-making

By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw

Amidst the international fallout from the News of the World scandal, and as the Australian media braces for the release of new proposals for regulation, I thought I would showcase a newsroom ethical decision making tool I developed some years ago which seems to have even more relevance today.

True self-regulation must happen at the moment a journalist, editor, news director or producer is confronted with an ethical dilemma. Whether to intrude into the privacy of an individual, perhaps at a moment of extreme vulnerability, is a decision journalists should make on an informed basis, having weighed legitimate public interest concerns against the potential harm they might cause the person involved.

While the courts have been active in considering privacy actions against the media in recent years, many more privacy cases have been dealt with by self-regulatory bodies, particularly the Australian Press Council. As well as the Press Council, a further five Australian media bodies feature privacy guidelines as part of their ethical codes.

Whether or not a court or a self-regulatory body ultimately reviews a journalist’s decisions in privacy matters, reporters and news directors are frequently called to account for such decisions by other media or by their own audiences.

Journalists would be better equipped to engage in such debate, answer such challenges and defend their decisions if they had more effective and transparent processes in place when handling an ethical decision in the newsroom. There is no doubt the daily editorial conferences in major news organizations sometimes feature ethical discussion over whether a particular photograph should be used and whether certain facts about a person should be revealed. A full anthropological study of such meetings might give an insight into the processes and language used when discussing such decisions. This author’s experience of such meetings is that they would benefit from some basic tools to help guide discussion and ensure all bases are covered when reaching a privacy-related news decision.

The different legal approaches to privacy throughout the world reflect different cultural approaches to the notion of personal privacy and the different weightings accorded to free expression as a competing value. The topic is a complex one, as evidenced by the closeness of decisions of the highest courts and regulatory bodies of Europe, the UK, Australia and New Zealand when trying to adjudicate cases where the media have infringed upon individuals’ privacy.

Those very courts have looked to the internal mechanisms of news organizations and the codes of their self-regulatory bodies in trying to determine whether credible and professional decision-making processes have been followed in deciding whether to publish ethically dubious material. In fact, in the UK the courts are required to look to “any relevant privacy code” for guidance in balancing public interest vs. privacy disputes in their determinations under s.12 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

It is difficult in the cut and thrust of pressing deadlines for editors and journalist to adopt comprehensive and detailed checking processes. Sometimes there are just minutes available for key ethical decisions about whether to use a photograph, to crop it in a certain way, or to include a particular paragraph in a story. That said, there are codes of practice we can look to for general guidance in such matters. In Australia they include the MEAA (AJA) Code of Ethics, the Australian Press Council’s Statement of Principles and its accompanying Privacy Standards, the codes of the various broadcasting co-regulatory bodies, and various in-house codes adopted by major news organizations.

While all these are useful documents, they are either sparse in their directions or are not worded in a form which would be readily accessible for working journalists and therefore unlikely to be a reference point for editorial conferences or regulatory hearings where such matters are under debate. Further, many media organizations work under several sets of guidelines simultaneously. All operate with reference to their journalists’ ethical code and at least their own industry’s code of practice.

I have taken several self-regulatory codes and developed from them a more useful schema of situations, actions, and individuals which might in turn lead into a workable device for journalists (reporters, editors, news directors, and photographers) and regulatory bodies and perhaps even courts seeking to weigh up the competing privacy-public interest elements of a story. It aims to help journalists cover the main avenues of consideration when reaching their own decisions and, in turn, offer them a tool for explaining their decisions logically and systematically. I have called it the “Privacy Mandala”.

The ethical and industry codes typically flag potential danger zones for privacy material, including journalistic use of rumour, confidential information, offensive material particularly photographs and file footage.

The codes also identify several methods of privacy intrusion. They deal with individuals’ status as public figures or, alternatively, with their naivety of media practice in dealing with whether intrusion of their privacy might be more or less justifiable. These also deal with the kinds of individuals involved, with special concern over the intrusion into the lives of children. Some suggest public figures should be prepared to sacrifice their right to privacy “where public scrutiny is in the public interest”, while others say intrusion may be justified when it relates to a person’s “public duties”. Some warn journalists not to exploit those who may be “vulnerable or unaware of media practice”. Some counsel journalists against intruding into the lives of innocent third parties. Some make special mention of the vulnerability of children and recommend protocols for getting consent.

