Week 9: Moral minefields – Legal and ethical dilemmas

Politics is an oft-overlooked dimension whenever moral and legal issues arise in the course of a journalist’s work. As Professor of Journalism Mark Pearson puts it in chapter 13 of Journalism: Theory in Practice, media law “is subject to the vagaries of its players and the inequities of society” and that “power, politics, and money also wield substantial influence and often become the negotiating chips in a media law matter”.

Nowhere is this more apparent in Singapore than in defamation cases brought about by the government against foreign media and their representatives operating in Singapore.

In February this year, the International Herald Tribune published a column by Philip Bowring described Singapore’s politics as “dynastic”. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong promptly took legal action the New York Times Company, publisher of the IHT, claiming that the opinion piece was defamatory as it implied that the government practice nepotism. The NYT Company did not bother to contest the charges, opting to settle immediately.

In a similar case in 2002, Singaporean activist Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff of the radical Muslim website Fateha.com (no longer active) was threatened with criminal defamation for his criticism of the government’s appointment of Ho Ching as the chairperson of Temasek Holdings, a state-run investment group, as senior members of the ruling party felt that it implied the government practised nepotism and cronyism. (Ho is married to Lee Hsien Loong, then deputy prime minister of Singapore. Lee is also the son of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.)

Dr Cherian George, a Professor of Journalism at the Nanyang Technological University, notes that Singapore’s leaders have “consistently sued for defamation anyone who alleges that anyone in the Lee family has achieved high rank through anything other than merit”. Although left unstated, there is a clear implication that the Singapore government uses defamation legislation more for policy purposes. Stuart D Karle, a former general counsel of The Wall Street Journal, states that there is “often a presumption that there’s a hidden message” about nepotism or corruption in news coverage, and that if faced with a libel case news organisations face “a near-certainty of losing”.

The lesson here is that beyond looking at the laws of the jurisdictions in which your news piece will be published or broadcast, it is also important to understand the local socio-political culture and context of those nations. While a critical piece on the government might go by without problems in a western liberal democracy like the United States or the United Kingdom, there are often repercussions to be faced in other nations, sometimes even beyond legal sanction and into the threat of bodily harm.

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Week 8: In the Public Interest – Public v Private

In the distant past, newspapers were once the sole source of news and entertainment. However, in today’s age, the radio, television, mobile devices and, especially, the Internet brings a wide array of entertainment options to the masses. Television dramas, radio music stations and online games all compete with news media organisations for the attention of audiences. As Ian Richards writes in chapter 12 of Journalism Theory in Practice, news organisations are “not so much competing in a news market, as is often claimed, but in a market for public attention”. To put it another way, it is about the public interest versus the public’s interest, this time with a commercial spin put on it.

The problem, as always, is ethics. It is a fiercely contested debate which the advocates of the public interest and the defenders of the right of citizens to private lives have been fighting ever since the birth of the news publishing industry, and has only further intensified with the advent of the radio, television and the Internet. The ethics at the core of this debate can be reduced to a seeming innocuous question: Would a greater societal good be achieved in exchange for the infringement of a single person’s personal right and, if so, would we be justified doing so?

The simplicity of the question hides the complexity of issues that lie beneath its surface:

Students of philosophy would instinctively frame this as a debate between consequentialism – the view that the ends justifies the means – and deontology – the view that actions can never be justified no matter the outcome. And this conflict is only over whether any invasion of privacy can be justified or not! Throw in the fact that there are commercial and corporate pressures on journalists to gain a greater audience share – and hence greater advertising revenues – and you have yet another ethical dilemma on your hands: Should ethics and journalism values give way to profits?

These are questions which leading journalists, publishers and journalism academics still have no clear answer to.

What is clear, however, is that there exists a general theme, perhaps even a trend, in which business decisions and corporate pressures affect journalism, sometimes in very subtle and insidious ways. For example, we’ve seen how time pressures resulting from cost-cutting measures can erode accuracy and diversity in news content. We’ve also seen how the concentration of media ownership results in a limited, mostly western liberal-democractic, perspective in the news.

