Media practice and profession, like teaching, medicine, and other services, have to take extreme caution in maintaining the highest moral principles so that they do not harm society. This is why professional bodies of newspaper publishers and broadcasting institutions voluntarily follow certain principles. Despite good intentions, some of the media organisations and professionals sometimes make mistakes, either by accident or carelessness, or deliberately, while pursuing the objectives of reaping enormous profits or political power.
The media are, or ought to be, the searchlights that help citizens to discover their own faults and foibles, and understand decisions taken (or not taken) by government for the welfare of society. They throw light on what is happening in the immediate surroundings and in the far off world, explain difficult concepts that are of consequence to people’s lives, transmit cultural heritage from one generation to the next, and mobilise people against undesirable activities harmful to society. The media ought to highlight the good deeds done by people—citizens and those who are in authority, for the betterment of social, economic, political, and cultural life.
Media practice and profession, like teaching, medicine, and other services, have to take extreme caution in maintaining the highest moral principles so that they do not harm society. This is why professional bodies of newspaper publishers and broadcasting institutions voluntarily follow certain principles.
Journalism is popularly defined as a “report of things as they appear at the moment of writing, not a definitive study of a situation,” as pointed out by Agee and others. For authentic and documented treatises, one has to depend on well-written books and journal articles, not daily newspapers which are usually produced in a hurry within a few hours. However, newspaper reporters, feature writers, and editors try their best to make their writing authentic, true, comprehensive, and intelligible to ordinary readers. The most important thing to remember is that journalists have to meet their deadlines and that they have to provide citizens with a dependable account of the available information about events and issues of socio-economic, political, and cultural importance that happened in the past 24 hours. Outstanding personalities and their doings are also of primary importance to be reported or featured in the day’s newspaper or TV news bulletin.
A famous Harvard professor, Harold Lasswell, pointed out long ago that journalists of all varieties invariably do the following: surveillance of the environment; correlation of the parts of society through interpretation of events, and issues that are observed and reported; and socialisation and transmission of cultural heritage from generation to generation. Later on, other communication experts added a few more functions. For example, Charles Wright added entertainment as a function of mass communication/journalism and Denis McQuail stressed the mobilisation of people through journalism and mass communication, especially for politically and socio-economically successful practice of participative democracy. Wright and others spoke about dysfunctions such as “status conferral” on certain undesirable elements in society. Other dysfunctions are “ethicisation” or dictation of social norms through the media; “narcotisation” through repetition of negative news and eventual desensitisation of the public; misinformation; and even indiscriminate use of “breaking news” for agitating viewers!
While doing all this, the journalist attached to a particular medium has to maintain certain ethical principle. Some media proprietors with the active collaboration of their workers have resorted in recent years to the unacceptable and morally reprehensible practice of publishing “paid” and “manipulated” or “manufactured” news! To arrest this trend of media degeneration that is happening right now in many parts of the world, strict adherence to ethical principles by all media professionals including publishers and owners has become most essential.
Ethics is, briefly, moral philosophy; it guides and protects the moral environment of performance in any field of human endeavour in order to make the performance morally acceptable to the members of a particular society or social group. Most professions have standard practices meant for the good of society.
Almost all democratic societies in the world have the right to the freedom of expression and speech by citizens. This right is constitutionally protected in a number of countries. But exercising absolute freedom without any moral responsibility of resorting to reasonable restrictions is deleterious to social harmony. Therefore, all societies have certain ethical principles that control absolute freedom. Nobody has a right to shout “Fire” in a crowded cinema hall; the resultant stampede will kill many if a citizen’s “right to speech” is sought to be protected at the cost of danger to the spectators’ safety!
Some two decades ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in its resolution on promotion of Press Freedom in the World underlined that a free, independent, and pluralistic press was an essential component of any democratic society. This sacred principle is upheld in most democratic societies. This is particularly essential for a pluralistic society that we have in India, with such diversity in culture, language, food habits, faiths, and practices. The right to dissent and hold views contrary to general or majority views and opinions is to be honoured in India at all times if India has to progress as a democratic and secular polity.
