Media Ethics

By Asfiya Aziz
Apr 30 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan)

When young Bisma died in a traffic jam en route to Civil Hospital in Karachi last December, there was a media frenzy. To onlookers it looked like frenzy, devoid of principles – a burgeoning show of power by the media, the right to information overshadowing all other rights. Lately, media debate on similar issues often cross the same boundaries. The gap between what a decent society expects from their media, and what media is able to provide, appears to be widening under the myriad pressures of business and political interests.

Media organisations` business models often appear to determine to what extent basic journalistic skills of accuracy, objectivity and timeliness are stretched or strained.

Step-by-step codes of ethics are often seen as `stifling` and `inadequate` for the mercurial field of 24-hour news reporting. Regardless of business pressures, one must recognise that there is little distinction between the media`s and an individual`s responsibilities.

Both share the same societal responsibilities, and must also share a mutual understanding of ethics. A principle-based approach, therefore, may be a viable alternative framework for journalists to practise in the line of duty. Perhaps we might borrow from other fields to develop an ethics code for journalism.

Bioethics is a subject that devises standards of behaviour when dealing with living beings. One of many theories in this field is Principlism, articulated by T.L. Beauchamp and J.F. Childress in The Principles of Biomedical Ethics. The principles put forward in this book, and currently most practised, include: respect (for individual autonomy); justice; beneficence; and non-maleficence.

For practical purposes, these are rephrased as: be respectful; be fair; be kind (do good); and do no harm. Like medicine, journalism also requires constant (often quick) judgement calls to be made, and therefore needs to develop a set of principles to apply to daily situations.

Analysing the unfortunate case of Bisma from a bioethical standpoint leads us to some interesting observations. The core principles stated here were (in some form) already at work but there still remains a need to formalise such principles, to inculcate them into journalists` decision-making processes.

That day, the principle of `respect` for an individual was absent despite the intention to adhere to it. While the media protested the lack of respect for an average person`s life, they were themselves disrespectful by being invasive; evident in the coverage of her body, and her father`s distress on being pressed to comment seconds after his child had passed away.

Later, commentary shifted to speculations on the family`s economic conditions, some newscasters affecting pity when describing their modest dwelling. They disrespected mourners, zooming in on women struggling to hide their faces from the media glare. The right to information and freedom of the press are poor defences when in conflict with vulnerable parties` rights to respect, privacy and choice.

The principle of `justice` was present, as this story became newsworthy due to a perceived lack of justice and accountability. Whether the media was fair to all parties is, however, a moot point. The coverage drew attention to the state of reporters` skills of maintaining objectivity and taking all parties` positions into account. As surfaced later, some doctors and the administration of Civil Hospital denied there was any obstruction to the hospital that day. Their position was hardly part of the day`s coverage. As journalists demand justice for the people, they still need to remain judicious or `be fair` in their own decision-making. One can also argue that central to the media campaign was the principle of `beneficence`; the media advocating for the individual in particular and the public at large, suffering at the hands of perceived VIP cul-ture. `Non-maleficence` (or `do no harm`) is often a tricky principle to negotiate. The incident had escalated into a full-scale media frenzy forcing the provincial government to do damage control at a time when they were already receiving flak on other issues of governance. The question of media`s intent arises: were they doing this for the benefit of the victim and the public, or to do harm to the government and those VIPs involved? Objective analysis is an essential skill for a journalist if analysis points towards a party`s negligence or incompetence, the journalist bears a responsibility to expose such misdemeanours. However, this still remains a judgement call, which must be guided by the principle of non-maleficence and by examining one`s intent, to determine the limits of reporting.

Perhaps if journalists were to test and adapt bioethical principles in their own practices, and media organisations could reach consensus on the most ef fective and relevant principles in the field, journalism in Pakistan may finally adopt a code of ethics which practitioners could own and uphold.• The writer is a joumalist with a special interest in bioethics.

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan