Tag Archives: journalism ethics

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?

By MARK PEARSON

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

MARK PEARSON

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)

By MARK PEARSON

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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