Tag Archives: journalism ethics

The Guardian, GCHQ, the leaked security files and the airport arrest – an Australian view


It is fascinating when an area of your research suddenly launches into life in a real event.

That happened in the UK this week when Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger revealed senior government officials had ordered him to destroy computer hard drives containing leaked National  Security Agency (NSA) files or face court action which would almost inevitably result in an order to hand the material over.

We also learned the partner of a Guardian journalist was held at Heathrow Airport for nine hours under anti-terrorism laws, prompting the question ‘Could this happen in Australia?’.

The answer – put simply – is ‘Yes’, as I explained to Richard Aedy on Radio National’s Media Report this week.

You can download that interview here.

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I’ve been working with Griffith University colleague Associate Professor Jacqui Ewart and lawyer Joshua Lessing in this space and our article on Australia’s anti-terrorism laws (including some comparison with  the UK situation) was published in the latest edition of the prestigious Journal of Media Law, edited by the legendary media law expert, Professor Eric Barendt.

Our article’s citation is: Ewart, Jacqui; Pearson, Mark; and Lessing, Joshua. ‘Anti-terror laws and the news media in Australia since 2001: how free expression and national security compete in a liberal democracy’. Journal of Media Law, Volume 5, Number 1, July 2013 , pp. 104-132(29).

The abstract follows below.

I hope you enjoy the Media Report interview, and I’m happy to correspond with other scholars interested in this space, and to have contact with students looking to pursue higher degree research in this area and other topics of media and social media law, ethics and regulation.


“The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States triggered an escalation of national security laws globally, including at least 54 in Australia, with some having implications for news reporting and open justice. This article backgrounds the Australian experience with such laws at a time when the United Kingdom is in the midst of a debate over the free expression impacts of its Justice and Security Bill. It uses case studies to highlight tensions between Australia’s security laws and the media’s Fourth Estate role and compares the Australian and UK human rights contexts. The article asks whether anti-terror laws restricting free expression should continue indefinitely in a democracy when national security breaches are likely to remain a major issue of public concern and there is no constitutional or human rights guarantee of free expression. It suggests a cautious approach to the renewal of such laws, particularly those restricting public debate about national security and its impact on human rights.”

– Ewart, Jacqui; Pearson, Mark; and Lessing, Joshua. ‘Anti-terror laws and the news media in Australia since 2001: how free expression and national security compete in a liberal democracy’. Journal of Media Law, Volume 5, Number 1, July 2013 , pp. 104-132(29).

© Mark Pearson 2013

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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Our ‘news media and anti-terror laws’ article published in Journal of Media Law


It’s great when you get the chance to work with other scholars, so I’m delighted our collaborative article has been published in the latest edition of the prestigious Journal of Media Law, edited by the legendary media law expert, Professor Eric Barendt.

It’s an even greater pleasure to have co-authored it with my new colleague at Griffith University, Associate Professor Jacqui Ewart (the lead author), with expert research assistance from lawyer Joshua Lessing (also co-author). [Joshua’s late father John became a close family friend after teaching me in the very first subject of my LLM – Company and Partnership Law – way back in 1990.]

Our article’s citation is: Ewart, Jacqui; Pearson, Mark; and Lessing, Joshua. ‘Anti-terror laws and the news media in Australia since 2001: how free expression and national security compete in a liberal democracy’. Journal of Media Law, Volume 5, Number 1, July 2013 , pp. 104-132(29).

Here is the abstract to give you a taste, but you’ll need to subscribe to the journal or borrow it from a library to read the full article.

I’m happy to correspond with other scholars interested in this space, and with students who might want to pursue higher degree research in this area and other topics of media and social media law, ethics and regulation.


“The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States triggered an escalation of national security laws globally, including at least 54 in Australia, with some having implications for news reporting and open justice. This article backgrounds the Australian experience with such laws at a time when the United Kingdom is in the midst of a debate over the free expression impacts of its Justice and Security Bill. It uses case studies to highlight tensions between Australia’s security laws and the media’s Fourth Estate role and compares the Australian and UK human rights contexts. The article asks whether anti-terror laws restricting free expression should continue indefinitely in a democracy when national security breaches are likely to remain a major issue of public concern and there is no constitutional or human rights guarantee of free expression. It suggests a cautious approach to the renewal of such laws, particularly those restricting public debate about national security and its impact on human rights.”

– Ewart, Jacqui; Pearson, Mark; and Lessing, Joshua. ‘Anti-terror laws and the news media in Australia since 2001: how free expression and national security compete in a liberal democracy’. Journal of Media Law, Volume 5, Number 1, July 2013 , pp. 104-132(29).

© Mark Pearson 2013

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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‘Mindful journalism’ – introducing a new ethical framework for reporting


This is an abridged version of the conference paper I presented to the Media, Religion and Culture division of the International Association for Media and Communication Research Conference, Dublin City University, on Saturday, June 29, 2013.