Some media proprietors with the active collaboration of their workers have resorted in recent years to the unacceptable and morally reprehensible practice of publishing “paid” and “manipulated” or “manufactured” news! To arrest this trend of media degeneration that is happening right now in many parts of the world, strict adherence to ethical principles by all media professionals including publishers and owners has become most essential.
Communal violence—as at the time of partition of British India and also later in several parts particularly in Gujarat, in February 2002, for example—has to be eschewed for peaceful life in India. If the press is muzzled, the wrongdoings of those in power are likely to be hidden from society and degeneration becomes uncontrollable. The abuse of power, incompetence of authorities, oppression of the weak by the powerful -including exploitation of women, children, and the voiceless and the weak, and the extravaganza and wastage in public life will proceed unhindered in all societies that suppress the media. The media can bring out the defects in society to the attention of the citizens if only they have the freedom to do so in a responsible manner.
In 1978, the UNESCO adopted the Declaration of the Fundamental Principles Concerning the Contribution of the Mass Media to Strengthening Peace and Understanding, to the Promotion of Human Rights and to Countering Racialism, Apartheid and Incitement to War. But for weak sociological and strong political reasons this Declaration remained in cold storage and it was rejuvenated in 1991, teaching all of us a valuable lesson: freedom declared does not mean freedom practised, or freedom gained. Later events have proved that several societies, including some that swear by democratic principles and media freedom, have shown tendencies to suppress the media or even prevent media workers, through police force, from bringing out truths unpalatable to the ruling class. Truth is of the utmost importance in all discussions on media ethics. Factors that contribute to truth—comprehensive coverage, accuracy, attribution, and presentation of historical background to a particular event or issue—are also of primary importance when we discuss media ethics.
Despite several codes of ethics adopted globally, either by the UN agencies or journalists’ and broadcasters’ associations, media ethics is observed more in the breach than in actual practice and therefore, eternal vigilance is absolutely essential at all times to preserve freedom of speech and expression, which is the citizen’s rather than the media owner’s prerogative. Media owners and professionals have to render a service to people. The very raison d’être of the media in society is service to the people, or service to society. Media institutions, unlike ordinary business institutions, have special responsibilities to uphold the rights of the individuals in society rather than the monetary accumulation by business corporations that try to make media institutions part of their empires.
These facts were presented with vigour at the 2002 Salzburg Declaration of Journalists from 32 countries, entitled “In Defence of Journalism as a Public Trust.” A topic discussed with special emphasis at this conference in Austria was that market pressures were undermining the quality of journalism, specifically, as news organisations preserve high profit levels by reducing the newsgathering expenses and neglecting journalism’s core ethical principles: public interest, the responsibility to inform and empower citizens, and enable citizens to make proper decisions that uphold the welfare of society.
A free, independent, and responsible press is essential to human liberty. It is most essential to bring out the hidden aspects of the social mechanism which sometimes works against the interests of the majority but works for the monetary advantages of a privileged few, whether it is the unethical selling of natural resources such as water, or ignoring the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. Information is manipulated either deliberately or on account of organisational inefficiency so that the poor, the landless, and the diseased, malnourished majority are fed falsehood that fattens the well-informed and the advantaged who control key aspects of governance. The average citizens are not only poor and heavily deprived in India but forced into silence by powerful vested interests.
A free, independent, and responsible press is essential to human liberty. It is most essential to bring out the hidden aspects of the social mechanism which sometimes works against the interests of the majority but works for the monetary advantages of a privileged few, whether it is the unethical selling of natural resources such as water, or ignoring the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged.
For a fuller understanding of the problem, we have to admit the historical truth that mass communication and digitalised communication through the internet, blogs, and Twitter, are of very recent origin. Although mass and interpersonal communications have revolutionised the phenomenon of communication in all parts of the world, nobody can deny that human beings by nature value certain common characteristics despite the transient glitter and glamour of wealth and ostentation.
