Ethics, Law, Power & the Fourth Estate – Final Reflection

Former executive editor of “The New York Times” Bill Keller contends that “there isn’t an absolute freedom of the press” and that “the idea that there is some absolute press freedom is a myth”.

Having written for arguably the most well known publication in the world for over three decades, Keller’s assertions are constructed on foundations of experience and wisdom. In comparison, I have personally only just commenced my journalistic journey and yet I have begun to understand why Keller spoke of the notion of unrestricted media in that manner.

In its purest form, free press is the right for publications to produce material restrained only by judicial boundaries. Journalists play a pivotal in maintaining the progressiveness of a society in their role as the fourth estate, those who facilitate transparency amongst authoritative figures and ensure accountability. Whilst in theory the concept of “free press” being available for the fourth estate to moderate the legislative, executive and judiciary appears straightforward, in reality it is far from so.

Though journalists endeavour to carry out their duty of being the conveyors of news, there exists beyond just legal obligations a ubiquitous sense of ethical responsibility. In addition to matters such as contempt of court and defamation, journalists are now more than ever compelled to consider the moral dimensions of what they publish. The social media revolution has resulted in news being unprecedentedly more accessible and abundant and thus the pressure is constantly on journalists to maintain their standards.

Through the tasks assigned this semester and my own personal musings I have realised the importance of considering all facets of a story – the actors, the actions, the consequences and circumstances and whilst ideally journalists would appreciate being able to release every detail they have toiled for, I have learned that each new story is completely situational and must be handled with due care.

As journalists we are governed by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA)’s Code of Ethics and Australia Press Council standards, there is no explicitly assigned, specific set of laws designed to regulate the media. Though as we endeavour to regulate the first three estates, we as the fourth estate must be self-regulatory. The absence of such authority is the cause of some journalists electing to ignore this process of self-regulation in the pursuit of more newsworthy but potentially more scandalous stories.

The fictitious story of MP Havelock Vetinari exemplifies this impasse. The information available to the journalist, received off-record from the Police Constable, is that Vetinari was caught drink-driving in a tax-payer funded government car after departing a brothel. In addition, the journalist is privy to the fact that Vetinari’s wife is ill and that he has two teenage daughters.

A journalist covering this story would no doubt be able to produce a highly attention grabbing story about the disgraced MP. However, the journalist is obliged adhere to ethical principles in regards to Vetinari’s personal life. Firstly, to construct a story on the back of an unconfirmed source is risky and could potentially land the journalist in trouble. Furthermore, revealing Vetinari’s private affairs could potentially cause emotional distress to his family, would ruin his reputation and may cultivate a “trial by media” element to his ongoing legal case.

The case of Vetinari elucidates the dilemma between the public’s right to freedom of the media and an individual’s right to privacy, reputation and a fair trial. Though journalists are the providers of current affairs, they must evaluate these factors before finalising their work. I deemed that the public had the right to know of Vetinari’s indiscretion but not the finer details of his struggles as I thought that to be an invasion of his privacy and potentially disastrous for his reputation.

As a consequence, I personally elected to refrain from publishing the intricacies of Vetinari’s situation, choosing instead to write a piece keeping to his drink-driving offence. Whilst I acknowledged the potential headline-worthy material I had at my disposal, as a self-regulating, ethically conscious journalist I avoided this course of action. In doing so I believe I upheld the journalistic pillars of fairness and balance without jeopardising my accuracy.

These delicate legal and ethical predicaments are being further exacerbated by the prevalence of social media in today’s reporting. Outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are efficient and effective methods of communicating information, however the speed at which journalists are required to confirm share information can lead to potential inaccuracies. In addition, the competitive nature of the click-bait driven, eye snatching realms of social media further push the boundaries of what is ethically reasonable to publish. A journalist is under immense pressure to hook a reader in and must do so in a limited amount of words. Here is where it may be tempted for a journalist to relax from their self-regulation and include details they’d otherwise abstain from posting, highlighting another dimension to the self-regulatory dilemma journalists face.

In our contemporary society, Keller’s views are more pertinent than ever. The way in which news is released and consumed is dynamic and thus journalists are required to be more proactive in order to fulfil their commitment to being the fourth estate whilst still upholding their standards. Though legal elements such as defamation and contempt of court deter journalists from sensationalising, the lure of the “big story” at the expense of some ethical protection of individuals does not quite intimidate journalists in the same way.

Personally, I have come to appreciate my responsibility to self-regulate. In dealing with instances where I could potentially scandalise a situation, I have learned to be more disciplined and respectful. I believe that such practice will foster longevity and good favour in this profession.

In regards to Keller’s stance, I concur with his beliefs. In an ideal world there would be free press, however we as journalists, though required to provide society with informative print, must be vigilant in our discerning of what society is actually entitled to know, vigilant in our protection of our subjects and vigilant in our use of social media. In a line of work in which some days can become re-runs of their predecessors, we must be tireless in our case by case legal and ethical evaluations and reporting.

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