This paper explores the possibility of applying the fundamental precepts of one of the world’s major religions to the practice of truth-seeking and truth-telling in the modern era and asks whether that ethical framework is compatible with journalism as a Fourth Estate enterprise. It is not meant to be a theological exposition as I am neither a Buddhist nor an expert in Buddhist philosophy. That said, no academic paper topic like this arises in a vacuum, so I must first explain the personal and professional context from which this issue has arisen over four decades and has intensified in recent years. Most of my academic work has been in the field of media law – and its focus has been mainly upon the practical application of laws and regulations to the work of journalists. From time to time that ventures into media ethics and regulatory frameworks – the philosophical, self-regulatory and legislative frameworks that inform and relate to any examination of the actual laws impacting upon journalists.

Professional ethical codes are not religious treatises, and neither were holy scriptures spoken or written as codes of practice for any particular occupation. This paper attempts to do neither. Rather, it sets out to explore whether the foundational teachings of one religion focused upon living a purer life might inform journalism practice. At some junctures it becomes apparent that some elements of the libertarian model of journalism as we know it might not even be compatible with such principles – particularly if they are interpreted in their narrowest way. The teachings of other religions might also be applied in this way. When you look closely at Christianity (via the Bible), Islam (the Koran), Hinduism (the Bhagavad Gita), Judaism (the Torah) and throuth the Confucian canon you find common moral and ethical principles that we might reasonably expect journalists to follow in their work, including attributes of peace journalism identified by Lynch, (2010, p. 543): oriented towards peace, humanity, truth and solutions.  The Dalai Lama’s recent book – Beyond Religion – Ethics for a Whole World (2011) – explored his vision of how core ethical values might offer a sound moral framework for modern society while accommodating diverse religious views and cultural traditions. It is in that spirit that I explore the possibilities of applying some of Buddhism’s core principles to the secular phenomenon of journalism. It also must be accepted that Buddhist practices like ‘mindfulness’ and meditation have been adopted broadly in Western society in recent decades and have been accepted into the cognitive sciences, albeit in adapted therapeutic ways (Segal et. al, 2012).

We should educate journalists, serious bloggers and citizen journalists to adopt a mindful approach to their news and commentary which requires a reflection upon the implications of their truth-seeking and truth-telling as a routine part of the process. They would be prompted to pause and think carefully about the consequences of their reportage and commentary for the stakeholders involved, including their audiences. Truth-seeking and truth-telling would still be the primary goal, but only after gauging the social good that might come from doing so.  The recent inquiries triggered by poor journalism ethical practices have demonstrated that journalism within the libertarian model appears to have lost its moral compass and we need to explore new ways to recapture this.

The Noble Eightfold Path attributed to the Buddha – Siddhartha Gautama (563 BCE to 483 BCE) – has been chosen here because of the personal reasons listed above, its relative brevity, and the fact that its core elements can be read at a secular level to relate to behavioural – and not exclusively spiritual – guidelines. Gunaratne (2005, p. 35) offered this succinct positioning of the Noble Eightfold Path (or the ‘middle way’) in Buddhist philosophy:

The Buddhist dharma meant the doctrine based on the Four Noble Truths: That suffering exists; that the cause of suffering is thirst, craving, or desire; that a path exists to end suffering; that the Noble Eightfold Path is the path to end suffering. Described as the “middle way,” it specifies the commitment to sila (right speech, action and livelihood), samadhi (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration), and panna (right understanding and thoughts).

It is also fruitful to explore journalism as a practice amidst the first two Noble Truths related to suffering (dukka), and this is possible because they are accommodated within the first step of the Eightfold Path – ‘right views’. The Fourth Noble Truth is also integrative. It states that the Noble Eightfold Path is the means to end suffering. Here we consider its elements as a potential framework for the ethical practice of journalism in this new era.


Application of the Noble Eightfold Path to ethical journalism practice

Each of the constituent steps of the Noble Eightfold Path – understanding free of superstition, kindly and truthful speech, right conduct, doing no harm, perseverance, mindfulness and contemplation – has an application to the modern-day practice of truth-seeking and truth-telling – whether that be by a journalist working in a traditional media context, a citizen journalist or a serious blogger reporting and commenting upon news and current affairs. Smith and Novak (2003, p. 39) identified a preliminary step to the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path that he saw as a precondition to its pursuit – the practice of ‘right association’. This, they explained, acknowledged the “extent to which we are social animals, influenced at every turn by the ‘companioned example’ of our associates, whose attitudes and values affect us profoundly” (Smith & Novak, 2003, p. 40). For journalists this can apply at a number of levels. There is the selection of a suitable mentor, an ethical colleague who might be available to offer wise counsel in the midst of a workplace dilemma. There is also the need to acknowledge – and resist – the socialization of journalism recruits into the toxic culture of newsrooms with unethical practices (McDevitt et. al, 2002). Further, there is the imperative to reflect upon the potential for the ‘pack mentality’ of reportage that might allow for the combination of peer pressure, competition and poor leadership to influence the core morality of the newsgathering enterprise, as noted by Leveson (2012, p. 732) in his review of the ethical and legal transgressions by London newspaper personnel. Again, there is a great deal more that can be explored on this topic, but we will now concentrate on a journalistic reading of the steps of the Eightfold Path proper. Kalupahana (1976, p. 59) suggests its constituent eight factors represent a digest of “moral virtues together with the processes of concentration and the development of insight”.