Communication is natural as it is the motor and expression of social action and civilisation. It helps human beings to integrate knowledge and reach the highest pinnacles of achievement in all fields of endeavour. In a world that has advanced, communication tasks have become quite complex and subtle, and sometimes media of mass communication do not help in liberating humankind from want, oppression, and fear. Unless those who are in the field of mass communication endorse structural changes, the potential benefits of science and technology that have led to instant interpersonal communication will hardly benefit humankind; they will serve only in amassing wealth and power in certain quarters, and that is likely to be dangerous to the world.
Thus we are faced with micro and macro issues of ethical problems. The micro ones deal with the mechanical aspects of production, comprehensive gathering of information, and easily understandable and simple but effective presentation of ideas of great importance, to a large section of educated, well-informed, and well-to-do people. The freedom to express one’s ideas is certainly a first freedom for all human beings and it has to be protected at all costs; at the same time we cannot ignore that there are many issues before the world which do not get the media’s full attention.
Despite tremendous achievements in many fields of human endeavour -in space travel, splitting of the atom, and understanding the mysteries of the universe -poverty still remains the number one problem in the world, and of course, the attendant miseries of hunger, ill-health, malnutrition, imbalances in human relations, especially gender relations, and the oppression of the weak. As mentioned, mass communication is of recent origin, comparatively speaking. Although it is global, it is related to the socio-economic, political, and cultural environments in which it is produced for global consumption. All messages produced and disseminated globally need not be culturally relevant to all communities. Messages of mass communication may blow liberally from all corners but particular societies need not be uprooted under their influence, a fact that has to be given special consideration by all communities, especially in the so-called developing countries.
Despite tremendous achievements in many fields of human endeavour -in space travel, splitting of the atom, and understanding the mysteries of the universe -poverty still remains the number one problem in the world, and of course, the attendant miseries of hunger, ill-health, malnutrition, imbalances in human relations, especially gender relations, and the oppression of the weak.
One developing country which I am familiar with and in which I have spent most of my life started with the noblest of ideas and a new Constitution, but I am not sure if we have found solutions to disturbing historical problems that stare us in the face even now in this advanced 21st century—problems of caste and falsely religious feuds, hunger, deprivation, gender discrimination, road safety, and basic need fulfilment issues such as shortages of various kinds -water supply, drainage schemes, toilets, housing, and even personal safety -especially for 50 percent of the population. All communication activities -whether mass or interpersonal -should be directed towards the fulfilment of the basic objective: the fundamental goal of finding quick solutions to these problems.
There is no doubt that all the latest developments, especially in interpersonal communication, achieved through Twitter, Facebook, etc are revolutionising communication but all these are mainly occurring in urban conclaves. Production and transmission facilities are in the big cities, although they have shown considerable influence in political developments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other countries. However, the world has not seen any unmixed blessing through these revolutionary developments and it is too early to conclude that the sole or prime reason for political changes was mobilisation resulting from the application of the latest technologies of communication.
While giving credit to mass and interpersonal communication for socio-economic, political, and cultural changes in human society, we have to give some consideration to the opinions of Herbert I.Schiller, a North American communication scholar who was of the firm view that mass-produced messages are sometimes manipulative, influencing people to think in a certain way, forgetting the actual realities. Mass-mediated messages and mass dissemination of personal messages through blogs, can create a false sense of reality and produce a consciousness that cannot comprehend the actual conditions of life. Personal or social realities are not reflected in either interpersonal or mass-produced messages. In other words, falsities are disseminated through modern devices and realities are wilfully submerged. Recently in the tribal areas of Kerala, starvation deaths were reported as if these were something new or recent. Actually, the very same areas reported such deaths and ill-health at least five decades ago, when some journalism students from Kerala had visited the same hill areas. The media have links with the industrial and political structures that want to propagate that many developments are totally new and they have no history behind them.
Paulo Freire, the Brazilian sociologist had pointed out almost the same thing much before Schiller. Freire said that the dominant elites in all societies try to conform the masses to their points of view through the mass media. Interpersonal devices in those days had not assumed the importance they achieved in recent years. George Gerbner, former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, put it in another way in the 1980s: “Mass (and interpersonal) systems of production and dissemination of messages transform selected private perspectives into public perspectives and brings mass publics into existence.”