Ethics is grounded in human nature. It assumes that human is being moral and to be moral is being human. Therefore, morality means the conduct, which benefits human beings. The conduct, which envisages good life for all measures of the society (सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः) encompasses a vision of the good society.
so, communication/journalism professional ethics always envisages good of society, in terms of moral and social justice. NO genuine communication is possible without the acknowledgement of freedom with responsibility.
However, though communication ethics are based on the concept of universal human being, in reality, the ultimate test of the validity of universal or protonorm ethics lies in their relevance for practical principles that guide everyday human (communication) interaction and social/organisational system. Underlying principle, which cut across al national or cultural barriers are acknowledged to be the principles of truth and respect for other person’s dignity, non-violence (No harm, forgiveness). But in reality every human being is imbued with a moral conscience that determines his/her daily action. So a professional communicator is expected to obey self-imposed principles such as justice, brotherhood, and reciprocity as a conscientious individual. In this sense morality (conduct) may be considered a purely individual matter and no external agent could talk professional how to conduct. In other words code of professional conduct could hardly be obeyed. Morality being intrinsic to one’s consciences is the primary matter, whereas code, doctrines, authorities are secondary matters.
The real problem is how to do good in the particular moment one is living. So it follows misconduct of a professional communicator cannot be justifiably approached from through code of professional ethics or even the courts of law/procedures.
Today professional react apprehensively to what may look like a set of norms impinging on their action. Such a negative approach to institutional morality or external imposition became apparent in the Declaration of Talloires, which rejected ever kind of code that might in any way regulate the journalistic profession around the world.
Historically, however attempts to bring about external control over ethical behaviour of professional journalist began in the early 1920’s and at present such code exist in more than 60 countries. They may have correspondent in prosonovus but they vary considerably both in their form and scope. In some countries separate code exists for print, broadcast and photographic media. Again some are imposed by government, others are voluntarily adopted by the professionally themselves. There are also codes of international scope. The historical review of the development of codes of media ethics suggests that there is complex social cultural and political motivation in media ethics development.
To conclude, the recommendation of the international communication for the study of the communication problem may be quoted, ” The self respect of journalists, their integrity and inner drive to turn out work of high quality are of paramount importance. It is this level of professional dedication making for responsibility, that should be fostered by news media and journalistic organisations. “The adoption of codes of ethics at national and in some cases at the regional level is desirable, provided that such codes are prepared and adopted by the profession itself-without government there is also one futuristic question; is there a global mass communication ethics? This is futuristic or interference.” Fantasy because if we consider differing systems of press ownership and direction found world over, along with various editorial philosophies and news definitions the concept of international code becomes a daydream.
Professionalism, Moral Obligations and Responsibility
The key terms involved in this lecture are information and communication and so at the outset. I would like to be conceptually clear about these two terms.
As a process information is conceived as a vertical non-interactive structure through which a few people at one end transmit by a technological or non-technological means ideas, facts, experience, and emotions to a large number of passive receivers at the other end. In terms of economics ‘information’ is taken as a commodity or more importantly, as the fourth factor of production, the three other traditional factors being: land, labour and capital. ‘Communication’ on the other hand, is two way horizontal interactive processes and is a very complex process. The behaviourist school of thought defines it as human behaviour, indeed its complexity arise from the fact of its being basic to everything that is organic; we cannot conceive of individual and their collective behaviour without it. It follows for democratisation of a society; communication media is needed not only information media, and communication presupposes access and participation exchange whereas information media is the process of top-down flow without pluralism.
When we read these terms into the national media policy structure with special reference to the issues of professionalism, moral obligations and responsibility our attention converge on the ethical dimension of the media policy.
Naturally we then tend to explore the ethical significance of media policy in regard to professionalism, morality and responsibility in information service and mass communication practice. We begin to ask what should be the professional standards for information or communication professionals. Should a journalist be allowed to deceive his or her sources just to get apparently inaccessible information and thus allow his/her to communicate it without regards to its national or personal consequences? Should an advertiser be allowed to insert a misleading puffery like “the finest” “the best” and thus allow commercialism to create a communicational environment for harmful consumerism?
Shouldn’t the information system be directed to the welfare of the villages? Shouldn’t the process of communication be democratised at faster pace so that human development in Nepal my catch up irrespective of race, caste, creed, ethnicity, gender, age and so on?
Shouldn’t the journalists be held responsible for reporting news, which was ‘out there’ to be gathered and not created there by them? Should the mass medium be liberated from the burden of objectivity-the conventions or canons of objective reporting? If yes, whose interest will be served in terms of morality? Should the media owned or influenced by government behave like a channel of information or a medium of communication?