1. Right views. Smith and Novak (2003, p. 42) explained that the very first step in the Eightfold Path involved an acceptance of the Four Noble Truths. Suffice it to say that much of what we call ‘news’ – particularly that impacting on audiences through its reportage of change, conflict and consequence – can sit with Smith and Novak’s (2003, p. 33) definition of dukka, namely “the pain that to some degree colors all of finite existence”. Their explanation of the First Noble Truth – that life is suffering – is evident when we view the front page of each morning’s newspaper and each evening’s television news bulletin:

The exact meaning of the First Noble Truth is this: Life (in the condition it has got itself into) is dislocated. Something has gone wrong. It is out of joint. As its pivot is not true, friction (interpersonal conflict) is excessive, movement (creativity) is blocked, and it hurts (Smith & Novak, 2003, p. 34).

This is at once an endorsement of accepted news values and a denial of the very concept of there being anything unusual about change. As Kalupahana (1976, p. 36) explains, a fundamental principle of Buddhism is that all things in the world are at once impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha) and nonsubstantial (anatta). News, too, is about the impermanent and the unsatisfactory. It is premised upon identifying to audiences what has changed most recently, focusing especially on the most unsatisfactory elements of that change. Yet given Buddhism’s premise that all things are subject to change at all times and that happiness is achieved through the acceptance of this, it might well erode the newsworthiness of the latest upsetting accounts of change in the world since we last looked. Yet in some ways this step supports the model of ‘deliberative journalism’ as explained by Romano (2010, p. 11), which encourages reports that are ‘incisive, comprehensive and balanced’, including the insights and contributions of all relevant stakeholders. Most importantly, as Romano suggests:

Journalists would also report on communities as they evaluate potential responses, and then investigate whether and how they have acted upon the resulting decisions (Romano, 2010, p. 11).

Thus, the notion of ‘right views’ can incorporate a contract between the news media and audiences that accepts a level of change at any time, and focuses intention upon deeper explanations of root causes, strategies for coping and potential solutions for those changes prompting the greatest suffering.

2. Right intent. The second ingredient relates to refining and acting upon that very ‘mission’, ‘calling’ or drive to ‘make a difference’ which is the very human motivation for selecting some occupations. For some, it is a religious calling where they feel spiritually drawn to a vocation as a priest, an imam, a rabbi or a monk. But for others it is a secular drive to aid humanity by helping change society in a positive way – a career motivation shared by many teachers, doctors and journalists. It becomes the backbone to one’s professional enterprise. Smith and Novak (2003, p. 42) describe it thus:

People who achieve greatness are almost invariably passionately invested in some one thing. They do a thousand things each day, but behind these stands the one thing they count supreme. When people seek liberation with single-mindedness of this order, they may expect their steps to turn from sliding sandbank scrambles into ground-gripping strides.

In journalism, this might necessitate a change in mindset from bringing news ‘first’ in a competitive sense but ‘best’ and most meaningfully to an audience in a qualitative sense. Of course, it would not be ‘news’ if were not delivered relatively soon after its occurrence, but in this era of instant communication this step reinforces the notion of ‘responsible truth-seeking and truth-telling’ – authoritative and credible news, obtained ethically, and delivered as soon as possible to retain its relevance and utility without losing its veracity.

3. Right speech. This step relates to both truthful and charitable expression and, interpreted narrowly, that second element of ‘charitable expression’ could present a fundamental challenge to the very concept of journalism as we know it. It certainly places serious questions about the celebrity gossip orientation of many news products today. The notion of telling the truth and being accurate lies at the heart of journalism practice and is foremost in most ethical codes internationally. It is an unquestionable truth that, while a single empirical fact might be subject to scientific measurement and verification, any conclusions drawn from the juxtaposition of two provable facts can only constitute what a scientist would call a ‘theory’ and the rest of us might call ‘opinion’. In defamation law, collections of provable facts can indeed create a meaning – known as an ‘imputation’ – that can indeed be damaging to someone’s reputation (Pearson & Polden, 2011, p.217). Thus, it becomes a question of which truths are selected to be told and the ultimate truth of their composite that becomes most relevant.

Smith and Novak (2003, p. 42) suggest falsities and uncharitable speech as indicative of other factors, most notably the ego of the communicator. In journalism, that ego might be fuelled in a host of ways that might encourage the selection of certain facts or the portrayal of an individual in a negative light: political agendas, feeding populist sentiment, peer pressure, and corporate reward. They state:

False witness, idle chatter, gossip, slander, and abuse are to be avoided, not only in their obvious forms, but also in their covert ones. The covert forms – subtle belittling, ‘accidental’ tactlessness, barbed wit – are often more vicious because their motives are veiled (Smith and Novak, 2003, p. 42).

This calls into question the very essence of celebrity journalism for all the obvious reasons. Gossip about the private lives of the rich and famous, titillating facts about their private lives, and barbed commentary in social columns all fail the test of ‘right speech’ and, in their own way, reveal a great deal about the individual purveying them and their employer, discussed further below under ‘right livelihood’. Taken to its extreme, however, much news might be considered ‘uncharitable’ and slanderous about an individual when it is in fact revealing their wrongdoing all calling into question their public actions. If the Eightfold Path ruled out this element of journalism we would have to conclude it was incompatible even with the best of investigative and Fourth Estate journalism. Indeed, many uncomfortable truths must be told even if one is engaging in a form of ‘deliberative journalism’ that might ultimately be for the betterment of society and disenfranchised people. For example, experts in ‘peace journalism’ include a ‘truth orientiation’ as a fundamental ingredient of that approach, and include a determination “to expose self-serving pronouncements and representations on all sides” (Lynch, 2010, p. 543).

