Maintaining high ethical standards and high quality journalism is therefore ever more of a challenge, but it is as essential as ever that news organisations embrace this. “For journalism to stay relevant in the future, ethics has to be at the centre,” said Amadou Mahta Ba, CEO of the African Media Initiative.
Added Larry Kilman, Deputy CEO of WAN-IFRA, “The expectation of credibility is part of the DNA of traditional media.”
High ethical standards need to run through the entire news organisation, not just the journalists on the ground. “If you have corrupt relations at a management level, the whole media structure becomes corroded,” said White, pointing to the phone-hacking scandal in the UK which led to the closure of The News of the World and prompted the Leveson Inquiry. The problem here, he stressed, wasn’t just unethical practices by individual reporters, but was rooted in the behaviour of those at the top.
Mahta Ba echoed the idea that we need “ethics at the highest echelons of media,” pointing out that journalists usually have a code of ethics and conduct, but CEOs don’t have any kind of ethical framework through which they work. “Fish start rotting from the head,” he added.
Another key requirement for maintaining high standards and credibility is that the wall between editorial and business mustn’t be taken down, panelists stressed. The news industry’s unusual position, providing a public service while surviving as a business, was not a problem when advertising income was so significant that it was possible for the editorial and commercial sides of the operation to work completely independently from each other. However, as financial difficulties increase, it is easy for the newsroom to come under pressure.
“I think there is a trend to move towards the more profit-making type of news,” said Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and this is worrying. There are steps that newsrooms can take to resist this, he said, citing Salvadorean newspapers’ decision to keep violent photos off their front pages as an example.
White also warned against the use of “advertorials” – part of the “native advertising” trend that has proven so successful for organisations like Buzzfeed – which he believes can be extremely damaging to the credibility of a news outlet.