Much like the news publishing industry, journalism itself is struggling to find a new equilibrium between traditional journalistic values and commercial pressures and interests, which a generation of journalists have been shielded from by media owners who were not interested in profits. What journalism will look like at the end of that struggle is still up in the air, but whatever it is, it’s certain that there will always be a demand for journalism.

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Week 7: Truth & objectivity – post-modern casualties or victims of PR piracy?

In journalism studies, we’ve been taught how the increasing commercialisation of news output leads to the erosion of journalism standards. In order to maximise profits, media organisations demand increased output from journalists across multiple news media platforms and at the same time cut costs by reducing journalist staff numbers. Due to the increased workload and pressure to meet deadlines, journalists no longer have time to hit the ground to gather news, or even to spend precious time making inquiries as part of the fact-checking process. Journalists have instead come to rely on public relations agencies and news wire services for both news gathering and fact checking.

While it has been made abundantly clear to journalism students that the ever-increasing reliance on public relations and news wires can and will lead to the cherished journalistic values of accuracy and objectivity being compromised, the subtler effect on the diversity of news content has often only been alluded to and rarely ever explicitly discussed. Nick Davies’s 2008 book Flat Earth News exposes this with much-needed clarity.

Using several content analysis studies on British newspapers, Davies shows that news organisations there depend heavily on wire agencies, such as Associated Press and the domestic Press Association, to cope with reduced manpower in the newsroom, and often take reports generated by the agencies as truthful and accurate, not bothering to do their own verification. The problem, Davies argues, is that such wire agencies often run on the wire which are themselves picked up from the major newspapers. This leads to a vicious cycle much akin to the blind leading the blind, except that in this cause its a form of selective blindness – important news that could affect public policy often gets left out simply because no one is there to find out about it.

To make matters worse, these wire agencies are also understaffed, and as a result tend to pick up a significant amount of news from public relations agencies. Newspapers then pick up these wire reports as fact and reuse them, often adding on additional material rewritten from the original news release sent by the same PR agency.

This is worrying for a number of reasons. Firstly, diversity of news content is vastly reduced with the cannibalistic relationship between newspapers and wire agencies – both are feeding off each other’s output, each thinking that they have comprehensively covered happenings in the nation and not bothering to do their own investigating on the ground. Second, is that news agenda is beginning to be dictated by PR agencies. This is not bad by itself, as they can and do bring issues to light that would not otherwise get any attention. What’s bad is that newspapers and wire agencies do not bother to verify the facts behind copies that PR agencies send out. Last of all, this unhealthy relationship between journalists, wire agencies, public relations agencies and commercial interests tend to divorce the news from what the public really wants to hear and be informed about.

Unfortunately, this is a clear and present problem with no real solution in sight. To dismantle this relationship would mean having to dismantle the tenets of the capitalist economy itself, a nigh impossible task. As Davies points out, we will simply have to be aware that has already happened, and be more wary of what we see in the media.

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Week 6: Online – A “new” journalism, content and the rule of the search engine

The emergence of the Internet has been a boon for news audiences. They can now view text, images, audio recordings and videos across a variety of devices and at their own convenience and time; no longer do news audiences need a physical newspaper in their hands or have their attention glued to the television, nor do they need to wait for the twelve o’clock news bulletin to find out what’s happening in the world around them. Audiences can now even opt to personalise their news, receiving only news items that interest them via selective syndication technologies such as RSS.

With all those attributes, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Internet competes heavily with traditional print and broadcast journalism and, indeed, has become the biggest threat to their survival in the modern age.

Journalists, news publishers and executives of news media organisations, too, are not blind to the threat that the Internet poses. For almost two decades now, they have been asking themselves: Should journalists simply adopt the Internet as a new news-gathering and publishing tool, or should the journalism profession adapt to the rapidly-changing post-Internet world of communications? At the core of that debate is a battle between two opposing theories of sociology: social constructivism, whose proponents believe that technology is created to meet the needs of society, and technological determinism, whose adherents believe that technology is a unstoppable force that causes social and cultural change.

Although the contradiction between the two approaches to technology’s impact on communication seem to be an intractable one, Lucas Graves has proposed a middle ground that links the two together. In his 2007 paper on The Affordance of Blogging: A Case Study in Culture and Technological Effects, Graves points out that technological determinism and social constructivism can often both be simultaneously applied to technology and society. Grave shows that although new technology can cause social change, it is society that at the same time brings out the full potential of said technology. In essence, advances in society and culture – and implicitly in communication and journalism – is driven by both technology and society.