4. Right conduct. The fourth step of ‘right conduct’ goes to the core of any moral or ethical code. In fact, it contains the fundamental directives of most religions with its Five Precepts which prohibit killing, theft, lying, being unchaste and intoxicants (Smith and Novak, 2003, p. 44). Many journalists would have problems with the final two, although the impact upon their work would of course vary with individual circumstances. And while many journalists might have joked that they would ‘kill’ for a story, murder is not a common or accepted journalistic tool. However, journalists have often had problems with the elements of theft and lying in their broad and narrow interpretations. The Leveson Report (2012) contains numerous examples of both, and the extension of the notion of ‘theft’ to practices like plagiarism and of ‘lying’ to deception in its many guises have fuelled many adverse adjudications by ethics committees and courts.

Importantly, as Smith and Novak (2003, p. 43) explain, the step of right conduct also involves ‘a call to understand one’s behavior more objectively before trying to improve it’ and ‘to reflect on actions with an eye to the motives that prompted them’. This clearly invokes the strategic approach developed by educationalist Donald Schön, whose research aimed to equip professionals with the ability to make crucial decisions in the midst of practice. Schön (1987, p. 26) coined the expression ‘reflection-in-action’ to describe the ability of the professional to reflect upon some problem in the midst of their daily work.  The approach was adapted to journalism by Sheridan Burns (2013) who advised student journalists:

You need a process for evaluating your decisions because a process, or system, lets you apply your values, loyalties and principles to every new set of circumstances or facts. In this way, your decision making will be fair in choosing the news (p. 76).

Even industry ethical codes can gain wider understanding and acceptance by appealing to fundamental human moral values and not just offering a proscriptive list of prohibited practices. A recent example is the Fairfax Media Code of Conduct (undated) which poses questions employees might ask themselves when faced with ethical dilemmas that might not be addressed specifically in the document, including:

  • Would I be proud of what I have done?
  • Do I think it’s the right thing to do?
  • What will the consequences be for my colleagues, Fairfax, other parties and me?
  • What would be the reaction of my family and friends if they were to find out?
  • What would happen if my conduct was reported in a rival publication?

While this specific approach seems to focus on the potential for shame for a transgressor, it offers an example of a media outlet attempting to encourage its employees to pause and reflect in the midst of an ethical dilemma – what Schön (1987, p. 26) called ‘reflection-in-action’. Such a technique might offer better guidance and might gain more traction if it were founded upon a socially and professionally acceptable moral or ethical scaffold, perhaps the kind of framework we are exploring here.

5. Right living. The Buddha identified certain livelihoods that were incompatible with a morally pure way of living, shaped of course by the cultural mores of his place and time. They included poison peddler, slave trader, prostitute, butcher, brewer, arms maker and tax collector (Smith and Novak, 2003, p. 45). Some of these occupations might remain on his list today – but one can justifiably ask whether journalism would make his list in the aftermath of the revelations of the Leveson Inquiry (2012). That report did, of course, acknowledge the important role journalism should play in a democratic society, so perhaps the Buddha might have just nominated particular sectors of the media for condemnation. For example, the business model based upon celebrity gossip might provide an avenue for escape and relaxation for some consumers, but one has to wonder at the overall public good coming from such an enterprise. Given the very word ‘occupation’ implies work that ‘does indeed occupy most of our waking attention’ (Smith and Novak, 2003, p. 44), we are left to wonder how the engagement in prying, intrusion and rumor-mongering for commercial purposes advances the enterprise of journalism or the personal integrity of an individual journalist who chooses to ply that trade. The same argument applies to the sections of larger media enterprises who might sometimes produce journalism of genuine social value, but on other occasions take a step too far with intrusion or gossip without any public benefit. This is where journalists working in such organisations might apply a mindful approach to individual stories and specific work practices to apply a moral gauge to the actual tasks they are performing in their work and in assessing whether they constitute ‘right living’.


6. Right effort. The step of ‘right effort’ was directed by the Buddha in a predominantly spiritual sense – a steady, patient and purposeful path to enlightenment. However, we can also apply such principles to the goal of ethical journalism practice in a secular way. Early career journalists are driven to demonstrate success and sometimes mistake the hurried scoop and kudos of the lead story in their news outlet as an end in itself. There can also be an emphasis on productivity and output at the expense of the traditional hallmarks of quality reportage – attribution and verification. Of course, all news stories could evolve into lengthy theses if they were afforded unlimited timelines and budgets. Commercial imperatives and deadlines demand a certain brevity and frequency of output from all reporters. Both can be achieved with continued attention to the core principle of purposeful reflection upon the ethics of the various daily work tasks and a mindful awareness of the underlying mission – or backbone – of one’s occupational enterprise – striving for the ‘right intent’ of the second step.

