Journalism Ethics 101

March 9, 2006

I have always had the greatest respect for journalists. It is a very difficult job, and usually thankless. For many years, my mother worked for a small, regional newspaper in the little rural town in South Africa where I grew up, so I saw this first-hand.

As an activist in a small, radical political party on the outer fringes of the political spectacle, I rely on an unspoken understanding with the media. Because the libertarian perspective on issues, based on individual rights, can be very different from the accepted norms, and run of the mill opinions, we have to present these views in an entertaining fashion, so that the media will report on them. The media then put their own spin on these amusing and/or interesting stories, and present it to their customers. As a result, their customers are kept informed and entertained. In return, I get to air a bit of our message of freedom and equality. Everybody wins.

Quite often, however, a reporter will forgo the gist of our message, and concentrate on the wackiness and stunts. This is a risk that we run, and is fine, since we don't control the media, and most importantly, we wouldn't want to control the media.

I believe that freedom of the press is an absolute right, and that it needs to be kept sacrosanct, as it keeps our so-called 'rulers' honest, and is one of our last bastions of freedom.

Imagine my horror then, when yesterday morning, friends told me that they had heard me being quoted in a short clip on Northland's More FM news bulletin - and from the way it was presented, it came across that I condoned racism. These friends know me quite well, and couldn't believe it. They immediately realised that I must have been quoted out of context.

I spent the rest of the day trying to clear my reputation, and the reputation of the Libertarianz. I had a really horrible day, and since my words were used in order to tarnish the reputation of Libertarianz, I was very distraught. So I will let you judge the facts for yourself.

1. The news item in question, exactly as aired at 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30, Thursday 9 March, 2006, on Northland's More FM:

http://www.julianpistorius.com/morefm/newsitem-complete.mp3
[0.4MB]

2. The transcript of the news item:

LOC race RACISM

Racism in Northland is acceptable, according to the Libertarians Party.

Deputy Leader Julian Pistorius, from Kerikeri, says parents should have the right to raise their children as racists.

He says businesses should also be able to discriminate on race.

[CLIP] "You can't enforce your values on other people. So if they are racist, then they should be able to raise their children as they want. You can only learn from example, by setting good examples by other people".

Northland-based Labour MP Dover Samuels says the comments don't reflect New Zealand.

[CLIP] "I believe that New Zealanders are fair minded people, and they don't judge the person's performance based on the colour of their skin. I believe New Zealanders would turn their backs on that type of policy".


3. Now here is the entire phone conversation from which the quote was taken. It was supposed to be an interview about the immorality of demanding private information via the census, but wandered onto other topics. It was recorded a couple of days previously, just before the census:

Part 1:
http://www.julianpistorius.com/morefm/phone-interview-part1.mp3
[1.8MB]

Part 2:
http://www.julianpistorius.com/morefm/phone-interview-part2.mp3
[1.8MB]

Part 3:
http://www.julianpistorius.com/morefm/phone-interview-part3.mp3
[1.2MB]

Now listen to the news report again. Do you think the report was fair, balanced and unbiased?

Nowhere does the news report mention how I insisted that the government should never judge people based on race. Nowhere in the news report was it mentioned how I consider racism to be evil, immoral, unacceptable and plain stupid - as I had stated numerous times in the phone interview above.

To make matters even worse, this is not the first time that this has happened to me - with the same reporter! In July last year, he conducted a long interview with me about an event that I and other Northland Libertarianz members were organising. The event was to promote the rights of gun owners - Guns-'n-Fun Day. (Again, slightly wacky, but based on solid principle, and very importantly - it's interesting.)

The short, context-less quote he used in that news report, and the way it was presented, implied that I (and Libertarianz) thought that children should have guns. What I clearly was trying to get at, in the context of the omitted sentences, was that children who grow up on farms have been learning to use firearms responsibly under parental supervision for a long time, and that there was nothing wrong with that.

I should have known not to fall into that trap again.

According to what I can tell, I would have a very strong case in front of the Broadcasting Standards Authority. (See note [3] at bottom)

However, I consider the Broadcasting Standards Authority to be an abomination. It interferes in the freedom of the media, and imposes government control over freedom of expression - something I strenuously oppose. The BSA would be one of the first bureaucratic monstrosities that would be scrapped under a libertarian government.

News reporting agencies should not be under the arbitrary control of the government. They should be judged by the individuals that watch/listen/read them. In a free, transparent and open society, these people will judge the media on the accuracy of their news reporting. If a company has a good track record of being honest, fair, and unbiased, then they will get more respect, a good reputation, and consequently a bigger audience. Advertisers will go where the people are.

Also, because journalism has always played such an important role in a free society, journalists should strive to follow the rules of professional journalistic ethics. They should be held accountable to these ethics by fellow journalists, their employers, and most importantly, by their customers. Their reputations, and more importantly, the values of truth and freedom, depend on this. (See notes [1] and [2] at bottom for some relevant links on journalistic ethics)

To give Northland More FM credit, they eventually admitted that the reporter in question had made a serious error in judgement, and apologised. The following public apology was aired on Friday morning, at the same three times as the original news report (6:30, 7:30 and 8:30):

http://www.julianpistorius.com/morefm/morefm-apology-to-libertarianz.mp3
[0.2MB]

The transcript of the above:
--START--
"More FM yesterday ran a story saying that the Libertarianz political
party supported racism. More FM now accepts that this was incorrect.

Libertarianz Deputy Julian Pistorius confirmed that his party does
~not~ support racism, but it does support people's freedom to believe
whatever nonsense they wish.

More FM sincerely apologises for any ambiguities associated with
Thursday's story."

