Applying standards: media owners and journalism ethics

Ethics Journalism Regulatory standards Sector regulation

This report examines 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.

Recent focus in global discussions of media ethics has been on establishing and raising standards for rank-andfile 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.

When it comes to codes of ethics for media owners, the traditional organizations concerning themselves with ethics in journalism have been noticeably silent. Scan the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) code of ethics, considered the gold standard in the United States, or the brief, but global code of principles of the International Federation of Journalists and you will not find “media owners” or proprietors mentioned anywhere. Perhaps it is assumed that one size fits all. But does it?

Focus on media owners is a relatively recent phenomenon in the twenty-first century, but it is not entirely new. 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.

More recent criticism has focused on ownership concentration and the perceived evils of media monopolies stifling competition. A market with less concentration, the argument has gone, encourages pluralism and has at least the potential to offer diverse voices and more of what has come to be called “accountability journalism.” 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.

In Western democratic societies there exists an inherent conflict of interest as ownership has shifted from private to public, with corporate boards that must, by law, respond first and foremost to their shareholders. Thus, even media corporations with high ethical standards reflected in their content have been forced to sell to abide by their fiduciary responsibility. Champions of private local ownership over the larger publicly-traded corporate model are vocal, but the evidence of one method being superior to the other is contradictory. In either case, conflicts over the interests of owners–whether large corporations or private parties–and journalistic values persist.

In countries where news media are considered less free, the conflict is even more troublesome. While several 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. When voluntary, they are little more than aspirational.

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. As the funding of public-interest journalism becomes more challenging, notions of corporate social responsibility and good governance in management of media become more relevant and confidence-building actions that will encourage change across the ownership landscape, old and new, are urgently needed.

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