In practice, this means at the same time that journalists adopt and embrace the Internet as a method for news-gathering and a new publishing tool, the practice of journalism must also adapt to a world whose communication practices have been changed by the Internet. While the former has seen rapid adoption, with news media organisations now publishing news online in text, audio and video and their journalists gathering news through blogs, forums and social networking sites, the news publishing industry has been slow to adapt the changes brought about by the Internet. This is why many newspapers and news broadcast networks are now struggling to retain their audiences (for a more in-depth discussion, view week 4’s blog post).

Even if technology changes journalism, however, the essence of journalism still remains the same. It is telling that in Multimedia Newsgathering (chapter six of Journalism Theory in Practice), the authors still heavily emphasise on traditional journalistic skills such as face-to-face interview techniques, painstaking research and meticulous fact-checking. As long as journalists and news media organisations are flexible enough to both adopt and adapt the Internet – or any other new technology that comes along – to their current practices and business processes, they will find that they will be in a position to prosper far into the foreseeable future.

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Week 5: Globalisation vs Localisation

In chapter 14 of Journalism Theory in Practice, titled “Journalism in the Global Village”, Dr Rhonda Breit makes the case that “media globalisation is threatening society’s two most important watchdogs – the judiciary and journalism”, and advocates that judiciaries should “internationalise their response” to pressure trans-national corporations to “introduce work practices and ethical guidelines that reflect high journalistic standards”.

Dr Breit attempts to bring together a number of loosely-linked threads to support her conclusion, of which the main points include:

  • The concentration of media ownership
  • The effect of commercial pressures on journalistic values
  • The Hollwoodisation of news and the move towards infotainment
  • The misuse of copyright legislation to serve commercial interests
  • The global reach of media corporations “threatening legal systems that regulate the media and balance basic human rights”

While no doubt well meaning, the ground that Dr Breit attempts to cover is far too broad and, more often than not, she ends up contradicting herself. For example, on page 222 Dr Breit writes that “when publishing material globally, the media must comply with the publication laws of each jurisdiction in which they publish”, but contradicts herself in the very next paragraph by arguing that domestic laws are being undermined by the global “footprint” of the modern media. If the media complies with the laws of each jurisdiction that they publish in, then how are they eroding said domestic laws?

Dr Breit also fails to discuss the underlying assumptions she has made in the course of her arguments. One of her assumptions is that there is a single, globally accepted view of what makes for high journalistic standards; in fact, Dr Breit’s assumes that the journalism should assume a “fourth estate” watchdog role, a view valid in western liberal democratic societies but perhaps not so applicable in Asian societies, where it has been argued that a form of “development journalism” (discussed in week 3’s blog post) is the more accepted and prevalent form. Therein lies yet another assumption, that the watchdog role is the “ideal” form of journalism; we’ve already seen from week 3’s readings that it is precisely that ideal of appearing independent and objective that has rendered much of what journalism produces irrelevant and confusing to the publics that they supposedly serve.

Furthermore, Dr Breit is perhaps naive in advocating for the judiciaries of multiple nations to work together to pressure trans-national corporations. History has shown that nations are more interested in defending their sovereign rights, one of which is the right to set their own laws and legal agendas; nations will never willingly subjugate themselves to or even give the appearance of  acquiescence to a foreign nation’s judiciary. It is hard to imagine, for example, that Australia or the United States might want to subject their own citizens to the comparatively harsh defamation laws of Singapore should they defame Singapore or Singaporean interests on Australian or USA soil!

Perhaps a more nuanced view is that while a few transnational corporations have achieved a global reach with their media properties, they only reflect the views, attitudes and values of a select few nations, like the United States and the United Kingdom. As these views, attitudes and values start to influence the way in which populations of other nations think and act, their national culture changes as well. And because the law is almost always a reflection of cultural values and norms, the law will have to eventually change along with the population as well. While admittedly still over-simplifying the issue, this view of how the globalisation of media eventually affects the independence of judiciaries around the world offers a far more nuanced reflection of how subtle (and sometimes insidious) media effects can be. Further research should no doubt be conducted along these lines.

