"What is the future of ethical journalism in an age when it appears that the public around the world are falling out with facts, humanity and accountable truth-telling?"
The question is posed in a new report published yesterday (11 January) by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), in which a group of journalists, authors and academics take steps towards answering it by outlining some of the ethical challenges journalists are facing going forward, and advice for how to address them.
Ethics in the News looks at media coverage of the EU referendum in the UK, the US election and its aftermath, and the role of fake news and misinformation in the so-called 'post-truth' era.
It also covers the ethical aspects of migration reporting, in particular the use of imagery, ground rules for ethically handling sources, the global rise of hate speech and the crackdown on freedom of expression in Turkey.
Aidan White, director of the EJN, told Journalism.co.uk the aim of the report is to help journalists deal with the growing concern around fake news and questionable information that emerged throughout 2016.
"We felt there was a sense of panic beginning to set in, because suddenly the fundamental principles of journalism – that's truth-telling, humanity, inclusivity, accountability – appear to be in question," he said.
"The reality is that this is not an issue over which media and journalists should be panicking, actually it provides us with a very good opportunity to reinforce and reinstate the primacy of these principles and of responsible communications in the way journalists do their work."
Established in 2013, EJN is an independent international network of media professionals created to advance education, particularly education in ethics and respect for human rights.
It is supported by over 60 international organisations including press councils, journalist associations, media development groups and members of the freedom of expression community.
The role of journalists in the post-truth era
In the chapter titled 'Trumped – How US media played the wrong hand on right-wing success', Bill Orme, an author and editor who currently works with the Global Forum for Media Development, discussed news coverage of the election before and after the results of the vote and the ethical challenges for journalists.
He explained how coverage of "openly bigoted pro-Trump groups presented an ethical dilemma for news organisations" – their views could no longer be dismissed once they were supported and "openly championed" by the presidential candidate, but at the same time, reporting on them would "only give them the publicity they craved and an undeserved political legitimacy".
But now "news organisations are taking this far-right political-media ecosystem seriously", he added, and while they may have been reluctant to cover it during the campaign to avoid portraying them as more influential than they were, this seems to be no longer the case.
Orme said journalists now have a responsibility to "track and expose groups and 'news sites' that promote and exacerbate prejudice and race-based grievances while professing allegiance to the next president, while also forcing Trump and his advisors to state on the record whether they accept such support".
Making coverage of the EU fairer and more accurate
Gareth Harding, a Brussels-based journalist and media trainer, looked at UK coverage of the EU referendum. In the report's 'Media lies and Brexit –A double hammer-blow to Europe and ethical journalism' chapter, he argued that the ability of some UK media outlets to "get away with publishing untruths and half-truths about the EU" was also made possible by the lack of knowledge and information the public, as well as some journalists, had about the EU.
To ensure coverage of the EU is fairer and more accurate in the future, he said journalists should understand how it works, avoid laziness in their reporting ("if one MEP opines about an issue, that does not mean it is the position of the European Parliament"), avoid using language that could blur the lines between opinion and commentary pieces and "don’t lie or feel the need to repeat the lies of lying politicians".
"A journalist’s job is to hold power to account, not flatter those who wield it. It is to question untruths rather than parade them as facts. And it is to report as honestly as humanly possible rather than indulge in political grandstanding or public relations."
People still want facts, but the media has to work on message delivery
In the report, White pointed out the idea of 'post-truth', together with the speed at which misinformation spreads, is challenging "a fundamental cornerstone of ethical journalism – that facts matter for democracy and that people want to be well-informed when called upon to make potentially life-changing decisions".
In a chapter dedicated to the role of Facebook and technology companies in shaping up news and public discourse, he argued that people still want facts, but they are "sceptical about how offline and online media are delivering their messages".
"In times of crisis and uncertainty, they turn to voices that echo their concerns and fears, even if they are strident and divisive."
At an event organised by the European Parliament in November, journalists and politicians reflected on why most news outlets failed to foresee a Trump victory and discussed the effect of echo chambers on social platforms, which affected not just the audience but also the media itself.
"Yes, the media has egg on its face and we were wrong. I think the culture wars played a stronger factor than we realised, and the media had less access to some of the culture war perspectives because of those damned bubbles," said Lance Gould, editor for special projects at the Huffington Post in the US, speaking at the event.
White underlined the challenge going forward will be to "reinvigorate the public purpose of journalism and to assist media to reconnect with citizens more effectively", and produce reporting that reaches the audience by listening to what people are talking about and putting it into context.
"I think one of the things that this report confirms is that ethical journalism remains absolutely at the heart of building open and transparent democracies and that is clear everywhere we look, whether it's Pakistan, Turkey, Europe or North America," White told Journalism.co.uk.
"Journalists are striving to maintain ethical principles and their professionalism, and that gives us a great cause for optimism, to see the challenges of the present time not as a moment of crisis for journalism but actually as a moment in which we should be declaring loud and clear that if democracies want to prosper, they need journalism, they need good quality, independent media."