Institutional limitations and pressure from editors, reporters and sources will continually threaten a journalist’s commitment to this ethical core, requiring the ‘right effort’ to be maintained at that steady, considered pace through every interview, every story, every working day and ultimately through a full career. As the Dalai Lama wrote in Beyond Religion (2011, p. 142):

The practice of patience guards us against loss of composure and, in doing so, enables us to exercise discernment, even in the heat of difficult situations.

Surely this is a useful attribute for the journalist.

7. Right mindfulness. This is the technique of self-examination that Schön (1987) and Sheridan Burns (2013) might call ‘reflection in action’ and is the step I have selected as central to an application of the Eightfold Path to reportage in the heading for this article – ‘Mindful Journalism’. Effective reflection upon one’s own thoughts and emotions is crucial to a considered review of an ethical dilemma in a newsgathering or publishing context. It is also essential to have gone through such a process if a journalist is later called to account to explain their actions. Many ethical decisions are value-laden and inherently complex. Too often they are portrayed in terms of the ‘public interest’ when the core motivating factor has not been the greater public good but, to the contrary, the ego of an individual journalist or the commercial imperative of a media employer. Again, the Leveson Report (2012) detailed numerous instances where such forces were at play, often to the great detriment to the lives of ordinary citizens.

As Smith and Novak (2003, p. 48) explain, right mindfulness ‘aims at witnessing all mental and physical events, including our emotions, without reacting to them, neither condemning some nor holding on to others’. Buddhists (and many others) adopt mindfulness techniques in the form of meditation practice – sometimes in extended guided retreats. While I have found this practice useful in my own life, I am by no means suggesting journalists adopt the lotus position to meditate in their newsrooms or at the scene of a breaking news event to peacefully contemplate their options. The extent to which individuals might want to set aside time for meditation in their own routines is up to them, but at the very least there is much to be gained from journalists adopting the lay meaning of ‘being mindful’. In other words, journalists might pause briefly for reflection upon the implications of their actions upon others – the people who are the subjects of their stories, other stakeholders who might be affected by the event or issue at hand, the effects upon their own reputations as journalists and the community standing of others, and the public benefits ensuing from this particular truth being told in this way at this time. Most ethical textbooks have flow charts with guidelines for journalists to follow in such situations – but the central question is whether they have an embedded technique for moral self-examination – a practiced mindfulness they can draw upon when a circumstance demands.

There is a special need for journalists to be mindful of the vulnerabilities of some individuals they encounter in their work. Many have studied the interaction between the news media and particular ‘vulnerable groups’, such as people with a disability, those with a mental illness, children, the indigenous, the aged, or those who have undergone a traumatic experience. Our collaborative Australian Research Council Linkage Project on ‘Vulnerability and the News Media’ (Pearson et. al, 2010) reviewed that research and examined how journalists interacted with those who might belong to such a ‘vulnerable group’ or who might simply be ‘vulnerable’ because of the circumstances of the news event. We identified other types of sources who might be vulnerable in the midst or aftermath of a news event involving such a ‘moment of vulnerability’ and assessed the question of ‘informed consent’ to journalistic interviews by such individuals. Ethical journalists are mindful of such potential vulnerabilities and either look for alternative sources or take considered steps to minimise the impact of their reportage.

This concern for others also invokes the notion of compassion for other human beings, a tenet central to the teachings of all major religions, and a hallmark of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has explained that it is often mistaken for a weakness or passivity, or ‘surrender in the face of wrongdoing or injustice’ (Dalai Lama, 2011, p. 58). If that were the case, then it would be incompatible with Fourth Estate journalism which requires reporters to call to account those who abuse power or rort the system. However, the Dalai Lama explains that true compassion for others requires that sometimes we must do exactly that:

Depending on the context, a failure to respond with strong measures, thereby allowing the aggressors to continue their destructive behaviour, could even make you partially responsible for the harm they continue to inflict (Dalai Lama, 2011, p. 59).

Such an approach is perfectly compatible with the best of foreign correspondence and investigative journalism conducted in the public interest – and is well accommodated within the peace journalism model explained by Lynch (2010, p. 543).

8. Right concentration. Some have compared ‘right concentration’ to being in ‘the zone’ in elite sporting terminology – so focused on the work at hand that there is a distinctive clarity of purpose. Smith and Novak (2003, p. 48) explain that concentration exercises – often attentive to a single-pointed awareness of breathing – are a common prelude to mindfulness exercises during meditation.

Initial attempts at concentration are inevitably shredded by distractions; slowly, however, attention becomes sharper, more stable, more sustained (Smith and Novak, 2003, p. 48).

It is such concentrated attention that is required of consummate professionals in the midst of covering a major news event. It is at this time that top journalists actually enter ‘the zone’ and are able to draw on core ethical values to produce important reportage and commentary within tight deadlines, paying due regard to the impact of their work upon an array of individual stakeholders and to the broader public interest. It is in this moment that it all comes together for the mindful journalist – facts are verified, comments from a range of sources are attributed, competing values are assessed, angles are considered and decided and timing is judged. And it all happens within a cool concentrated focus, sometimes amidst the noise and mayhem of a frantic newsroom or a chaotic news event.