All this concern over the category of individual whose privacy might be intruded upon links with Chadwick’s (Chadwick 2004) notion of a “taxonomy of fame”. Former Victorian Privacy Commissioner (now ABC Director of Editorial Policies) Paul Chadwick devised a useful starting point for weighing up whether someone is deserving of a certain level of privacy. He called it the ‘five categories of fame’, each justifying different levels of protection. He argued that public figures who had courted fame or sought a public position deserved less privacy than those who found themselves in the public spotlight by the hand of fate or because they have been born into a famous family. His five distinct categories include: fame by election or appointment, fame by achievement, fame by chance, fame by association and royal fame. He suggested the tension over media exposure of private details of an individual can be “eased” by the use of such categories. Nevertheless, even the codes seem to go further than Chadwick’s list which does not account for the special circumstances of children in the news.

Clearly the potential damage to an individual resulting from a privacy invasion is an important consideration, however it gains scant attention in the codes themselves. This may be because much of the damage of a gross invasion of privacy might be incalculable, such as emotional scarring and other traumas.

The “public interest” exception to many of these requirements almost always features in media codes, with varying degrees of explanation. Public interest is the trump card in many of our decisions, but we need to explain why a photo of Nicole Kidman collecting her children from school is of such social importance if we are to justify our intrusion into her privacy. Perhaps it is of social importance because she has publicly criticized formal schooling, or perhaps because she has publicly claimed to be home-schooling them, or perhaps it is not of social importance but just mere curiosity and we have no right publishing this photo at all.

The Australian Press Council suggests an important further step publications should take when relying on public interest exemption: they should explain the basis of that decision to their readers.

How do we combine these multifarious considerations into a useful device for journalists and editors to use in a newsroom when confronted with a privacy dilemma? We can start by identifying the main spheres of concern with privacy issues, including a version of Chadwick’s categories of fame. As a final consideration we feed in the public interest / social importance of the material.

This means we can feature the following key factors for a journalist or editor to consider when weighing up a privacy intrusion:

  1. The nature of private material.
  2. The means of intrusion:
  3. The fame of individual (adaptation of Chadwick’s categories of fame): Red flag items here include children and the “media vulnerable”.
  4. The damage caused. That is, the level of directly predictable monetary loss, shock or embarrassment (variable according to individual’s circumstances and cultural factors) and potential for future loss or harm.

We then need to factor into the consideration the crucial “public interest” value, presented as a counterpoint to the above. This would operate on a scale from the prevention of death or injury and exposure of crime or corruption through the exposure of hypocrisy, setting the record straight, exposure of waste or inefficiency, preventing death or injury, or something merely of curiosity or gossip value. Part of the social importance decision-making process requires a decision on the level of centrality of the private material to the story.

The web of relationships and considerations is illustrated here as the Privacy Mandala.

 

A “mandala” metaphor has been borrowed from Buddhist terminology to aid with the analysis of the media-privacy issue here, but also ultimately with analysis of a matter in the newsroom. It would have been simpler, perhaps, to choose a more straightforward metaphor like a compass. However, there are aspects of the mandala which add value to our discussion. Like the Western concepts of privacy and reputation, it relates to an individual’s value of the self, often a deeply spiritual phenomenon. Mandala, which can take a range of forms, are also meant to be vehicles for meditation, and here ours provides a mechanism to do just that as we meditate in the professional workplace upon the values of privacy and press freedom. The intercultural nature of the metaphor is also no accident. In an increasingly globalised and multicultural society, media organizations occasionally need reminders that there are numerous interpretations of “privacy” among their audiences and news sources which might require special respect or consideration. Further, mandala are inherently complex. The Tibetan mandala are laden with meaning at a multitude of levels. So too is the privacy debate, with each of the four axes listed here representing a series of subsidiary factors needing to be considered in any decision to intrude. While there may be occasional clear-cut cases where privacy or the public interest are overwhelming “winners”, the majority of news situations fall into a negotiable zone where the most we can ask of a media organization is that it has considered the relative values carefully before deciding to, first intrude on a citizen’s privacy, and, secondly, publish the result of such an intrusion. The mandala can be used effectively to help with decision-making at both of those key moments in the news process.

When presented in this graphical form, some of the first four realms of privacy could further be displayed in shades of pink, with some listed as “code red” items. From the above discussion, it is clear that it would take a matter of overwhelming public interest to successfully counter a “code red” matter like the invasion of privacy of a child or a grieving relative of someone killed in tragic circumstances. These would need to have their social importance factors clearly articulated by an editor choosing to go ahead and publish the item.