The policy implications of the media ethics are indeed very complex, infinite and controversial.
As I see it, national communication/information policy makers are on the hand confronted by the challenges of ancient tradition and culture while on the other hand, they are beckoned by the opportunities of the new age of communication.
Journalism as a profession has its own peculiarities. In developing countries, the entire society is based by problems. A development journalist doesn’t do his or her work in isolation or in an insulated professional condition but his/her work is done as a part of what goes on in the community or the nation. They work in the communication field but most of them depend upon the national government for its existence. Social service journalism rather than commercial journalism is the credo of development communication. But such a system cannot be isolated ideological and technological from international influence of modern journalism.
The elites in Nepalese society are sensing the impact of national, regional and global impact of the information industry and the communication process that has been accentuated by the phenomena of ‘cyberspace’ and information superhighway’ but the people in rural areas, stepped in poverty, illiteracy and ignorance are bombarded by all sorts of information without having been given much opportunity to participate in the communication process. In the apparently glittering age of mass media, more than half of Nepalese population can neither read nor write, and most of them being women.
Nepal is not an information society as yet. But the mass mediated communication/information continue to penetrate the rural areas increasingly even though the channels of inter-personal communication, traditional media and conservative social norms and ancient value system have not been forsaken by the society. People in these areas talk of ‘speeches’ not ‘sound-bites’ as in a tele-democracy.
Nepal is in historic transition. As the globe continues to shrink in terms of communication process, the traditional society tends to merge into bit stream of information age. Ever since the 1950’s when Nepal broke open the politically woven cocoon of isolation and began to interact or communicate with the outside world, the process of democratisation had set in at a varying pace. The flaws and obstacles, which hampered the process, were gradually taken care of, as the system of information or of mass communication were developed in a manner of planning. Information tended to grow as the process of communication was strengthened at all levels.
The systemic change in 1990 has set in the process of drastic and more democratic institutional development in the country. Now the new constitution has guaranteed the individual citizens more active participation in the communication process as the right to specific freedoms of the press has been explicitly enshrined in the document. The press law permits creation and dissemination of all varieties of information within the bounds of reasonable restrictions. The extent and quality of social representation or participation in the communication process tend to be augmented.
The general public feeling is that the information vehicles are being diversified and the communication process tends to be democratised. However, despite this feeling, various problems and issues in the information and communication world of Nepal need to be addressed before it is too late.
This one lecture cannot do justice to the analyses and interpretations of all these problems and issues. However this intends to deal with the issues of professionalism and communication policy.
Without going into the history of media policy of Nepal, to trace how it dealt with the profession of journalism or the process of mass communication, and its ethics, this lecture looks into the question of professionalism and its ethics as of today.
Journalism is in a developing stage in Nepal but in recent years it has been infused into a new political environment born of a multi-party system. The practice or method of mass communication accordingly tends to change. The professionals in the field have realized the necessity of enhancing the dignity, morality and responsibility of the profession by adopting certain standards of journalistic practice.
The pertinent question here is what should be the state policy vis-a vis journalism as a profession and its ethics. In the first place, the national policy makers must bear in mind the peculiar stripes of this profession. The service of a journalist or its moral mark differs from that of other traditional profession like law, medicine, education and so on in that it does not focus on service to an individual client. So the journalist has no one -on one tie like a physician has to his/her patient, or a lawyer has to his/her client. The profession of journalism serves the institution of the press or the Fourth Estate-the guardian of the democracy, or the institution, which augments the good of an informed citizenry.
The profession presupposes the existence of liberty, which comprises rights against the state. Such thought should not be confused with claims/entitlement, which need to be satisfied by the democratic state. Again, such rights should not mean the rights of men against the government but also against the society of the people, which implies economic and social rights evolved by the present day liberalism. So the national policy, which is designed to develop the profession of journalism, cannot overlook the necessity or making the press free, fair and reasonable according to the law of the land. The policy should be to promote and encourage the growth of a congenial environment for less government interference and for more assertion or responsibility and morality.
But the media policy constraints appear, as in the case of Nepal, when the government or the people invoke not only the Constitution to protect and encourage the free press but also the philosophy and practice of liberal economy to give the media their economic base. The policy for development of professionalism suffers vagueness, incompleteness or contradictions when it fails to define which institution of the audience it is aiming at for development or the professionalism. The policy should make distinction between the professionalism which view the audience as citizens oriented to the Constitution and therefore for accurate information and enlightenment; and the professionalism which view the audience as consumers oriented to the market place and therefore for gratification of wants and entertainment. This approach helps to clarify the ethical dimension of the national policy.
