'We teach ethics but can’t protect against unethical newsrooms'

Angela Phillips is a senior journalism lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London

When four journalism educators lined up in front of Lord Justice Leveson to discuss the state of ethics teaching on journalism courses there was one thing we all agreed upon: we teach ethical journalism but we cannot protect our students against the demands of unethical news organisations.

Of course that sounds like special pleading but if you doubt me here is an unsolicited communication from one of my students: “I have spent this week reporting for **** and it has strained to breaking point every moral fibre I thought I had.

“They decide what a story is, then get me to find the facts that fit their narrative. I do not want to do this for a long time, but it is too good an opportunity to turn down at the moment (not least financially).

“They are getting me in again next week, however they have said it will be on a week-to-week basis from there on so I am doubtful of anything more permanent.”

It chimes rather well with a comment made by a journalist I interviewed ten years ago. This is how his career began on a middle market tabloid: “It was a story to do with asylum seekers. The job basically involved going through court reports and local newspapers and stuff like that and amassing crimes.

“It started off by saying that only rapes and murders were good enough and by the end of the week it covered things like parking tickets because there weren’t enough.

“I thought that the whole exercise was false and was very unhappy about it... I talked to a senior reporter. He said that I would lose my job if I raised it with anybody more senior than him.”

He was by then working for another national newspaper but would only speak to me if I didn’t use his name. He said he was afraid of the repercussions if he spoke publicly but I suspect he was ashamed of what he had done.

Teaching ethics is mainly about reminding young people of their own sense of morality and encouraging them to listen to those feelings of unease.

Having qualms is a good thing, I tell them. If something feels wrong then it probably is wrong, so stop, take stock and ask yourself if the outcome of what you are about to do really justifies the means?

We are now recruiting at Goldsmiths for a BA Journalism starting next year, to be run in conjunction with the department of computing.

Our students will be learning the computing skills that every news organisations is desperate for – in addition to traditional reporting.

We will be teaching techniques of researching online that most senior journalists and editors don’t understand, so it is more important than ever to ensure that our students are themselves able to question what they are doing.

News editors also have a duty to provide young reporters with ethical guidance.

In many years of teaching at Goldsmiths, I have yet to find a single student who wants to be a journalist in order to bully vulnerable people and hold them up to public ridicule.

We need to ask ourselves how morally engaged young people end up hacking   phones for no greater purpose than to announce a pregnancy a few weeks before it will become public knowledge.

We can teach ethics in a university but we have no control over what happens in a cut-throat tabloid news room.

 

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