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16 September 2011updated 05 Oct 2023 8:38am

The path to “ethical journalism“ starts here

It should be a source of shame that big online publishers are as a matter of course not linking to s

By Steven Baxter

It’s no surprise that punters trust journalists even less than before after the phonehacking scandal. But it’s not just tabloid hacks, whose reputation was as low as a snake’s belly to begin with, but broadsheet writers too, according to research from Nottingham University.

I take all such surveys with a grain of salt, but let’s suppose the numbers are entirely accurate: why might the profession as a whole be plummeting in our estimations? Is it solely because of the phonehacking, or other scandals such as the one that led to Johann Hari’s public apology this week? And is there anything we as journalists can do to repair the damage?

As I wrote some time ago, those of us who see ourselves as of a similar political alignment to Hari can’t let him off the hook because he’s “one of us”. But anything less than demanding that Hari be disembowelled live on Blue Peter leads to accusations that you’re somehow “defending” his offences against ethical and professional behaviour.

So to remove all doubt: I think Hari’s actions were wrong. I’d have sacked him. But I’m not a newspaper editor; I’m just another hack, a less successful one at that, so what do I know? I don’t agree with the Independent‘s decision, but I can understand why they’ve done it: Hari is seen as an asset, an attractor of readers and advertising revenue alike; and everyone deserves a second chance. Will the readers forgive him? The Independent must be banking that they will.

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What message does it send, some ask, to readers and journalists alike? That you can get away with crossing the line if you’re a bien-pensant liberal goodie, but you can’t if you’re a lower-status News of the World baddie? No, it’s not quite that. Let’s not forget just how unpleasant what happened at the News of the World was. Just this week, the mother of a victim of the 7/7 terror atrocities launched a legal action against the News of the World‘s publisher after she was told her son’s phone was targeted by the paper. Those allegations are so serious, the consequences so hurtful to families who have suffered so much.

That’s why readers turned against Britain’s most popular paper; that’s why it couldn’t carry on.

The sad truth is that sometimes journalists do make stuff up. They do it because they want to, because they’re told to, and because they don’t have to be told to — they just know how they’re expected to get stories. This isn’t happening all the time, or most of the time. Most journalists, I would like to think, uphold the highest standards — but we just don’t know who is and who isn’t.

We aren’t trusted by the punters, and we either do something about it, or it’s going to get worse.

How do we regain trust in the profession when it’s at its lowest ebb? For some, the answer comes in training — that’s the remedy proposed for Hari’s many professional and ethical issues, and that’s the prevention that some commentators see as the way of stopping this kind of thing, and the more serious offences by the News of the World and others, from happening. I am not so sure that changes anything. And, much as I agree with the NUJ’s code of ethics, I don’t know if having all journalists subscribe to some kind of Hippocratic oath will solve the problem either.

Former tabloid reporter Rich Peppiatt writes at the BBC College of Journalism that simple measures such as accurately linking to sources and engaging with social media could go some way to restoring credibility. It should be a source of shame that big online publishers — including one of the biggest, the Mail Online– – are as a matter of course not linking to sources.

Why shouldn’t readers click a link and see where the information has come from, and ensure that it’s been represented accurately? It just adds a grain more trust to the process of reading a story.

There’s also the idea of transparency. A lot of stories come from press releases and agencies, and there’s no shame in that. Why not tell readers that you’ve written a story on the back of a release, or re-nosed a bit of PA copy? It’s not some big magic trick that we’re spoiling for the punters by doing that; it’s just treating them like intelligent consumers of information. They’re not going to run home crying because they’ve seen Father Christmas’s beard fall off. They’ll be fine with it. They might even think better of us if we treat them like adults.

There’s a long way to go if journalists are going to restore trust in this most benighted of professions. If it’s going to happen, it has to come from the top, with clear guidelines, transparency, honesty and integrity at all levels.

But there’s another aspect to this, too: punters may claim they don’t trust tabloid journalists, and give more weight to broadsheet counterparts, but whose product ends up being bought by the most people? If we as consumers want to make a difference, it’s by choosing to get our news from the most trustworthy source; otherwise we’re just rewarding bad behaviour and encouraging more of it.

Will clearly signposted ethical journalism really sell better than the other kind? That remains to be seen.

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