British Journalists Chastened on Ethics


Ethics violations close Britain’s News of the World. photo.

“Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live.” —Milton

By Casey Bukro

British journalists are more likely to pay sources for information than American journalists, but journalists in both countries agree that providing reliable information is their chief goal.

These are among the conclusions of a survey of 700 of the United Kingdom’s almost 64,000 professional journalists, by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

On ethics and standards, said the report:

“There is a close correspondence between U.K. journalists’ views on ethics and their professional codes of practice. However, they are more likely to find justification for ethically contentious practices, such as paying sources, than journalists in the United States.

“Rank and file journalists in the U.K. push ethical boundaries more than their managers, and 25 percent of all journalists believe it is justified, on occasion, to publish unverified information.”

As for misrepresentation and subterfuge, U.K. journalists expressed mixed views about whether claiming to be somebody else is acceptable. Fifty-four percent believe it is never justified and 46 percent think it is justified on occasion. U.S. journalists, according to the study, are more disapproving, with only 7 percent agreeing that misrepresentation is justified on occasion.

The hacking scandal is fresh enough in the memories of British journalists to serve as a warning against ethical malpractice.

Britain learned a hard lesson in ethics nine years ago when News of the World editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were convicted of illegal interception of phone messages. Then in July, 2011, News of the World reporters were accused of hacking the voicemail of murder victim Milly Dowler. The scandal deepened as the paper was accused of hacking phones of families of military personnel killed in action.

News of the World, with one of the world’s largest English-language circulations, shut down because of the hacking scandal.  Prime Minister David Cameron announced a judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press, headed by Lord Justice Brian Leveson. Recommendations followed a series of public hearings.

The hacking scandal is fresh enough in the memories of British journalists to serve as a warning against ethical malpractice. No newspaper in the United States has been shut down for ethics violations.

In the forward of the Reuters study, Ian Hargreaves, Cardiff University professor of digital economy, said: “Particularly fascinating are the journalists’ answers on ethical issues, which emerge as mostly in line with official codes of practice. Journalists say that their behavior is affected more than anything else by ethical guidelines and professional codes of practice. This suggests that the Leveson era may have made more impact than generally acknowledged. Since a majority of journalists also believe that their profession has lost credibility over time, it might even indicate the start of a fight-back.”

Less startling, said Hargreaves, is the very strong flow of women into journalism. They form a majority among young journalists, he noted, but still are very much a minority in the senior ranks. A chronic failure, he said, is achieving reasonable levels of ethnic diversity.

Journalism plays a pivotal role in informing the public, Hargreaves pointed out. “But in a period when digital communications technologies are violently disrupting news industry business models there is confusion and debate as to whether the result is less journalism, worse journalism or more and better journalism delivered through a more diverse array of media, including social media,” he added.

More or less journalism, or more or fewer journalists?

Hargreaves was personally pleased to report that in the “hierarchy of values” emerging from journalists questioned, the first was providing reliable information, the second was holding power to account and the third was entertainment, which keeps reporting interesting.

Journalists are well educated, but the pay remains relatively modest for most of them. Even in journalism, women are paid less than men. The best paid jobs are in television, where disruptive forces on news are weaker. The proportion of journalists working in newspapers has fallen sharply.

Disagreement about definitions, said Hargreaves, makes it unclear “whether overall in the digital age we have more or less journalism or more or fewer journalists.” The study estimates that 30,000 U.K. journalists work wholly or partly online, but bloggers were excluded from the count, including others whose journalistic identity is complicated.

“For me,” wrote Hargreaves, “the overall impression delivered by the survey is positive. In spite of the most turbulent period of change in the news industry for a century, there is a read-out here of core purpose and conviction among British journalists. As business models start to settle down in the third decade of the internet and new types of proprietor establish themselves, this persuades me that the outlook is more promising than is often suggested.”

The report is based on a survey conducted in December, 2015, plus more than 100 other sources. Reuters earlier conducted a similar survey of U.S. journalists. Other findings:

Journalism in Britain is now fully “academized,” meaning that 98 percent of journalists who began their careers in 2013, 2014 and 2015 had bachelor’s degrees and 36 percent a master’s.

Journalists are less religious than the general population.

Since 2012 the proportion of journalists in the U.K. working in newspapers has dropped from 56 percent to 44 percent, while the proportion working online rose from 26 percent to 52 percent.

About half of journalists take a left-of-center political stance, with the remaining half split between center and right-wing.

Twenty percent of U.K. journalists have gross yearly earnings of less than £19,200, the equivalent of $27,840. (One British pound equals $1.45.) That is likely to be at or below a “living wage” for many.

Eighty-three percent of U.K. journalists in the mid- to late 20s earn less than £29,000, or $42,050. That makes buying property a challenge.

Most journalists (about 54 percent) work in a single medium — TV, radio, print or online. Working across multiple media provides no clear financial benefit.

Most British journalists believe ethical standards have grown stronger in the last five years, rather than weaker.

Working across multiple media provides no clear financial benefit.

U.K. and U.S. media organizations focused on various parts of the study., a website on news and advertorial content for journalists based in Brighton, England, headlined: “British journalists are more likely to push ethical boundaries than US reporters, finds new study.” It noted more than half of U.K. journalists would push ethical boundaries to get a story.

The website also featured prominently that 53 percent of British journalists surveyed said it is justified to pay for confidential information in the public interest, compared to just five percent of American journalists who responded to that question.

The British website quoted one of the authors of the Reuters report who said one of the surprises of the survey was that about twice as many journalists believed their editorial freedom has decreased over time. A reason for that feeling, said the author, could be that 41 percent of journalists said audience data and research on what audiences like to read is now very important or extremely important.

The website noted that 77 percent of journalists said that being a detached observer was “very important” or “extremely important.” U.K. journalists see themselves as providers of accurate information and analysis, rather than being an adversary of government or supporting national development.

Forty-five percent of U.K. journalists, the website pointed out, see it as “very” or “extremely” important to provide news that attracts the largest audience — a higher proportant than found in the U.S. survey. This may be partly explained, the Reuters report said, by increased financial pressures on the media industry.

For the American perspective, iMediaEthics pointed to ethical differences between types of journalism in the United Kingdom. “Broadcast journalists were more OK with secret recordings or misrepresentation whereas print journalists were willing to bend the rules for paying for information or not fact checking before publication,” said iMediaEthics.

“About one-third of journalists surveyed thought it was OK on ‘an important story, to exert pressure on unwilling informants,’ but the study suggested that could be linked to stories in the public interest, noting that a 2014 survey of U.S. found roughly the same response,” reported iMediaEthics.

The U.S. group continued: “96 percent of U.K. journalists think it’s wrong to take money from sources, but slightly more than half are OK with occasionally paying for information, the study found. Meanwhile, in the U.S., just five percent are OK with paying for information on special occasions, the study reported.”

The group also noted that the study found that 95 percent of U.K. journalists think it’s wrong to change or fake quotes, 88 percent of journalists think it’s wrong to alter photos, but 68 percent thinks it’s OK to occasionally stage a photo.

The United States and the United Kingdom share a close history and an abiding friendship. The countries differ and are similar. Any student of journalism reads about some of its beginnings and early lessons in customs and law in England. Both countries travel different roads in many of their traditions.

But in journalism ethics, they appear to be traveling largely parallel courses that emphasize truth and accuracy, speaking to power, professionalism and finding their way in the tumultuous digital age.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers,  submit a question.

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