Quite separate from the mandala graphic is an independent area of consideration which is rarely mentioned in the ethics textbooks: the commercial impact of a story.  It is rarely addressed because theorists seem to work on the assumption that media organizations should be motivated primarily by a public or social good which is forever being compromised by a commercial imperative. However, the reality is that editors and news directors are motivated at least as much by circulation, ratings and page views as by a public duty to deliver the news. Their own tenure depends on their success in this regard, and it has been demonstrated that celebrity news and gossip sells newspapers and magazines and that hidden cameras and consumer advocacy doorstops boost current affairs television ratings. That said, the commercial impact of privacy decisions might be positive, negative or neutral, as illustrated by the following graphic.

 

The table takes account of the fact that there may be a range of potential profits or costs resulting from a story involving a privacy intrusion, including gained or lost circulation or ratings, advertising, syndication rights, corporate reputations, legal damages, and court or regulator costs. The courts would frown upon news organizations formally weighing up the potential monetary outcomes against the intangible human damage which could be caused by a privacy invasion. That said, there is little doubt journalists go through such a process, either formally or informally, when deciding whether to run with a story which pushes the privacy margins.

While there is little doubt many media organizations go through considerable angst in deciding whether or not to run a story which features some level of privacy intrusion, they have been inclined to keep the reasons for those decisions to themselves unless there is an ensuing disciplinary hearing or court case. News organizations should be encouraged to explain their ethical decision-making to their readers, viewers and listeners. It would take only a few paragraphs in a newspaper to accompany an intrusive photograph with an account of why there is an overwhelming public interest in readers seeing the material in question. Similarly, a news or current affairs anchor could devote a couple of sentences to say: “We realize this story involves a compromise of Miss X’s privacy, but we feel there is a greater public interest served by audiences viewing first-hand the emotional impact of a tragic event.” Such transparency would demonstrate to regulators and courts that a decision had been considered carefully and might well minimize the groundswell of protest from readers and audiences which often follows a privacy intrusion.

Here we have covered considerable terrain on the topic of privacy and journalism. We have distilled from Australian media regulations the key elements of privacy as they apply to the practice of journalism. We have grouped them into five key categories, covering the nature of the private material, the means of intrusion, the relative fame of those intruded upon, the level of damage caused, and the level of public interest or social importance of the story at hand. We have pointed to the importance of commercial considerations through increased ratings, circulation, or advertising sales as an additional consideration editors and news directors might taken into account before finalizing their privacy decisions. Finally, we have demonstrated that transparency in ethical decisions can provide some benefits to news organizations.

It is not claimed that the Privacy Mandala holds all the answers for a journalist faced with a privacy decision. Other factors might deserve inclusion.

This research should serve to demonstrate that there are workable models for ethical decision-making in the newsroom which can elevate discussion in editorial conferences above the gut feelings of news executives and force the articulated justification of decisions to intrude. Further, such a model might even help journalists proceed through an ethical minefield like privacy confident they have at least considered carefully the implications of their actions. That, surely, is in the public interest.

* Note: An earlier fully referenced version of this blog was presented as a conference paper at the Journalism Education Association conference on the Gold Coast, Australia in 2005. The research was undertaken with funding from the Australian Press Council. For a full-text version of the original article please visit the Proceedings of the 2005 Journalism Education Association Conference, Editors: Associate Professor Stephen Stockwell and Mr Ben Isakhan, ISBN: 1920952551.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Journalists and vulnerable sources: our submission to the Media Inquiry

Last month I blogged about the fact there were several concurrent inquiries into the Australian news media. I am a member of a collaborative research team with colleagues from five other universities and two mental health organisations working on ARC Linkage Grant LP0989758 ‘Vulnerability and the News Media’ Research Project. We have made submissions to three of these inquiries to date. The latest is to the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation. We sent it yesterday and it should appear shortly on their website at http://www.dbcde.gov.au/digital_economy/independent_media_inquiry/consultation .

Meanwhile, I reproduce it here for those of you interested in the interaction between the news media and vulnerable people in society…

———————————–

October 31, 2011

Submission on behalf of collaborative research team – ARC Linkage Grant LP0989758 “Vulnerability and the news media: Investigating print media coverage of groups deemed to be vulnerable in Australian society and the media’s understanding of their status”

Please accept this submission to the Independent Media Inquiry on behalf of our collaborative research team undertaking ARC Linkage Project LP0989758 “Vulnerability and the news media: Investigating print media coverage of groups deemed to be vulnerable in Australian society and the media’s understanding of their status”. Our three year investigation ends this year and we plan to publish our findings throughout 2012.