Towards a secular ‘mindful journalism’

This paper does not propose a definitive fix-all solution to the shortcomings in journalism ethics or their regulation. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the basic teachings of one of the world’s major religions can offer guidance in identifying a common – and secular – moral compass that might inform our journalism practice as technology and globalization place our old ethical models under stress.

Leveson (2012) has identified the key ethical and regulatory challenges facing the British press and Finkelstein (2012) has documented the situation in Australia. One of the problems with emerging citizen journalism and news websites is that their proponents do not necessarily ascribe to traditional journalists’ ethical codes. The journalists’ union in Australia, the Media Alliance, has attempted to bring them into its fold by developing a special “Charter of Excellence and Ethics” and by the end of April already had 12 news websites ascribe to its principles, which included a commitment to the journalists’ Code of Ethics (Alcorn, 2013). This might be a viable solution for those who identify as journalists and seek a union affiliation, but many do not, and in a global and multicultural publishing environment the challenge is to develop models that might be embraced more broadly than a particular national union’s repackaging of a journalists’ code.

I have written previously about the confusion surrounding the litany of ethical codes applying to a single journalist in a single workplace. There is evidence that in many places such codes have failed to work effectively in guiding the ethics of the traditional journalists for whom they were designed, let alone the litany of new hybrids including citizen journalists, bloggers, and the avid users of other emerging news platforms.

My suggestion here is simply that core human moral principles from key religious teachings like the Noble Eightfold Path could form the basis of a more relevant and broadly applicable model for the practice of ‘mindful journalism’.


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McQuail, D. (1987) Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction.Sage Publications: London

Pearson, M. (1988). “I Want to be a Journalist”: a study of cadetships, Australian Journalism Review, January-December, 10: 125-134.

Pearson, M., K. Green, S. Tanner & J. Sykes. (2010). Researching Journalists and Vulnerable Sources – Issues in the Design and Implementation of a National Study In Pasadeos, Y. (ed) Advances in Communication and Mass Media Research. ATINER, Athens: 87-96.

Pearson, M. (2012). The media regulation debate in a democracy lacking a free expression guarantee. Pacific Journalism Review, 18(2): 89-101.

Pearson, M. and Polden, M. (2011). The journalist’s guide to media law, Fourth edition, Allen & Unwin: Sydney.

Robie, D. (2011). Conflict reporting in the South Pacific – Why peace journalism has a chance, The Journal of Pacific Studies, 31(2): 221–240. Retrieved from: http://www.academia.edu/1374720/Conflict_reporting_in_the_South_Pacific_Why_peace_journalism_has_a_chance

Romano, A.R. (Ed.) (2010) International journalism and democracy : civic engagement models from around the world. Routledge:  New York and London.

Rosen, J. (1999). What Are Journalists For? Yale University Press: New Haven, CT.

Rosen, J.. (2003-2013). PressThink – Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine. Weblog. Retrieved from http://pressthink.org.

Schön, D. (1987) Educating the reflective practitioner. Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Segal, Z., Williams, M., Teasdale, J. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, Second Edition. Guilford Publications: NY.

Sheridan Burns, L. (2013). Understanding journalism. Second edition. Sage: London.

Siebert, F.S., Peterson, T. & Schramm, W. (1963) Four Theories of the Press. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Smith, H. and Novak, P. (2003) Buddhism : A Concise Introduction. Harper San Francisco: New York.


Note: The author acknowledges funding from the Australian Research Council for funding the collaborative ARC Linkage Project LP0989758 (researchers from five universities led by Professor Kerry Green from the University of South Australia) which contributed to this study and to the Griffith University Arts, Education and Law Group for funding to present this paper.

© Mark Pearson 2013

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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Seeking PhD and research Masters candidates in journalism and social media law

By MARK PEARSON (@journlaw)

Followers of this blog will be aware that I joined Griffith University earlier this year as Professor of Journalism and Social Media.

I am now fielding expressions of interest from students internationally who might want to pursue a PhD or a Masters degree by research in my field of journalism and social media law, ethics and regulation.

While I am happy to correspond with you via email at my work address m.pearson@griffith.edu.au, the best course of action would be for you to go through the application process via the Griffith website at http://www.griffith.edu.au/higher-degrees-research/how-to-apply. Details on scholarships and their application processes are also available at that link.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing your applications as they work their way through the system.

Be sure to mark them for my supervision and attention: Mark Pearson LLM, PhD, Professor of Journalism and Social Media.


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Blurred lines for journalists and social media editors: Are you personally liable for an error?


A short section of my new book – Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued – has the heading ‘Who carries the can?’.

There, I write:

“Most bloggers cherish their independence, but this comes at a price. If you are the sole publisher of your material, then prosecutors and litigants will come looking for you personally. If you write for a larger organisation you share that responsibility with your employer or client. A litigant can still sue you as the writer, but they might choose to target your wealthier publisher – particularly if you are an impoverished freelancing blogger.