--END--

I have decided that this public record should remain on-line for as long as possible. If somebody heard that first news report, but not the apology the day after, then these facts must be here to set the record straight. No member of Libertarianz must ever be accused of racism by somebody who heard a biased news report.

I guess I have learnt a very important lesson about being careful what I say in a recorded interview, in which anything can be taken out of context. I have been too naive and trusting. Not everybody has the same level of ethics.

In the end, what disappointed me the most, was the attitude of the reporter. He is a young guy - like me, and has his whole career ahead of him. Obviously, he does not want this hanging over his head. If he had offered me a personal apology, and admitted that he had made a bad judgement call, I would not have had a moment of hesitation to protect his identity. I am not a monster. I have no desire to ruin anybody's career.

As it was, he tried to coerce a verbal agreement out of me, trying to ensure that I would only put the evidence on-line for a very limited time. I ask you, is this how you treat the victim of your slander?

Journalists are supposed to report the truth, to defend freedom and justice. They should not make the news up. The system works naturally by weaning out the untrustworthy journalists, by exposing their fraud and bias, and so tainting their reputations. This leaves the honest journalists who report the truth the best. This process constantly improves the level of excellence and objectivity in the media.

I have had a really difficult time with this decision. This reporter has shamed the journalistic profession, and violated the public trust, by flouting about half of all the principles of journalistic ethics I could find. By all rights, this reporter should be named and shamed - that is how people will know to double-check anything he ever writes in the future. If I don't, I will not be doing the cause of fair, objective and unbiased journalism any favours.

Well, while More FM and this reporter fully expect me to name him, I have decided that there is no purpose to be served in ruining his career - even though he deserves it.

As I said in the telephone interview, the best way to change people's ideas, is by serving as a positive example. I am going to be an example of a benevolent, forgiving human being. Mr. Young Reporter: I will not publish your name. I will not ruin your reputation.

Julian Pistorius
Friday, 10 March 2006

Notes:

[1] The New Zealand Journalists Code of Ethics, as specified in the rules of the New Zealand Amalgamated Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union1, 2000:
http://www.presscouncils.org/library/New%20Zealand_J_Union.doc

Excerpt 1a:
"
Respect for truth and the public's right to information are over­riding principles for all journalists. In pursuance of these principles, journalists commit themselves to ethical and professional standards. All members of the union engaged in gathering, trans­mitting, disseminating and commenting on news and information shall observe the following code of ethics in their professional activities:

a) They shall report and interpret the news with scrupulous honesty and striving to disclose all essential facts and by not suppressing relevant available facts or distorting by wrong or improper emphasis.
"

Excerpt 1b:
"
j) They shall do their utmost to correct any published or broadcast information found to be harmfully inaccurate.

A breach of this code shall be a breach of the union's rules and thus may give rise to disciplinary procedures under the rules.
"

[2] Society of Professional Journalists - Code of Ethics:
http://www.spj.org/ethics_code.asp

Excerpt 2a:

"
Seek Truth and Report It

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

* Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
* Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
"

Excerpt 2b:

"
* Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
"

Excerpt 2c:

"
* Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
"

Excerpt 2d:

"
Minimize Harm

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

* Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

* Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.

* Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

* Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
"

Excerpt 2e:

"
Act Independently

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.

Journalists should:

* Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
* Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
* Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
* Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
* Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
* Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
"

Excerpt 2f:

"
Be Accountable

Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

Journalists should:

* Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
* Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
* Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
* Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
* Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
"


[3] Broadcasting Standards Authority:
http://www.bsa.govt.nz/radiocode.htm

Excerpt 3a:

"
Principle 4 Balance

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Guidelines

4a Broadcasters will respect the rights of individuals to express their own opinions.

4b Broadcasters may have regard, when ensuring that programmes comply with Principle 4, to the following matters:

(i) An appropriate introduction to the programme; and

(ii) Any reasonable on-air opportunity for listeners to ask questions or present rebuttal within the period of current interest. Broadcasters may have regard to the views expressed by other broadcasters or in the media which listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of.

Principle 5 Fairness

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.

Guidelines

5a No telephone conversation will be recorded or broadcast for the purpose of news, current affairs or any other programme, unless the recipient has been advised that it is being recorded for possible broadcast, or is aware that the conversation is being broadcast. Exceptions may apply depending upon the context of the broadcast, including the legitimate use of humour.

5b Care must be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure that the extracts used are a true reflection and not a distortion of the original event or the overall views expressed.

5c Programmes shall not be presented in such a way as to cause panic, or unwarranted alarm or undue distress.

Principle 6 Accuracy

In the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

Guidelines

6a Broadcasters will not use deceptive programme practices.

6b In the event of an allegation of inaccuracy, broadcasters will act promptly to check the allegation against the original broadcast, and will broadcast with similar prominence a suitable and appropriately scheduled correction if that is found to be justified.

6c Factual reports on the one hand, and opinion, analysis and comment on the other, shall be clearly distinguished.

6d Broadcasters shall ensure that the editorial independence and integrity of news and current affairs is maintained.
"

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  1. Rick says:
    March 9, 2006 @ 19:19 — Reply

    Hahaha!
    Looks like it was a Red Alert in the Pistorius household. :)

    The only bad publicity is no publicity. You did real good.

  2. libertyscott says:
    March 10, 2006 @ 03:53 — Reply

    Julian, as a friend once told me - New Zealand has precious few journalists, they are mostly reporters. Reporters essentially say "someone said this", journalists ask questions and analyse.

    Given More FM has responded to this, you should put out a press release clarifying the party position - and noting that More FM apologised for misleading the public. The true appropriate legal action for you would be defamation, or for the party to take the reporter for defamation - which would be an interesting one. The BSA is easy street, but against party principles.

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