This submission addresses aspects of your Issues Paper and Terms of Reference (http://www.dbcde.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/139837/Independent_Media_Inquiry_Issues_Paper.pdf)

 Vulnerability research project

Our project explores the interface between journalists and sources at moments of vulnerability. It also studies journalists’ interaction with sources who, by definition, might be classed as ‘vulnerable’ in the situation of a journalistic interview or news event. These may include, for example, people who have been affected by suicide, people who are experiencing symptoms associated with mental illness, indigenous people and children.

Professor Kerry Green from the University of South Australia is project leader. Other Chief Investigators on the project include Professor Michael Meadows (Griffith University), Professor Stephen Tanner (University of Wollongong), Dr Angela Romano (Queensland University of Technology) and Professor Mark Pearson (Bond University). Industry Partner Investigators are Ms Jaelea Skehan (Hunter Institute of Mental Health) and Ms Cait McMahon (Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma- Asia Pacific). Mr Jolyon Sykes is the research assistant for the larger project, while Associate Professor Roger Patching, Annabelle Cottee and Jasmine Griffiths from Bond University have assisted with the preparation of this submission.

As well as the HIMH and DART, other industry contributors to the project have been the Australian Press Council (importantly as a disclosure, the subject of your inquiry), the Australian Multicultural Foundation, the Journalism Education Association Australia (JEAA), Special Olympics Australia and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

We are confident our findings will help inform your inquiry of the effectiveness of current media codes of practice for the following reasons:

* We have undertaken an extensive content analysis of newspaper reportage of situations involving vulnerable sources, and our focus group participants have commented on the issues of intrusion, vulnerability and privacy in relation to print media; and

* We have undertaken a small extension study looking at the co-regulatory and self-regulatory decisions involving media interaction with vulnerable sources.

We can provide a detailed methodology of our project if you require it, but here is a brief summary of our research steps for the purposes of this submission:

* A content analysis of newspaper articles published in selected national, metropolitan, regional and suburban newspapers on a randomly generated publication day during each month of 2009.

* A series of focus groups across four states held during 2010 and 2011, made up of social groups documented as being more ‘vulnerable’ during interactions with the news media (for example, people with mental illness, people who have experienced trauma, Indigenous people, people from a CALD/non-English speaking background, people with a disability) as well as mixed focus groups with participants from a range of groups that may be deemed vulnerable.

* Analysis of decisions of the Australian Press Council relating to complaints about media interaction with sources during ‘moments of vulnerability’.

Please note: Our submission to the Convergence Review filed on Friday, October 28, 2011, contains some of the material presented here, but this document also contains other material directly addressing questions raised in your Issues Paper. Some of the Chief Investigators from the project identified above may also be taking up the opportunity to make individual submissions to your inquiry. This submission is restricted to agreed information and insights from the Vulnerability Project team we believe is relevant to your work.

Insights and recommendations

We will still be undertaking our analysis and writing up our findings in the remaining months of our project, so we cannot provide you with conclusive findings at this stage. However, we can offer the following insights you might find relevant to your deliberations in your review of the effectiveness of current media codes of practice and the Australian Press Council, from the dynamic of the interaction between vulnerable sources and the news media. To that end, we have structured it to accord with the questions and issues as numbered in your Issues Paper, but have only addressed selected items.

1.2 Does this ‘marketplace of ideas’ theory assume that the market is open and readily accessible? Our research team was not established to consider broader policy and political aspects of its research into the interaction between the news media and vulnerable groups and individual sources. However, we offer the observation that the essence of sources’ vulnerability is often directly related to their relative powerlessness (real or perceived) when compared with the positions of power occupied by traditional media. Their interaction with individual journalists as representatives of these larger corporations is informed to some extent by that power imbalance, combined with other factors such as their ignorance of media practice and complaints procedures that might be open to them. Citizens’ vulnerability to journalism practices is not confined to their portrayal in the media or to their consumption of media products, but can also be impacted by the experiences of their interactions with journalists and researchers during the reporting and interview processes. Media intervention at crucial moments in the midst of a tragedy or even later when calling upon someone to recount a major event in their lives can be traumatic and can have long-term impacts on their emotional well being and mental health. It can also exacerbate existing psychological conditions.