“In the 20th century, large media organisations would usually pay the legal costs and damages awards against their journalists if they were sued and give them the services of their in-house counsel to guide them through any civil or criminal actions. Most of the so-called ‘legacy media’ still do that today, so if you are a mainstream reporter or columnist thinking of going solo with your blog you might weigh this up first. Another advantage of writing for a large media group is that your work will be checked by editors with some legal knowledge and perhaps even vetted by the company’s lawyers before being published. Either way, you might investigate insuring yourself against civil damages, although even in countries where this is available premiums are rising with each new Internet lawsuit. Another option is to scout for liability insurance policies offered by authors’ and bloggers’ associations. Search to check your options.”

The issue has come into sharp focus with journalists’ own tweeting under their personal handles in recent times. My recent piece in The Australian, reproduced below, looked at the question of journalists’ standards of independence and fairness on Twitter compared with the expectations placed upon them in their ‘day jobs’.

Organisations have started to develop social media policies for their reporters’ and social media editors’ use. But a huge grey area is the question of personal liability for individuals.

If a journalist (or any other employee, for that matter) claims in their Twitter profile that the views expressed are private not those of their employer (a standard disclaimer) where does that place them if someone sues them personally over their tweets?

It would take a particularly generous proprietor to cover the legal expenses of their employee who has distanced their private comments so clearly from their work role. It would likely leave them high and dry, with their own house and savings on the line, defending a legal action over a tweet, blog or other posting.

Despite my long experience as a journalist and academic, I made a serious error in this very story commissioned by The Australian. It was only noticed by an astute sub-editor (copy editor) at the eleventh hour – saving the newspaper and myself significant embarrassment at the very least. Thank God for subs!

But the fact is that our private blogs and tweets do not have the expert eye of a copy editor scanning them pre-publication – which can leave us personally liable for our words.

That’s something worth pondering very carefully before we press that ‘Send’ button.


Media twitters as Murdoch fronts Leveson

The Weekend Australian, April 28, 2012, p. 12


THERE was a virtual sideshow alley to the circus of Rupert Murdoch’s appearance at the Leveson media inquiry in London – coverage of the event on Twitter.
The topic #rupertmurdoch trended briefly at 7th place worldwide on the social media network, remarkable given discussion was also running at #leveson, #NOTW and #hacking.
It augurs well for a future for journalism that the appearance of an important public figure at a judicial inquiry could hold its own in the Twittersphere with the rapper 2 Chainz, a reality program on teenage pregnancy and the hashtag #APictureOfMeWhenIWas.
The Twitter feed offered a warts-and-all view of the medium as a source of information and informed opinion on news and current affairs.
It also raises issues of relevance to the self-regulation of journalists’ ethical behaviour when democratic governments are proposing statutory media controls in the converged environment.
Frequent Twitter users are accustomed to the extremities of opinion expressed in 140 characters on controversial issues.
The very “social” nature of the medium means that the streaming commentary is not dissimilar to what you would hear from a crowd gathered around a pub television watching a major sports event or a breaking news event.
You get a smorgasbord of views, quips, snide remarks, venom, puns, one-liners and references to a whole lot more, often in the form of links or photos.
With retweets you can then get the “Chinese whispers” effect, as facts are massaged or adapted to fit the character count down the grapevine.
Journalists are supposed to offer audiences some meaning in the midst of this mess.
For journalism and media organisations to stand out from the crowd they need to be the source of reliable, verified and concise information and opinion based on proven facts – something we used to call “truth”.
This week’s coverage of the Murdoch appearance demonstrated that some prominent journalists seem to have formed the view that Twitter is so different a medium that they have licence to ignore some of the foundation stones of their ethical codes.
Murdoch’s appearance elicited a blood sports style of sarcasm from critics from rival organisations, most notably at the ABC and Crikey.
Crikey’s Stephen Mayne might argue that readers would expect his Twitter feed to reflect his years of confronting Murdoch at News Corporation annual general meetings. Fair enough.
But does that excuse his tweet suggesting counsel assisting Leveson ask Murdoch about his marriages and fidelity “to test whether he really agrees that proprietors deserve extra scrutiny”?
Surely it was that kind of tabloid privacy intrusion that prompted the whole sorry saga. Which was Mayne’s point, I guess, in “an eye for an eye” kind of way.
Of course, News Limited journalists are not ethical saints in their use of Twitter, but on this issue they were in defensive mode.
Many prominent News columnists do not have active Twitter accounts, but even The Australian’s Media team chose not to engage on this important international media issue.
The Daily Telegraph’s Joe Hildebrand showed that, in the Twittersphere, sarcasm is often the preferred line of defence: “Can’t wait until Rupert Murdoch resumes speaking at the Leveson inquiry. I haven’t known what to write for 10 minutes.”
News journalists can hardly look to their boss for leadership in seeking to be unbiased in their Twitter commentary.
Murdoch himself posted to his @rupertmurdoch handle on March 30: “Proof you can’t trust anything in Australian Fairfax papers, unless you are just another crazy.”
Amid the snipes and counterattacks there is a whole lot of banter too – journalists doing the virtual equivalent of talking in the pub after work.
It might be gratifying, clubby and intellectually stimulating, but is a very public media space the place to be doing it?
What message does this send the audiences who follow these journalists on Twitter because of their connection to their respective masthead?
Most offer the standard “views expressed here are my own” rider on their Twitter profiles.
But is that really enough, when beside that they trumpet their journalistic position and employer organisation?
It is symptomatic of a broader problem of corporate social media risk exposure that has triggered an industry of social media policy writing, in the wake of the harsh lessons for McDonald’s and Qantas when hostile customers converted their promotional hashtags to #bashtags in public relations disasters.
But in journalism it’s more complex, because reporters are encouraged to use social media for establishing and maintaining contacts, sourcing stories and engaging with their audiences.
Journalism should be all about transparency, so many would argue it does no harm for readers to know what a reporter really thinks about an issue, particularly in a converged postmodern world where objectivity is supposedly dead.
It might well be, but the ethical codes still speak of fairness, accuracy and respect for the rights of others.
And those very codes are meant to be followed by journalists and their organisations in their mainstream reporting.
Sadly, they might soon face a statutory tribunal and penalties for their unethical actions.
They can’t have it both ways. News organisations cannot sell themselves to readers as impartial, authoritative sources of news and informed commentary when on Twitter their journalists are either breaking their codes or staying mute about an important international news event involving their boss.
The citizenry deserves better if we are to rebuild its confidence in journalism as an important democratic institution.

