CIMA Launches Report on Media Owners, Journalism Ethics

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The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has released its report on the study of the ethics of news media owners and executives. The report was submitted by Eugene L. Meyer, an award-winning Washington, DC-based freelance journalist.

Marguerite H. Sullivan, Senior Director CIMA

CIMA commissioned Meyer to write the report which examined the inherent conflict of interest many media owners face in placing responsibility for content above their commercial interests and how this affects the practice of journalism in countries where independent news media already face challenges.

The report took a regional look at the challenge posed by the inherent conflict of interest of media ownership and draws its input from the recent focus in global discussions of media ethics which has been on establishing and raising standards for rank-and-file journalists, including reporters and lower or mid-level editors. But there is a nascent effort to refocus a critical lens on the proprietors of media.

The report is also a harvest of quotation from experts on the media from around the world and included other reports that had been carried previously on media ownerships and the general issue of ethics in the media.

According to the report, the traditional organizations concerning themselves with ethics in journalism have been noticeably silent, when it comes to codes of ethics for media owners. The focus on media owners is not entirely a new phenomenon in the twenty-first century.

The report noted that in the United States, reformers in the early decades of the twentieth century aimed their criticism at the “press lords” who owned large newspapers and chains. These critics emerged from the progressive era and, later, from the Great Depression-spawned social movements of the 1930s.

Taking a look at the recent past, the report said more recent criticism has focused on ownership concentration and the perceived evils of media monopolies stifling competition. ”In 2002, prominent journalists called for media boards of directors to include working journalists to balance corporate responsibility with social responsibility in coverage. The idea created some buzz among media theorists but went nowhere. The report said.

A worrisome trend in the report is that in countries where news media are considered less free, the conflict is even more troublesome. While codes in these countries call for media owners to place responsibility for content above their commercial interests, the reality is that when promulgated by governments they can threaten rather than enhance freedom of the press.

Thus some view the very notion of codes of ethics for media owners as potentially dangerous as well as ineffective. Nonetheless, media funders and implementers are urged to assist groups that seek to hold media owners accountable for the sins of omission and commission that occur in the publications, broadcast networks, and other media they own and control.

The report also looked at what transpired in the spring of 2012, when a new media support group, the Ethical Journalism Network, led by Aidan White, was formed in Paris. Replaying an old refrain, it gave equal prominence to the need for ethical practice in the boardroom as well as the newsroom.

The group came together as a commission in Great Britain chaired by Lord Justice Brain Leveson to continue its probe of the illegal-hacking scandal that was enshrouding reporters, editors, police, and politician-all players, some arrested, others just implicated- in the swelling controversy that had earlier led to the closing of the News of the World tabloid. The tabloid was revealed to have hacked into the mobile phone voicemail messages of politicians and celebrities, as well as private citizens.

There seemed to be enough unethical behavior to go around, but the public focus this time was heavily on the top of the corporate chain, and on media mogul Rupert Murdoch. “The News International case in the United Kingdom has provided much evidence to support the view that media monopolies are dangerous to democracy,” White said.

Quoting White, the report said: “if media owners cannot be held to account in free societies, little or no hope is held for such standards to exist in any meaningful way elsewhere”. He believes that, introducing the notion of “good governance” underscores the point that ethical journalism depends absolutely on the presence ethical management, which fosters essentially good moral conduct.

“If there is one lesson we can learn from events in London around the Murdoch case and subsequent Leveson inquiry,” he said, “it is the direct link between the culture of the boardroom and confidence in and quality of the newsroom.”

There is a powerful argument on the part of the victims of journalistic malpractice that, because the media failed to regulate themselves, the law is needed to bring them into line. “This is very tricky for those of us in journalism to deal with”.

“Most focus has been on the bottom of the media pyramid, to improve the skills and competence o journalists, and that’s entirely valid. The problem is we haven’t focused at all on the top of the pyramid. Yet it’s the top that determines the moral character of the organization. Unless you have a clear message coming from the top- that we are going to be honest, open, ethical, and accountable to the public we serve- it’s not going to happen.”

“Inside that media pyramid the real problem in the end is- though there were instances of unethical conduct by (working) journalists- that the corporate culture of the company created an internal way of working which was antagonistic to the values of ethical conduct,” White said. “It didn’t begin at the bottom of that media pyramid, it began at the top.”

Taking the Asian perspective, the report said: “The non-western world is not exempted when discussing the ethics of media owners; in fact the conversation becomes more problematic and ironic. In 2010, for instance, a week-long conference on media ethics and law was held at Tsinghua University in Beijing. All the right notes were struck, with outsiders espousing the usual hallmarks of a free press.”

“One may wonder, however, to what extent the message was heard beyond the conference rooms in a country whose authoritarian government tightly controls the news. According to a recent report, Chinese state-owned or controlled media carefully kept news of a major change in top government leadership from the public.

“The Chinese government in October 2012 blocked the New York Times’ website after the paper reported on the wealth of the prime minister’s family. Moreover, it was disclosed in early 2013 that Chinese hackers had penetrated the computers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg News and the Wall street Journal.”