2.1  If a substantial attack is made on the honesty, character, integrity or personal qualities of a person or group, is it appropriate for the person or group to have an opportunity to respond? The research group is of the view that an opportunity to respond to such attacks is only the starting point when considering this issue – and it is the common expectation of most laws related to serious attacks on individuals’ reputations as enshrined in defamation defences. But the technical adherence to such requirements by journalists and news organisations does not necessarily take account of the vulnerability of an individual source. While such citizens might be ‘offered’ a chance to respond they might not be in an appropriate state of mind or emotional position to either comprehend such an offer or to take advantage of it. Further, this relates to fundamental elements of ‘consent’ and to the common situation where such individuals are ignorant of media practice and incapable of understanding the consequences of their interaction with the media or feel powerless or overwhelmed when trying to amend their responses or to seek the complete withdrawal of their participation. In some ways it is not unlike the routine and formulaic ‘Miranda warning’ issued by police officers on the arrest of a suspect – the words might be stated but the implications might not be fully appreciated by the accused. Being able to “reply” or “complain” also implies a level of literacy or capacity on behalf of the person, which may be impaired in some sources who may be vulnerable (such as those from a non-English speaking background, some Indigenous persons and also some with an intellectual disability or mental illness and some highly traumatised persons). Currently, there is no other way to complain or to “reply” without a level of literacy, capacity and understanding of the processes that would make that happen. These considerations present a challenge to any ethical journalist or editor and to the regulators reviewing their behaviour: how can it be determined that the media organisation’s offer of an opportunity to respond was ‘reasonable in the circumstances’?

2.2 What factors should be considered in determining (a) whether there should be an opportunity to respond? (b) how that opportunity should be exercised? Would those factors differ depending on whether the attack is published in the print or the online media? Early in our own research project our group reached the important insight that, while there are certain groups in society whose members appear more likely to be ‘vulnerable’ in their interactions with the media (including the aged, people with a disability, people experiencing symptoms of mental illness, those impacted by the suicide of someone they know, people of non-English speaking background and Indigenous people) – other citizens who are not members of these groups can find themselves in situations of vulnerability through the circumstances of a news event. For example, the parents of an injured child will undoubtedly be traumatised by the event and might not be in a position to properly understand the offer of an opportunity to respond to a media inquiry, or the consequences of their decision to respond or not. This relates to other issues of consent discussed later. The group does not believe there is any difference between print or online media in such situations or in protocols that should be followed.

3. Is it appropriate that media outlets conform to standards of conduct or codes of practice? For example, should standards such as those in the Australian Press Council’s Statements of Principles apply to the proprietors of print and online media? 

Please see response to Q4 immediately below, which covers both Q3 and Q4.

4. Is it appropriate that journalists conform to standards of conduct or codes of practice?
If it is, are the standards in the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Code of Ethics (1999) an appropriate model? 
It is important that both individual journalists and their news organisations follow standards of conduct guiding their interaction with vulnerable sources. However, it seems inappropriate to have different sets of standards for the employers and their staff, when the staff are performing their journalistic roles as agents of the employers. Any separate standards for employers should relate only to that overarching administrative function – such as providing adequate resources for journalists to meet the conduct standards or obliging them to provide suitable space for corrections and apologies. As for the individual reporting behaviour, the employer organisation should simply be endorsing the expectations placed upon its journalistic staff by an agreed code of conduct/ethics.

5. Do existing standards of conduct or codes of practice such as those mentioned in 3 and 4, as well as those established by individual print and/or online media organisations, fulfil their goals?  We have come to the view after examining the variety of codes impacting upon journalists’ interaction with vulnerable sources that the era of converged media where journalists frequently work across platforms moots for either a single code of practice or at least uniform wording across the various codes. A reporter working for a single media outlet is often operating under the media outlet’s in-house code, the industry code, the MEAA Code of Ethics plus supplementary guidelines and the statutory and case laws that might apply to the particular interaction. As educators we know this is far too much for any single individual to absorb. Our submission to the Convergence Review identified at least six codes of practice and related documents that print journalists and editors need to navigate when dealing with ethical issues. This does not include the actual laws applicable or subsidiary documents such as the Australian Press Council’s Advisory Guidelines and Specific Standards, which may also be relevant to the circumstances. We are sure you will agree that a grasp on all these codes and their individual clauses is beyond the command of a single practitioner, particularly one facing a tough ethical decision under pressure from newsroom supervisors within a tight deadline. To illustrate the variation in wording, Table 1 groups the various codes of practice (excluding special guidelines developed by the Australian Press Council on many issues). [Blog readers: please email me at mpearson@bond.edu.au if you would like a copy of the comparative table.]

