In this post I’m exploring the findings of Shakuntala Rao and Seow Ting Lee in an article ‘Globalizing Media Ethics? An Assessment of Universal Ethics Among International Political Journalists’ (Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 2/3, 2005)
In this study, the authors interviewed international political journalists in the Middle East and Asia, so I’m obviously focusing on excerpts and Rao and Lee’s conclusions about the latter.
I’m generally repelled by any attempts to universalise ethics, including within journalism. From the article:
‘…our claim in this article is that one cannot simply presuppose the existence and acceptability of universal moral truths or of moral imperatives among all journalists across diverse cultures.’
Though we may call ourselves ‘journalists’, the word has a wide range of meanings across a different world. Is a North Korean propaganda writer for the state newspaper a journalist? Is a military radio show reporter for the IDF, themselves a member of the army, a journalist? Is someone writing a local community newsletter in Venezuela? Considering the debate over who is a journalist, how can we begin to consider a universal code for a profession we can’t universally define?
Ethical coverage of events overseas
I want to diverge slightly from the main focus of this post, to address a view expressed by one of the journalists interviewed:
‘We are expected to feel exceptional pain when one American dies. The journalists around the world are supposed to sit and cry about the Americans in the World Trade Centers. For Palestinians, Afghanis, Iraqis, Qataris, Egyptians, there is no one to cry and especially not any one in the American media.’
This relates to a eternal debate within journalism: whether those in the West give much greater attention and credence to death and suffering of Westerners than non-Westerners. Rather than writing about celebrity or less important news (the phrase itself being a value judgement), should be focusing on the plight of those across the world?
Arguably, perhaps. But the interviewee here is making an assumption about what he, and his colleagues are ‘expected to feel’. This is perhaps a dissenting opinion I’ll express, but I don’t expect journalists in the Middle East or Asia to feel that way about Americans. I would expect them to feel that way about their fellow citizens, just as I would expect Americans to. It comes down to a question of relevance. If development journalism is to promote a feeling of national belonging, or at least have a positive impact on a country, then I would perfectly expect them to focus on that nation. But does that mean we should not expect the same of Western media? Why should every media organisation not focus on those it sees as most relevant? It is, surely, only because of the global reach and power of Western media that this question of priorities is an issue: it is debatable, of course, whether this greater reach gives them a greater responsibilty.
A universal code of journalism ethics
If there were to be a universal code of ethics for journalism, an important question arises as to who could compile it. One interviewee:
‘…is it going to be American professors writing about Plato and Aristotle who will tell us what the universal principles are?’
Journalism in the Middle East, whatever the origin of the profession itself, will inevitably be different than that within the West. Two particular extracts from journalists in the region caught my eye.
S.Q.H (editor, Gulf News) ‘If the code includes “tell the truth” and if we are to tell the truth, we will put to death for following such a code. They will find something in the sharia laws to justify my hanging.’
Saleh El-Saybehmi (political columnist, Khaleej Times) ‘A discussion of media ethics is useless here [Middle East] where very bit of news is tightly controlled. The mere discussion of ethics implies the existence of some degree of freedom to make choices. We don’t have that.”
As I mentioned earlier, we can’t expect journalists around the world to have a uniform underlying moral code given the differences in the societies they work in. Even if development journalism is participatory, there is no reason why truth telling would be possible or even desirable in every society. Rao and Lee conclude:
‘Although the journalists valued truth telling as a basic ethical principle, they were willing to weight truth against competing principles.’
Holding together a community or even a nation could be a greater priority than truth telling or neutrality – as could a religion:
Monish Rajah: ‘The Western notion of objectivity really does not work here [in the Middle East]. When it comes to religious issues, which are sometimes synonymous with regional issues, there is a tacit understanding that the Islamic perspective is the one that the readers want to hear. This does not mean that a different religious perspective is not to be tolerated but rather one’s own perspective needs to be emphasied.’
Such a perspective would rarely be expressed in the West, but in developing countries does not seem out of place.
It seems strange to refer to the work of the media industry in the Middle East as ‘development journalism’, but considering its role within its ever-changing societies, there is no doubt that it can fit into this category, if we want it to. But even we call it, we cannot expect some underlying uniformity to a profession that is now changing faster than ever. Indeed, the sheer category of ‘development journalism’ arguably has a tendency to label non-Western journalism as having certain characteristics.
So, if Middle East journalism doesn’t pertain to a Western code of media ethics, but nor does it fit neatly into development journalism, what is it? Is it even necessary to label it?