Other non Western countries in the report are Bulgaria, India and Egypt. In Bulgaria, lack of transparency in media ownership is such that business and political groups are said to control top news organizations, which they bend to their own interests. Despite laws evidently designed to protect press freedoms, the South East Europe Media Organization said in a report released in April 2012,”Respecting the business interests of media owners and silencing information that may be interpreted as harmful is widely accepted by most reporters as a way of doing journalism.”

In India, unlike many western countries, print newspapers have seen explosive growth in number and circulation over the past two decades. Television choices have also exploded. Expansion of media created hunger for ethical answers but commercially appealing products, such as, news of celebrities, fashion, Bollywood, have trumped more serious content, a reflection of media owners’ propensity for profit over substance.

In Egypt, some media owners find the whole notion of ethics antithetical. “The owners are not with the idea,” said Abeer Saady, an Egyptian journalist actively pressing for codes. “We are talking with them. We are trying to convince them. I don’t know successful we can be.” That government also owns or controls most of the Egyptian media makes such codes even more problematic, said Saady.

The report picked a few countries in sub-Sahara African countries to illustrate the trend saying “In some sub-Sahara African countries, there are codes for media owners. Tanzania has separate codes for media owners and publishers, media managers and editors, broadcast journalists and photojournalists. These are not imposed by government but are self-enforcing codes- which are not legally binding- under the Media Council of Tanzania.”

The report also referred to Botswana where in 2012, the press council of Botswana started working towards a code of ethics that would govern the conduct and practice of all media practitioners, including owners and publishers.

It explained that there are however certain self-imposed restrictions that would run counter to journalistic standards in Western democracies, such as refraining from publishing material that is intended or is likely to cause hostility or hatred to a sweeping variety of groups in society.

In West African countries, the report said there are “codes are directed mostly at journalist and production practice rather than ownership”, according to Audrey Gadzekpo, senior lecturer in the school of Communications studies at the University of Ghana. However, she added, the National Media Commission in Ghana and the Media Foundation in West Africa “have had meetings with media owners in efforts to engage them on a number of issues aimed at improving content.”

The report highlighted the role of the African Media Initiative (AMI) which instituted an industry-led process to place leadership and ethics at the heart of African media by creating a Leadership and Guiding Principles for African Media Owners and Operators (LGP).

The report quoted RoukayaKasennaly, AMI’s director of programs and knowledge management as  saying; “The LGP is seen by many media stakeholders as an excellent tool that can bring together governments and media practitioners”, said “In Rwanda, for instance, the Media High Council has requested that an engagement be started as soon as possible so that the code can be adopted by local media. In Malawi, the newly formed media owners association has already made a request for AMI to facilitate the introduction and adoption of the code. A similar request has been received from Ethiopia.

“When AMI started on this, we made it clear that there is no future for media… if there is no improvement leadership”, said AmadouMahtar Ba, AMI’s executive director. “We always say, ‘The fish rots from the head’.

The report agreed that although conditions vary from country to country, many media owners across the continent underpay their journalists and then turn a blind eye when reporters supplement their income with cash payments from sources.

“Owners also become tools of interest groups, taking payments from government officials, businesses, or religious groups in exchange for editorial support for certain positions. Sometimes they will later take the opposite editorial position if a higher bidder comes around.”

“As media owners have failed to meet high ethical standards, a new corporate paradigm seems to be emerging. It is the so-called ‘double bottom line’, a term used to describe businesses that accept a responsibility to society as well as to stockholders.

The bottom line ethic did not originate with the media. “In the past few years, as the lines between grant-making and investing have begun to blur, the idea of measuring social return concurrent with traditional financial accounting has caught on among investors, funders and entrepreneurs,” according to a 2004 Rockefeller Foundation study.

“If I were to revisit this issue, my first priority would be seeing what the digital age has done to change ethical standards and behavior”, said Philip Meyer, whose study for the ASNE on the ethics of print newspaper owners was seminal. “When newspapers were the main journalism outlet and natural monopolies, they pretty well defined the journalism universe. It is more important now as media change, and there are more ways of behaving immorally and more questions- should there be a code of ethics for bloggers, for example?

“Owners’ influence, benign or otherwise, is a global issue. For many reporters and editors, it is just a fact of life, a normal part of doing the business of journalism”, says Sherry Ricchiardi, an Indiana University journalism professor who has done ethics training in several countries.

The report concluded: “it is no surprise then that Aidan White and people like him are increasingly pressing for a free press, responsible ownership, and ethical and media houses. “The need for ethical journalism, good governance and media self-regulation pose an enormous and urgent challenge for journalists, editors and owners… it is not only journalists who must show moral courage, but media owners and executive must also demonstrate deep commitment to the core values of journalism.

 “Unless media are led by people of principle, there is little chance that journalists will deliver the quality of information that communities need and democracies require.”

Click here to read the full report.