Our project’s focus on vulnerability and our work with psychologists specialising in the field prompts the following comments on the current codes of practice as they apply to sources in a situation of vulnerability:

o We suggest the term ‘consent’ requires further clarification by means of an explanation that some vulnerable interviewees might appear to be giving consent but in reality might be traumatised or in shock, might simply be responding to the authority of the reporter or might have a mental illness or intellectual disability which is not immediately apparent to the journalist.

o The various guidelines related to ‘Children and vulnerable people’ only address this in part. Our group agrees children are indeed worthy of special consideration but that other potentially vulnerable groups should be identified, including the aged, people with a disability, people experiencing symptoms of mental illness, those impacted by the suicide of someone they know, people of non-English speaking background and Indigenous people. Further, it should be noted that the circumstances of the news event itself can render an individual ‘vulnerable’ in its immediate (and longer term) aftermath, so journalists should be alert to signs that an individual might not be in any state to be giving an interview or revealing information. (Journalists could be provided with some additional information to help them decide how to proceed where it is possible that vulnerability has impacted their source’s ability to provide informed consent.)

o Dr Romano points out that additional care must be taken when the media deal with a vulnerable person, to recognise that children, and indeed many other categories of vulnerable people, may not have the confidence or social skills to decline a request by a media person for an interview. Children and other vulnerable people may not necessarily be able to anticipate the types of questions that they may face, thus not fully understand the consequences of consent. Once sensitive questions arise, they may not always feel as if they can control what they disclose and may feel pressured to answer questions that are disturbing to them.

o Consent must be considered ‘qualified’ rather than ‘absolute’. Dr Romano suggests the guidelines do not acknowledge the right to withdraw consent. Thus the guidelines may suggest inadvertently that consent is something that is only relevant at the beginning of a person’s interaction with the media. If a person has initially agreed to speak with the media, then it is also reasonable that they should be able to withdraw agreement at any time during an interview or other discussion intended for publication. Similarly, if a person agrees to have her/his personal details revealed, then s/he may rescind that agreement prior to the time that the information is published. This right should be respected unless a higher public interest is served by transmitting the material – such as exposure of a major crime or revelation of other matters of considerable public importance. Given the nature of news selection and production processes, it may not always be possible to withdraw content relating to a given individual if a request is made shortly before a newspaper is about to go to press. However, such requests should be accommodated unless time restrictions make it impossible to do so.

o Dr Romano also makes the observation that children and other vulnerable people may be less conscious of their rights to withdraw consent once they find their participation has caused discomfort. Even if children do have a sense of their right to withdraw, they may not have reached a stage in their development where they have sufficient confidence or social skills to express such preferences. As was discussed above, other vulnerable people may face a number of circumstances that similarly leave them less able to articulate a withdrawal of consent.

  • The codes could also recognise the fact that journalists themselves can be affected by trauma and in certain situations might unwittingly reveal private information about themselves or convey private emotions they would not want covered by other media. An example might be a reporter overcome by emotion while covering a tragic event, with other media publishing their very public breakdown, which happened this year in coverage of the Christchurch earthquake. The codes might accommodate guidelines to inform editorial decisions in this kind of scenario.

Media use of social media material: The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) recently published its ‘Review of Privacy Guidelines for Broadcasters’ (http://www.acma.gov.au/webwr/_assets/main/lib410086/ifc28-2011_privacy_guidelines.pdf). While the guidelines are aimed at broadcast media, their views on the use of material obtained from online social media are also relevant to print media. ACMA proposed that the publication of material obtained from online social media sites would not be an invasion of privacy ‘unless access restrictions have been breached’. This might be technically correct, however we suggest that the mainstream media’s use of social media material can deeply affect vulnerable and traumatised individuals and they should exercise caution in any use of such material. 

6. To what extent, if any, does the increased use of online platforms affect the applicability or usefulness of existing standards of conduct or codes of practice? The group believes the technology or platform being used is irrelevant to the expected standards of interaction with vulnerable sources. Of course, technology raises new issues such as that immediately above regarding the use of social media material, but fundamental ethical principles of truth, fairness, accuracy, transparency and equity should apply to content across all platforms. The research team particularly notes the challenges associated with allowing the ‘public’ to comment on stories that affect people who may be vulnerable. Editorial processes should be in place so that such comments sections – whether on the news media outlet’s website or social media presence – are moderated and comply with the media codes and other standards applying to situations where vulnerable sources are involved.

7. Can and should the standards of conduct or codes of practice that apply to the traditional print media also apply to the online media?  If this question relates to journalists working for news organisations operating in the online media environment, the response to question 6 applies. If, however, you are suggesting all online media content providers should follow journalistic codes of practice, serious issues arise regarding the definition of journalism and whether or not some new media providers identify with, and ascribe to, journalistic ethics and values. Our own study and views are restricted to those ascribing to such values.

