Personal ethics in the wake of the NotW scandal

The News of the World scandal is a wake up call for freelancers to consider ethics in choosing and executing their work

Over the last month, journalists the world over have had to defend their profession following the News of the World scandal. I’ve resisted the urge to write about this until I’d really mulled the issue over in my mind. Interestingly, it was the death of Amy Winehouse that cemented my views on the News of the World scandal.

I suspect that some of my views and opinions aren’t likely to be popular or mainstream. However, they represent my position at this point in time. And I think that they have significant implications for freelance writers and photographers.

It’s easy to demonise News Limited and its executives. After all, a large company is an easy target. But I can’t get past the fact that the phone bugging and tampering with evidence and investigations (and I have no doubt that is what happened concerning the murder of Milly Dowler) was the work of individuals. At risk of invoking echoes of Godwin’s Law most acts of corporate evil occur with the compliance or acceptance of individuals.

Investigations are still progressing but the reality is that phones were bugged by specific people. If they were acting on the instructions of News Limited executives then those executives, the reporters, private investigators and others involved in the entire act ought be prosecuted.

So, where does Amy Winehouse fit into this? There is a monstrous public appetite for scandal and insight into the private lives of famous people. The public appetite for insight into the minutiae of celebrity lives has spawned an entire publishing industry. Frankly, I’ve been nothing less then disgusted by the coverage of Amy Winehouse’s tragic death. In particular, Winehouse’s membership in the so-called “27 Club”  has been made into a macabre quasi-celebration. Somehow, the death of a young woman of great talent has been lost. The editors of Australia’s Fairfax newspapers may have reached a new low when they published a story about some of the lesser known members of what Winehouse’s family called the “Stupid Club”.

The News of the World scandal may have exploded but the fuel was a new low in journalistic ethics and the public’s desire for salacious detail about the famous. Although the greatest outrage has rightly been focussed on the interference into the the Milly Dowler investigation, there had been plenty of other phone tapping with Siena Miller winning a settlement several weeks before the scandal broke. This has been a steadily growing cancer within News Limited (and perhaps other organisations as has been speculated and is now being investigated) for some time.

The two issues here are that the public appetite for private, personal information has created media market where spying on celebrities has become acceptable. Photographers, equipped with powerful telephoto lenses, now climb tree hundreds of metres from a celebrity’s home for a candid shot. If the public is outraged then they can do something about it. The public can stop clicking on invasive news stories and not buy the papers that specialise in this sort of reporting.

Secondly, journalists and photographers need to define their personal ethics, publish them and stick to them (technology writer David Pogue does this although he is currently embroiled in his own ethics scandal). I have not spoken to a single person that thinks News of the World acted responsibly and ethically in tapping phones. But very few people have pointed the finger at individual journalists. The problem, particularly for freelancers, is that if you say no to a job, then you lose income – something that’s tough to accept in an increasingly tight market where freelancer.com and its ilk are slashing pay rates.

The News of the World scandal is an opportunity for every journalist and photographer to think about what they will and won’t do for a pay cheque. I’ve had to say no to work in the past where I was being asked to write about subjects that I felt to be contrary to my beliefs. It wasn’t a large amount of money but I felt better for not compromising on an issue that personally important to me. If I had made a small break in the rules then, a slightly larger break would have been easy later. And that’s how ethical behaviour collapses.

Junkets, Gifts and Ethics

Establishing and documenting your code of ethics is important for protecting your professional reputation.

The topic of freebies has been something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. It’s tempting, particularly when starting out as a journalist, to see the offers of travel and the occasional gift as part of the benefit of the job. But it’s important to realise that one of the most important assets you have is reputation. And establishing and documenting your code of ethics is important for protecting that reputation.

I was reading this story about car makers modifying review cars provided to journalists and the following quote stood out to me.

A good review is worth a lot. Some marketers value a page of mainly positive editorial as worth 2½ to three times as much as a page of advertising.
That helps explain why companies fly journalists around and do their best to wrap them in cotton wool. (Some journalists think it’s because they are important and/or respected. Sad, sad souls.)

In case you missed it there are two key things

  1. Good editorial is more valuable than advertising
  2. Vendors and public relations people treat journalists well, at least partly, because happy writers may be more likely to write favourable copy

That means journalists need to keep their eye on what’s actually going on.

Last year, I was flown to Japan by a printer manufacturer to visit an R&D facility and meet with senior management. The value of that trip, for me, wasn’t the frequent flyer miles. The value came from the contacts I made and the increased product knowledge. Sure, some of that information could have been imparted by sending me a bunch of documentation. But the opportunity to speak with the people involved in the product development directly could never have been translated to paper.

As a freelance journalist, if you make the decision to accept a trip, then you need to make it clear to readers that when you write about the trip that you flew courtesy of the subject.

With gifts – it’s tougher. It would be easy to say “no gifts” but the reality is that something like a pen, cap or t-shirt isn’t likely to influence a writer. So where do you draw the line?

Fellow writer Renai LeMay is the editor of Delimiter. He recently declined the offer of a free tablet computer or smartphone at a product launch. Journalists in attendance (I wasn’t at the event) were offered a choice between the devices. He has a policy for his company of accepting gifts with a value in excess of $200.

Whether you agree with LeMay’s policy, what’s important to note is that LeMay has at least thought about it and has a policy.

I’d probably go a little further. I’d suggest that journalists should all

  1. Set a limit for the value of gifts
  2. Keep a register of gifts received
  3. Declare all gifts and sponsored travel

What do you do about gifts and trips? Do you have a policy? Let us know in the comments.

Codes of Ethics for journalists

The question of what sorts of behaviour and actions are acceptable is governed by something called ethics. For journalists, there are several places they can go for guidance on what is and isn’t ethical behaviour.

It’s a great idea for journalists to keep a copy of the code of ethics they work to handy and ensure that prospective clients are aware that you aren’t just flying by the seat of your pants and follow a set of rules when it comes to how you work.

I think every journalist ought to establish a personal Code of Ethics. Most of the time it won’t be needed but there are moments, in the heat of a story, where emotions and excitement might get the better of us. Thinking about how that might happen and how we might best react in those moments before they happen can help us to react appropriately and not in a way that will harm one of our most curitical attributes – our reputation..

To help out with thinking about those situations and what you should do, here are links to the Codes of Ethics for some journalist’s associations.

CountryOrganisationLink to Code of Ethics
AustraliaMedia, Entertainment and Arts Alliancewww.alliance.org.au/code-of-ethics.html
United States of AmericaSociety of Professional Journalistswww.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
EnglandNational Union of Journalistsmedia.gn.apc.org/nujcode.html