2020 has been a year unlike any other. Most of us were suddenly disconnected from what we had considered normal life. We had to learn how to cope with a completely new way of existing.
However, being distanced from one another often didn’t mean that we were apart. On the contrary, many of us were more connected to the rest of the world than ever before. Our smartphones and other devices kept us constantly available and informed on what was happening outside of our homes.
There is no doubt that this increasing connection to the world has been positive for staying in touch with our communities in a difficult time. While away from family and loved ones, the sound of a friendly voice or a nice text could easily turn a day around. Be that as it may, this increasing attachment to media also came with downsides. For instance, being surrounded by technology also meant that we were constantly overwhelmed with news. This overload of content can have a very negative impact. In effect, scientific studies have linked “doomscrolling“, or the overconsumption of negative news stories, to poor mental health.
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In this hyper-connected era, content isn’t only published by state-run media or huge conglomerates. The popularity of blogs, social media and podcasts means that everyone has the potential to be a journalist. As we learn how to cope in this new era, we take a look at why ethics in journalism matter more than ever before. Whether you are an individual or a business, there are many things that can learn from journalism’s code of conduct.
Traditional Ethics in Journalism
Traditionally, there have been two types of journalistic media. The difference between the two comes from their funding. Public media includes outlets funded by the state. In Ireland, this would be RTÉ or TG4. Secondly, privately owned media have also become more and more popular throughout the years. Think of Sky, or The Irish Independent.
Both types of media have promoted the premise that journalism exists to inform citizens. The principles that ethics in journalism rely on include:
- Honesty: journalists must be truthful, and never report information that they know to be false or present facts in a misleading way.
- Objectivity: journalists should avoid bias in their reporting. They should attempt to report all sides of a story.
- Impartiality: journalists should never be sponsored or promote a certain political view or product. They should avoid subjects in which they have a personal interest. If reporting on such a matter is unavoidable, they should disclose the conflict of interest.
- Accountability: journalists are accountable to their editors for the stories they write. They must exercise due care when dealing with vulnerable people, private citizens or whistle-blowers.
- Diligence: journalists should thoroughly research their topic and arrange facts in a compelling way.
Most countries and types of reporting (investigative, political, opinion…) share the same core values.
The Limits of These Principles
Time and research prove that journalism always reflects a certain form of reality – and therefore can’t possibly be reality itself. Even if a writer tries their best to put their bias aside, they will always be influenced by their lived experience. Journalism is therefore never completely objective.
Despite this, reporters have to try to be as neutral as they can, whether they are reporting in print or broadcast form. Pieces where the author shares their personal views can be published, but should not be labelled as news. This is why many news outlets have “reviews” or “opinion” sections.
The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that many news outlets refer to. The code promotes ideals such as the importance of truth, respect and independence of thought. Becoming familiar with their country’s code of journalistic conduct is a requirement for anyone intending to get professionally involved in this field.
Why Do Ethics in Journalism Matter To Me?
If you don’t work for a traditional news website or television channel, you might be wondering how ethics in journalism are relevant to you.
When you think of a journalist, you might be picturing a reporter writing for a newspaper or speaking on the radio. The truth is that nowadays, everyone has the potential to be a journalist. With the increasing popularity of social media, blogs and videos, everyone is a publisher. If you’ve ever written a Facebook post or a blog for your company, you are a publisher.
Print and broadcast media are still important, and often considered the most trustworthy as compared to newer forms of journalism. Contrary to popular belief, even young people are still attracted to these forms of media. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that digital media has never been as popular as it is nowadays. The use of internet media can help anyone easily connect to wide audiences.
You can spread messages and ideas and change your audience’s opinions through your own content. Furthermore, the internet allows you to reach people with a simple click of the finger. You can stay on top of trends and consumer needs nearly effortlessly. Publishing content is a fantastic way to promote what you believe in.
Of course, being constantly surrounded by news doesn’t only come with perks. Although producing and publishing content is a great way to make yourself known, convincing an audience isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Information and entertainment have never been so closely intertwined as they are today. While objectivity should ultimately be the goal of any form of journalism, studies have found that impartiality can be considered boring. This has led many media outlets to attempt to make their content more captivating. This new form of reporting is called “infotainment”. It can easily attract viewers, but is rarely treated with the same authority as traditional journalism. Unfortunately, the use of such a form of content can lead to a disregard of the basic ethical principles of reporting.
Because of this, an increasing distrust towards journalism has been setting in. Audiences are more critical than ever about the content they consume. It is also important to consider that the advent of the digital era led many consumers towards becoming users. You should always keep in mind that you are not offering your content to a passive audience. They can express their opinion on any topic for everyone in their social media circles to see. It is therefore very important to keep a good relationship of mutual trust with your userbase.