9.1 Is there effective self-regulation of (a) print media and (b) online media by the Australian Press Council? Our research sheds some light on the Australian Press Council’s adjudication of complaints relating to newspapers’ dealings with sources in situations of vulnerability. ‘Effectiveness’ is a qualitative measure beyond the scope of our project and a thorough study would be needed. We have, however, identified only seven complaints regarding journalists’ interaction with ‘vulnerable sources’ adjudicated by the Australian Press Council over the 2008-2010 period. This indicates that either:

  • News media interaction with vulnerable sources is not as negative as our focus group members seemed to perceive;
  • Alternative dispute resolution techniques are effective; or
  • Complainants are not pursuing their complaints or are withdrawing them at an earlier stage.

On the latter point, it could well be that making a complaint to the Press Council requires knowledge that the complaints mechanism exists and a relatively high level of literacy about the steps involved in that process. Vulnerable sources may well have a desire to complain, but not the energy or competence at the time to do it.  This relies on third-party support to make the complaint – which is not always available. Dr Romano has noted that in training sessions with multicultural communities in South-East Queensland this year for another project that people often do not have much grasp of the processes, and when they get the documents that tell them how to reply or complain, people often do not have much sense of what to do with them. It is not just a question of literacy in terms of understanding English, but a real inability to grasp the complexity of the documents, the concepts that underlie them, and the resulting processes.

As noted in our disclosure of interests above, the Australian Press Council is an industry partner in this ARC Linkage Grant project.

We point out that ‘effective self-regulation’ might also include measures to increase the community’s understanding of media practices, including journalists’ interactions with vulnerable sources. This is not the only research the Australian Press Council has sponsored in recent decades. Many of its funded projects have explored issues of media ethics which have added to public and industry knowledge of practices, procedures, and problems. In addition, the APC has been a regular visitor to tertiary journalism programs, with its representatives running case studies in media ethics dilemmas, drawing upon its actual adjudications. As educators, we are confident this has impacted upon the workplace understandings and behaviours of our graduates. This is surely another element of self-regulation – helping train future practitioners in best ethical practice. A further aspect of self-regulation is the Press Council’s ongoing re-evaluation of its own role and guidelines in the form of the many submissions to parliamentary and other inquiries and the ongoing overhaul of its many principles and guidelines. Our point is that effective self-regulation can be defined more broadly than the simple adjudication of breaches.

9.3 Is it necessary to adopt new, and if so what, measures to strengthen the effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in the handling of complaints from members of the public (for example, additional resourcing, statutory powers)? Some of our focus group participants expressed the views that they were either ignorant of, unhappy with, or frustrated by the co-regulatory and self-regulatory systems in place when they made complaints or sought information about how they could complain. This indicates the current systems are either not working or that there is a perception within the community that they are not working. This supports an argument for the complaints procedures to be included in the codes of practice documents and advertised more broadly. This in turn relates to resourcing issues, but that is beyond the scope of our study. 

11. Would it be appropriate for such a model to include rules that would:

(a)               prohibit the publication of deliberately inaccurate statements

(b)               require a publisher to distinguish between comment and fact

(c)                prevent the unreasonable intrusion into an individual’s private life

(d)               prohibit the gathering of information by unfair means (for example, by subterfuge or harassment)

(e)                require disclosure of payment or offers of payment for stories

(f)                deal with other topics such as those currently covered in the Australian Press Council advisory guidelines? 

Any new model of regulation or self-regulation would surely need to strike a balance between media freedom/public interest and important rights, interests and vulnerabilities of other citizens. Our project is concerned more with items c and d in your list above. Our project has been informed by an agreed understanding that public interest considerations will sometimes excuse some intrusion into the lives of vulnerable sources, but that these occasions are rare and would need substantial justification. Our brief does not include extending this principle to firm recommendations on whether such models should be regulatory or self-regulatory. We ask only that the interests of the vulnerable be duly considered in the process, taking into account the issues we have raised above.

We are happy to provide further insights into our project and are available for further inquiries or assistance. Please feel free to email me at mpearson@bond.edu.au, project leader Professor Green at kerry.green@unisa.edu.au or Dr Romano at a.romano@qut.edu.au and we will refer you to our academic or industry colleagues who might best be able to help.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Mark Pearson

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Why the Australian Government’s media inquiry is fraught

By MARK PEARSON

The Federal Government’s announcement of an ‘independent inquiry into the Australian media’ yesterday might well be a positive development if it were not politically driven, confused in its objectives and artificially narrow in its focus on the print media alone.

