Aidan White, the director of the Ethical Journalism Network talks about the present state of Pakistani and global media and the way forward.

What are the basics of ethical journalism?

Ethical journalism is what media people are supposed to do — to produce information in the public interest. It’s like free expression, but in a framework of values.

Journalists are supposed to make sure what they report is set in a context of five key principles: Accuracy and respect for the truth; Independence from political and special interests; Impartiality by telling all sides of a story; Humanity and the need to do no harm; and Accountability by correcting errors and showing respect for the audience.

How can ethical journalism be sustained in an environment where attention spans are short, there are multiple sources of news and ratings determine news agendas?

Even before the internet and the information revolution, journalists were under sustained pressure. Politicians like to manipulate media and big business encourages journalists to support corporate interests.

But in today’s open information society it’s easier for journalism to be corrupted and for media to produce propaganda. This corruption becomes dangerous when media is used to foment hatred and violence.

In the digital era when there is more rumour, speculation and malicious lies, people struggle to know what is true and what is untrue and competition between media — often driven by ratings — also leads to the sacrifice of standards as media rush to publish information without checking facts.

All of this can lead to misunderstanding, ignorance and hatred. The only way media and journalism can combat these threats is to reinforce the ethical base of our work. We need to ensure we report in context. We need to take more time to check our facts. We need to correct our mistakes quickly.

What are some of the more subtle ways in which Western news media influences and manipulates public opinion?

The dangers facing journalism today are felt everywhere. Even in countries which regard themselves as democratic with a functioning free press.

Last year the Ethical Journalism Network analysed how the malicious lies of a religious extremist were reported by some of the world’s best media — the Associated Press, The Guardian, the BBC, The Wall Street Journal, for instance — and they led to violence and killings around the world.

The media made the situation worse because they failed to check the facts of the story and as a result spread vicious lies which encouraged other extremists to promote yet more violence.

The fact is that in today’s world even the best media succumb to political spin, commercial self-interest or extremist lies when they fail to follow the ethics that ensure their stories tell the truth.

The influence of political power is greater than ever and whether the story is about migration, religion or culture, we must make sure we don’t fall victim to simple prejudice and bias.

How can consumers of news ensure they are getting a balanced picture rather than internalising media biases?

Today there are more opportunities for media to work in partnership with the audience. Readers and viewers closely watch what we do; they provide us with more information and pictures; they disseminate and distribute our stories.

The audience can and must use its new power to hold media to account and to make sure we are acting ethically. Good media are embracing new ways of listening to the audience and taking seriously our critics on the outside. As the audience becomes more active and also more ethical in its approach to how media works, then journalism will prosper and democracy itself will improve.

To what extent do bloggers and citizen journalists complicate the task of responsible news dissemination?

Today journalism is not in the hands of elite. Anyone can commit an act of journalism, but that does not mean anyone who owns a computer is a journalist. What makes journalism different is its ethical base and we must insist that everyone who wants to work with and through journalism is also respecting the ethics of our craft. When we work ethically we remove the threat of ignorance, rumour and speculation.

In Pakistan this challenge is being taken up by the Pakistan Coalition for Ethical Journalism which is driven by professionals and which is creating a new culture of information that cuts across all platforms. It’s a fine vehicle for debating change in a country where news is a big industry.

How would you compare Pakistani news media with the Western news media when the latter was at the same stage of its evolution?

I do not see any great differences between Pakistan journalism and journalism elsewhere. The social and economic conditions are different, of course, but the challenges journalists face are the same.

Pakistan is a deeply political and volatile society with a complex interplay of communities, history and culture. Media are part of the mix and can play a central role in promoting peace and prosperity, but that will not happen unless journalism becomes more ethical and respectful of the audience.

In the world league table of media, Pakistan has a high degree of freedom, but journalists are often caught in the webs of corruption that surround political and economic life. If we can have more transparency, more accountability and more commitment to the mission of journalism from owners and editors, Pakistan could be at the top of the table.

How can self-regulation work in the corporatised, cut-throat world that is the contemporary Pakistani newsroom?

This is probably the biggest challenge for journalists and media. We need to build more solidarity not just to protect journalists from violence and to stand up against political interference, but also to show that we can admit our mistakes and provide remedies for the people who have suffered from our journalism.

To build public trust, media must create structures that will provide self-regulation that is credible not just with the audience, but also within the media industry itself.

We have to learn that sensationalism and unethical behaviour might give short-term competitive advantage but it will not build respect and trust. Our industry needs to have a long-term perspective.

If we work together today to create credible self-regulation inside every newsroom and across the industry we will guarantee a thriving industry tomorrow.

Journalism will survive if we keep it honest and ethical. When that happens Pakistan will become a more confident and peaceful place to be. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s something we must aspire to.



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