Pleasing a displeased audience
This increasing distrust of the media is especially due to the rise of fake news. Even though propagation of false information is not a first in our history, this term has been gaining in popularity throughout the last few years. Fake news is not an invention of the 21st century. However, the internet makes it extremely easy to spread it on a wide level.
Since information can circulate extremely fast, the publication of time-relevant content has become a race. Everyone wants to be the first to post the latest breaking news. For journalists, this can often lead to accidentally spreading misinformation. Additionally, people can end up feeling overwhelmed with information in this constant news cycle.
As a consequence, many people have become suspicious of the information they consume. It has also become very easy to isolate oneself in a particular political position or social circle. People only trust content that doesn’t challenge them and refuse to acknowledge any outside content. If the headline of an article dissatisfies someone, there is a good chance that they will never follow up to read the full article.
Such a context can be difficult for someone wanting to make their content known to new audiences. Gaining trust as a journalistic voice is an increasingly complicated business.
Becoming a Trusted Content Publisher in 2021
There is no denying that this current climate is difficult to deal with. However, you can use it to your advantage.
Your audience or clients right now are bombarded with increasingly high levels of information. It is often hard for them to know what is real or fake anymore. Consequently, the best way to set yourself apart from your competitors is to establish yourself as a trustworthy source. Learn all you can about the traditional values of journalists and turn them into a code to abide by. Don’t only say that you are concerned with ethics in journalism. If you want to build a loyal audience, you need to show it through your content.
Currently, it is tempting to aim for speed above everything else. Be different from other loud voices in your field by valuing quality over quantity. Depending on your business, you may produce blog posts, videos or interact with an audience on social media. No matter what your content is about, always back up your claims.
Some tips on the road to transparency
Be picky about your sources. Accidentally spreading fake news can happen, but do everything you can to make it a rarity. If you do end up passing on misinformation, make sure to correct your claims and apologize as quickly as possible. Even if you’re not well versed in the matter, it’s never too late to learn some basic media law. Producing good content is already hard enough without lawsuit issues. You should do everything you can to stay away from this type of legal controversy. You should only use images that are free to use. There are many websites, such as Unsplash or Pexels, for content creators to find free stockphotos. For example, the visuals in this very blog post were created with the graphic design platform Canva. Using your own original material is also a safe option that will make your content look unique.
Additionally, only use photos of children and vulnerable people if you have written permission from parents or a guardian. If you’re unsure about showing someone’s face, blurring them is a safe option. You should also let your audience know if your image has been edited in any way.
This doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to publish subjective content. On the contrary, the use of a tone that isn’t “news-like” may help your audience sympathize with you. However, make sure that you are being clear whenever you state an opinion. In other words, don’t present your own personal beliefs as fact. If you are being sponsored by a company, you should explicitly state that your post is an advertisement. Similarly, be honest if you think that your own personal interests may influence the way you are reporting on an issue.
Finding the right content for your audience
As soon as you establish yourself as a journalistic voice, you should have an idea in mind of the type of people you want to attract. Building a user persona is a helpful tool to get into your audience’s minds and think about their needs.
You should be careful about the topics you choose to discuss. In other words, do not mindlessly capitalize on tragedies or vulnerable people. Depending on what you choose to talk about, you may come into contact with sensitive themes. You are allowed to address controversial topics, but make sure that you are thoroughly informed on the subject. This shouldn’t be a problem if the topic is relevant to your field of expertise. Similarly, it is acceptable for a source to remain anonymous if you believe that revealing their identity would put them in danger. Use the power you have to protect your audience, not attack them.
If you keep all of those things in mind, you will undoubtedly set yourself apart from your competitors.
What to do next
At this stage, you hopefully have a firm grasp of why ethics in journalism are important nowadays. Even if you don’t write for traditional media, all the content you publish is subject to scrutiny. At the same time, good online content can help you build a better image and reach people easily. For that reason, 2021 is a great year to give yourself every chance to succeed. Educating yourself on media law and ethics in publishing is one of the smartest moves you can make for yourself and your business this year.
If you want to get an in-depth walkthrough of ethics in journalism, the PR Training Academy is launching a new course on Ethics in Journalism and Media. Our courses are divided in small sections and built to be interactive. This course is curated by industry experts who are here to help you make the best out of your business. You can learn more about the Academy and its story here.
Other resources that you can use include:
- Our very own ethics course
- The Journalist’s Toolbox
- Death to the Stock Photo
- PR Newswire for Journalists
With all these tools at hand, content creating will be a breeze. Happy publishing, and stay ethical!