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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