Moral Obligation and Responsibility
The profession of journalism differs also in the area of intellectualism unlike the traditional profession it does not depend on a huge body of knowledge applied to human needs. In other words, the traditional professions have their respective bodies of knowledge without having to rely on external ombudsman or the like entity. It is for this reason sometimes it is argued that journalism is not a profession for it lacks the body of knowledge to which it should profess and from which it should derive authority. It is only a craft or a skill, it is pointed out.
But others support intellectualism of the profession by linking journalism with the idea of objectivity or the scientific method of ‘disinterested realism’ as defined by the famous American journalist, Walter Lippman.
The problem of objectivity in journalism is a complicated subject but the media policy makers must not be confused on two points: objectivity should not be uncritically equated with neutrality; and media criticism should not be labelled as adversaryism cynically.
Trying to gratify the audience by presenting trivial subjective, though authoritative, opinions in their most vehement, confrontational form is not objectivity. Objectivity and fairness do not mean practicing journalism by scurrying about to invoke and juxtapose one authority against another on a subject of controversy. This therefore, becomes irresponsible journalism. Objectivity requires journalistic assessment of the merit of a case and not mere voicing of contradictory views. The profession is morally obliged to offer critical judgments that may have the ethical status that transcends the status of mere opinion. Journalists are morally responsible to get at the full truth of an issue. This of course, does not mean public debates in the media should not merit any attention at least for information of current thinking on the issues or for statement of alternatives for public conversation and ultimate emergence of truth.
Another point is about adversarysm. An adversarial press is not necessarily an independent and critical press. To set the face of profession or the institution of the press against the government as though the rival boxer in the ring of communication is sheer passionate professionalism, which dismiss or despair or the ideal of objectivity.
Morally speaking, this negativism based on the assumption that the government is nothing but the articulation of power for some vested interests and dominating advantage and that the press must counter these interests tooth nail for the silent majority(Spiral of Silence).
The national policy makers must be able to formulate media policies, which make intellectual distinction between objectivity and neutrality, between cynicism and adversaries in the profession of journalism. It may be noted here that objectivity is a relatively complex notion when one goes beyond the idea that information should be factual (news) or value neutral. According to Westerstahl objectivity has to deal with value as well as with facts and the facts also have evaluative implications. But the uncertainty about what constitutes an adequate or relevant supply of information and uncertainty about the very value of objectivity set the limit of objectivity. This approach will impart rationality to the media policy designed to promote all sorts of plan of action for development of professionalism in journalism.
Adversaryism of another sort which derives from the diehard dogmatic idealist who treats everything in the light of his or her own passionately held dogmas or moral ideals of sort, will also fail in practices of journalism because such souls lack critical spirit which makes for sound judgements and self-criticism.
Journalism is a noble profession in this also that it wields a peculiar teaching power unlike other professions. Other professionals normally prefer to dispense service on the basis of their special body of knowledge and information, rather than to share with it; whereas the journalists communicate or transmit cultural heritage through public for a wider audience what other professionals tend to treat as their individual personal clients. The communication professionals must accept this responsibility of teaching citizens and consumers or clients as morally unique. Competent, fair and free reporting or comments help the citizens or the consumers to interpret the day’s events correctly and that is an extraordinary power of the profession of journalism.
The press indeed has tremendous power, but there is no absolute answer to the question whether any given type of communication behaviour is ethical. There are moral theories or Niti Shastras or Dharma Shastras, which may serve as useful background to media ethics, and there are number of professional or institutional codes of ethics which fit within the social-responsibility approach to media freedom derived from its power. Consensual understanding at the top management level may also work as institutional ethical system. In practice the journalists have to balance a sense of responsibility with a need of creativity and freedom. The state policy should recognise that a violation of ethics may not necessarily make a journalist or an institution legally liable. The policy should clearly recognise that ethical theory and codes of conduct does not relate only to social responsibility but also to journalists’ own sense of morality for his or her guidance in making ethical decision.
The Western institution that is called the liberal press is based on a complex pattern of ideas. Yet its centrepiece is the autonomous self or individual autonomy. This system is largely a product of philosophies of Enlightenment doctrines of man and society. By 1920’s the idea of individualistic autonomy influenced the constitution of systematic ethical studies in journalism in USA. But the Eastern institution is based on a complex pattern of existence, which, is influenced by various indigenous social philosophy of communication and an associated conception of communication ethics, but Eastern notion of media ethics reflect collective function. The Western oriented ethics is context oriented. The Western ethics literature focuses move upon the detail or specific content of ethical dilemmas whereas Eastern research literature considers political, economic, religious, social purpose a context of media ethics.
* Department Head and Reader in Journalism and Mass Communication, Tribhuwan University, Ratna Rajya Laxmi Campus.