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Week 4: Who will pay for journalism?

Plummeting subscription numbers, loss of advertising revenue as advertisers turn to digital advertising platforms and, finally, newspapers and magazines shutting down. Reading about all this doom and gloom, one might be led to believe that journalism is on its deathbed. However, the truth is that it is the news print publishing industry that is dying, not the trade and profession of journalism.

Today, enabled by wireless broadband internet access and always-connected mobile devices such as phones and laptops, there has been a shift in people’s news consumption habits from old mediums, such as print and television, to digital mediums, such as web pages and phone applications. Advertisers – whose first priority is to reach out to audiences – then follow their readers to these new platforms, abandoning print advertising for digital advertising.

To capture a piece of the digital advertising pie for themselves and, more importantly, to deal with increasingly declining print advertising revenues, many newspaper companies have tried to offer their news content in the digital sphere. However, the losses from print advertising far outpaces any revenue gains from digital media advertising. This results in a situation where newspaper and magazine publishing companies can no longer support their daily operations.

While some of these companies have tried to adapt to their shrinking operating budgets by cutting labour and capital costs, the truth is that no amount of cost-cutting measures will save them. The reason? Digital technology has disruptively changed the environment in which the newspaper and magazine publishing industry operates in, and permanently so. The news publishing industry has yet to come to terms with the fact that they will never again see the kinds of astronomical revenue and supernormal profits that enabled them to (over)expand into the mega-conglomerations that they are today. The struggle that newspaper and magazine companies are facing today is not really a struggle to survive, but instead a struggle to redefine themselves and find a new business model as well as new ways to operate in this changed environment.

What the newspaper and magazine companies should not forget, however, is that their core business is ultimately still journalism. As Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, said to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “I like the look and feel of newsprint as much as anyone. But our real business isn’t printing on dead trees. It’s giving our readers great journalism and great judgement.”

As long as newspapers and magazines can still draw readers with quality journalism and find a way to adapt to changes brought about by digital technology and media, advertisers will continue to advertise in print mediums – and bankroll journalism in the process.

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Week 3: Citizen Journalism/Journalism as a Public Conversation in the 21st Century

Or About the Disconnect Between Professional Journalism and Communities

The increasing preference for readers to get their news through the Internet rather than through newsprint has been cited as the key factor behind declining newspaper circulation figures and broadcast news audience numbers in Western democracies. However, this view emphasises an external threat to the survival of professional journalism and downplays the possibility that it is professional journalism that has grown irrelevant to the communities that it developed to serve in the first place.

In many ways, journalism has suffered because of its practitioners’ claims to professionalism and authority. As early as 1998, journalism professor Julianne Schultz recognized that in asserting the media’s independence and authority as a source of information using the notions of objectivity and professionalism, the media has alienated the public.

To put it in more down-to-earth terms, journalism academics Angelo Romano and Cratis Hippocrates argue that most news has “little direct relevance or use” to the average person. The news media often simply reports a claim and counter-claim in the name of objectivity and balanced reporting, making it difficult for the average person to make sense of the conflicting messages. While this style of reporting is suitable for one-off events, such as a natural disaster or a community charity event, it often leaves the average person frustrated and confused when significant social, economic or political issues are covered without the extensive background knowledge and context required to understand them.

It is no surprise then that people are starting to turn to the Internet, where professional “objectivity” is not so much of an issue, for their news fix. Those that write in blogs, forums and other forms of self-published media often inject their personal opinion into news copy and link to extensive resources and background material, helping the average person to interpret and make sense of messages put out by news makers and various interest groups.

To stem this problem, it might be instructive to observe the Asian experience with journalism. Known as development journalism, this form of journalism seeks to give the voice back to the community by ensuring that everyone in the community, not just the social, economic or political majority, gets a fair chance to share their information and opinions with the broader community. Development journalism seeks to position media organisation as a platform through which public debate and participation can be accelerated, rather than a platform which merely seeks to record public conversation.

Development journalism could well explain why newspaper circulations in Asian markets show no sign of decline, as well as provide a more in-depth explanation that goes to the roots of why readers are abandoning traditional news media in favour of Internet-based media.

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