It is with great interest that I have followed the debate caused by spin doctor Chris Vick about journalistic ethics. In a recent column in Business Day, Vick claimed to have written editorials for editors and written press releases that journalists have put their names on, among other things.
Vick wrote: “It’s certainly harder to ‘spin’ in a media environment where there is professionalism, integrity, maturity and accountability. And media institutions that strive for quality pay attention to ethical issues and put real checks and balances in place certainly seem to make fewer mistakes – the better the journalism, the smaller the chance of errors.
“The higher the ethical standard, the less chance that mistakes will be made. The greater the integration of quality and ethics, the less room for reputation managers with bad intentions to play games – and the less space for brown envelopes to start doing the rounds.”
While not supporting Vick’s almost alarmist views about journalism, the debate about ethics in the media industry is an important one, especially against the backdrop of the ruling ANC wanting to introduce a media tribunal to regulate the media.
Much of the ANC’s concern about the media is around its perceived lack of professionalism. This lack of professionalism sometimes leads to bad or biased reporting. This has led to calls for the media to be regulated by an outside organisation, because clearly, in the eyes of the ruling party, it cannot regulate itself.
The other day I was sent a few questions on this issue by The Media Online and it got me thinking about how ethical we really are as an industry. I thought I should share some of my response because of the seriousness of this issue.
The Media Online asked me how vulnerable I thought our young reporters were to being “spun” because clever public relations people often took their stories to young journalists rather than experienced news editors, as it is much easier to control.
My response was that I would hope journalists at The New Age would know not to fall victim to public relations (PR) practitioners. I am very strict about this kind of thing and would take disciplinary action against reporters who knowingly allowed themselves to be used in this way.
Sometimes, however, PR people do come up with good stories, but each story must still be verified by our reporters. What happens at a lot of newspapers is that journalists don’t have the time to do proper stories and it is easy to fall back on stuff produced for you by PR people.
It is very difficult to put checks and balances in place, but one would hope that news editors are clued up on the happenings in the news and would have the maturity to be able to identify when a reporter is putting a press release in front of you and not his/her own work.
We hope that by our news editors working closely with the reporters, we would be able to instil proper journalistic values in them.
For instance, journalists need to know that it is tantamount to plagiarism – which is an unforgiveable sin in our industry – to put your name on a press release. However, I have seen it happening in other publications. I sincerely hope that it does not happen at The New Age.
If I discovered this was happening at the newspaper I edit, I would not hesitate to take disciplinary action against the journalist involved. I would also send a strong message to the public relations company involved, even though I have no control over them.
One of the things that I discovered last year when I went back into a formal newsroom after more than 10 years, was how little working journalists, both junior and senior, knew about the press code or general journalistic rules. One of the first things I did at The New Age was to put up posters with the press code all over the newsroom. Whether anyone has read it is debatable, but at least it is easily accessible for anyone who has any doubts about ethical issues.
We have also recently introduced a crop of cadets into our newsroom, but not before they had stringent training with a strong emphasis on ethics.
I believe that if the media wants to regulate itself, and keep government at bay, it will have to invest a lot more in making sure that journalists understand not only professional issues, but also ethical issues.
Journalism is not an easy profession. It involves hard work, long hours and, more often than not, poor pay. All of this makes it easy for the PR industry to exploit. However, any journalist worth his or her salt knows that your personal integrity is worth much more than the money you could potentially make on the side by pushing certain stories for publication.
I hope that at The New Age we are only employing people who support independent journalism; independent not only from political interference but also commercial interference.
Ryland Fisher is editor of The New Age