A ripple effect from the UK News of the World scandal combined with the machinations of a minority Australian Labor government to trigger this new inquiry, billed as a subsidiary of the existing Convergence Review of telecommunications and broadcast media regulation.

While it is described as ‘independent’ – chaired by retired judge Ray Finkelstein QC ‘assisted’ by University of Canberra journalism professor Matthew Ricketson – it has set off my press freedom alarm bells for other reasons.

Those individuals are excellent choices, but sadly the politician who announced it – the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy – has ‘form’.

He has long been the vocal advocate of an Internet filtering scheme for Australia and has only been prevented from introducing such an unworkable vehicle of web censorship by his lack of numbers in the existing Parliament.

Further, he has been at war with Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited over its coverage of his government and has accused it of pressing for ‘regime change’.

Yes, Prime Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby advised: ‘Never hold an inquiry unless you know what its outcomes will be’. If the minister’s advisers are working to that script, then media freedom advocates might well be worried.

While Senator Conroy announced the inquiry will focus on newspapers and their online operations, the terms of reference promise much broader objectives.

Focussing on the print media seems at odds with the overarching Convergence Review, particularly if other media and their codes of practice are not going to get the same level of attention as their newspaper cousins.

The terms of reference of this new media inquiry require it to report upon:

a) The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms;

b) The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment;

c) Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to on-line publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints;

d) Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.

These are important issues and worthy of considered investigation, but it is hard to see how an examination of the print media in isolation can resolve them. If there is a News of the World style of tabloid journalism in operation in Australia, you will find it in the two main commercial television networks’ evening ‘current affairs’ programs – Today Tonight and A Current Affair – not in genuine journalism and not in the print media.

There is a mishmash of in-house and industry codes of practice in operation as well as the Press Council’s Statement of Principles and the iconic but rarely enforced Media Alliance Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

Their review and a move to uniformity would be relatively easy. Most cover common values and ethical principles.

But the problem is not in their wording but in their dissemination and enforcement.

Most journalists operate under three such codes simultaneously – their own corporation’s code, an industry code, and the broader journalists’ code. Test any reporter on all three and my guess is they would fail dismally.

Your average citizen knows even less and does not really know where to file a complaint if they have one.

An important Press Council function has been the referral of complaints to other relevant bodies because they relate to different media or the behaviour of individual reporters rather than the outlets themselves.

The Press Council has done some great work over many years, particularly in its sponsorship of research and in its representations to parliamentary inquiries. But despite ramping up its complaints mechanisms it still cops cynical clichéd animal metaphors to describe its efforts, labels like ‘toothless tiger’ and ‘publisher’s poodle’.

Like much humour they are based on some truth, with the Council’s maximum penalty as a self-regulatory body being a request to the publication to publish its adverse finding, and its publisher-based funding raising questions about its independence. Funds have been slashed in recent years, as I have reported in The Australian.

The Council’s fundamental problem is that it has tried to be both an advocate of press freedom and an adjudicator of complaints against newspapers. While it has performed both tasks remarkably well with scant resources, it will be forever open to criticism until that dichotomy is addressed.

Its new chairman Professor Julian Disney is well aware of the problem and has been actively pressing for more funding and a cross-media regulatory role.

However, his expressed hope this week that the inquiry might lead to government funding should sound shrill alarm bells.

At what point does a government-funded body lose its ‘self-regulatory’ status? Would government funding of the Press Council trigger new animal metaphors as critics question the link between the government of the day and its self-regulatory decisions?

Perhaps ‘Labor’s lapdog’, the ‘Coalition’s fat cat’ or the ‘Greens’ gerbil’?

Seriously, though, there are some effective models for government funding of truly independent enterprises without government interference. The ABC is one that has worked relatively well for almost 80 years, although its board nominations and programming decisions have sometimes been questioned.

There are already hundreds of laws controlling the media in this country. I have built my research and publishing career around teaching and writing about them. We already have a government-funded regulator in the ACMA.

And we already have a government-funded self-regulator in the ABC’s Media Watch program. For mine, it is the most effective and best known of them all.

Instead of more regulation of the media, we need better public access to the complaints and legal mechanisms that already exist.

A better public ‘spend’ than greater regulation would be on more in-service training of journalists in sound legal and ethical practice, school and public education campaigns about media responsibility, and the establishment of media complaints referral services.

Government funding of self-regulatory bodies is a slippery slope and, despite its eminent leadership, this inquiry carries way too much baggage to inspire confidence.

© Mark Pearson 2011

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer! My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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