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In times of trouble: how media codes strengthen free expression

Monday 30 November 2015, by SIGNIS

Oxford, Brussels, December 1st, 2015 (Stefanie Chernow/SIGNIS/Ethical Journalism Network). In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, media face enormous challenges. In an ideal world, the spread of information should be straightforward and free of undue speculation with no rush to judgement or actions that compromise the rights of innocent people. Those under attack must be given reliable information that does not increase a climate of fear and uncertainty.

But when people are blind-sided by atrocious crimes against humanity and breaking news spreads instantaneously, emotions can run high. Media must walk the line between saying too much and telling the story in a careful and sensitive manner that encourages rational public discourse.

What keeps journalists grounded in these difficult situations are their ethical standards: to be accurate and use fact-based information and to minimise harm by reporting with humanity and in context.
With this in mind, The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at Missouri University are launching the Accountable Journalism website, which includes the largest database of media codes in a user-friendly and searchable web application.

It is not just horrifying events such as those in Paris that require journalism of the highest quality. Today the number of voices and the rapid exchanges on the Internet are increasing, and ethical journalism is needed more than ever to protect the integrity of free expression.

Unethical communications, including hate speech, political propaganda and wilful misinformation, suppress freedom of expression and deny a voice to marginalized and vulnerable groups. Journalistic expression is not a free for all, but rather speech which is constrained by ethical values.

However, press freedom and ethics are tied together and not antagonistic concepts. Media codes should never be used as a way to censor legitimate forms of expression, but rather ethics should act as a powerful lever in increasing press freedom.

There is a greater need to know and understand ethics in an increasingly global world of communications. While media policies may differ between news organisations and certain ethical topics are coloured in shades of grey, the core concepts of accuracy, independence, impartiality, accountability, and showing humanity are international baselines for journalistic work.

It is important to recognise the value of media codes not just for traditional reporters, but for anyone using social media tools and who are regularly committing acts of journalism.

This searchable database, which shows how the media industry has grappled with the idea of ethics and accountability for nearly a century, aims to help journalists, educators, and anyone in the business of communications make ethical decisions which are widely accepted by international media professionals.

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