© 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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A Journalist’s ‘If’ (with apologies to Kipling)


Way back in 1975 the Sydney television newsreader Roger Climpson delivered a memorable rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem ‘If’ at my Caringbah High School speech night.

It prompted me to buy a poster of the famous verse and hang it next to Kahlil Gibran’s ‘Desiderata’ on my bedroom wall.

Thirty years later I was moved to bend and stretch Kipling’s precious words for the benefit of my Newspaper Reporting class. Each year I start my first lecture for that subject with its recital.

Today I share the product of that desecration of rhyme and meter with my Journlaw.com readers.

Perhaps your own J-students or junior colleagues might be inspired – if they can forgive my literary sins.

Or maybe you’d like to add a verse by way of ‘Comment’?


A JOURNALIST’S ‘IF’ (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling)

By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw

If you can make some sense out of a complicated mess

And craft a bright, clear lead of 20 words or less

If you can take pride in the words that stand beneath your name

But know a byline carries more responsibility than fame


If you can stay well beyond your shift and burn the midnight oil

Just to get the story done, expecting nothing for your toil

When all your friends are partying the wee small hours away

While you’re still at the office – just because you want to stay.


If you can realise journalism holds a place for every type,

The quiet golden retriever and the terrier with its bark and hype

That there are many ways to chase a story and do our very best

We match our methods to our type and aim to beat the rest.


If you can drive to work not knowing where you’ll finish up that day

And accept that some disaster might be just an hour away

Or that you might be with a sporting star or chatting with Tom Cruise

Or editing the tidal charts and checking crossword clues.


If you can interview a president and then a homeless soul

And learn to listen to them both to make your story whole

Because listening and questioning are the golden pair

Then accuracy, a nose for news, and a commitment to be fair.


If you learn writing is important, but it’s not the florid kind

“Keep it simple stupid” is the motto to bear in mind.

There’s scope for creativity with the angle, not the facts,

And adjectives and adverbs are bound to get the axe.


If you shelve your own opinions, despite how heartfelt they may be
Allowing others their full say, erasing that word “me”.

Remember readers own the press – it’s not there for you

It’s not your job to impress, but to seek another view.

If you can rise above the pressure of all your precious peers

And snatch a story from beneath their noses which burns their lazy ears

But still realise that sometimes you need to hunt in packs

Ever mindful of the need to keep arm’s length from all the hacks.


If you can take a newsroom full of cynics – crusty, gnarled and tired

And ignite them with that passion for which you have been hired

And see them reinvent themselves and restart their careers

All because your zest for life is music to their ears.


And then if a disaster strikes, if you can set aside your fears

And focus on the story amidst the blood and gore and tears

While many of your readers may be floating upside down

You get the presses rolling with the news to that wet town.


If you can defy the speed of sound and take a steady note

When all around are struggling to record a simple quote

And sit and watch the television replay those words you heard

Quoted on your own front page – exactly word for word.


If you can convince the toughest source you are someone they can trust

And don’t go off the record unless you truly must

And if you do, assure them that your honour will not fail

Even when you’re threatened with a lengthy stay in jail.


If you take yourself to places you would normally not go

In search of fresh new contacts – people you don’t know

Because stories lie in wait of you in clubs and shops and bars

Folks with different interests, who might well come from Mars.


If you can build a contact book others would kill to access

And keep it safe because that may be truer than you guess

Double check the spelling of even the simplest name

Cos even Jonny Smyth might not be spelt the same.


If you know when to knock upon the door of a grieving mother

And, equally, when to leave that same job to another

Yet show her it was worthwhile letting others see her tears

Because that’s the way we change the world and allay each other’s fears.


If you can stand at the dinner table among the chattering classes

And defend the freedom of the press as they snigger in their glasses

As they try to shoot the messenger for all and sundry ills

Remind them that it’s not the pen, but the crooked sword that kills.


And finally, if you can craft a masterpiece, and have it chopped from the end
Yours is the world and everything that’s in it, and – which is more – you’ll be a journalist, my friend!


© Mark Pearson 2005

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