This essay is excerpted from Media Law Handbook, published by the Bureau of International Information Programs.
But who watches the watchdog? Who ensures that the press will be accountable? In some countries, the answer is the government. Laws, statutes, and codes spell out in detail the conduct required of news organizations. In these nations, journalists’ rights often depend upon fulfillment of responsibilities. The rub is that the government’s definition of responsibility may differ greatly from that of the press itself, or even the public.
In other countries, the answer is, the press itself, and its readers and viewers.
In some parts of the world, news organizations or individual journalists subscribe to ethical codes of conduct, like that of the National Union of Journalists in the United Kingdom. Other countries impose ethical standards as a matter of law. In the United States, individual news organizations have adopted their own ethical guidelines. Typically, these codes or guidelines set out the institution’s rules governing financial and other conflicts of interest.
For example, an ethical guideline may prohibit a reporter from covering a company for which her spouse works. Or it may forbid a reporter to take part in a protest march, or to display a political sticker on the fender of his car or a placard in his front garden, or to wear a national flag in her lapel as she reports the news. Or it may prohibit a reporter from accepting even a nominal gift from a news source. Guidelines like these are intended to maintain both the reality and the appearance of journalistic independence.
It would seem unnecessary for ethical guidelines to address the necessity for accuracy and truth-telling. But after journalists like Jayson Blair of the New York Times either fabricated or plagiarized the news stories they submitted to their editors, many organizations have revised their ethics guidelines to make clear that neither practice can ever be accepted or condoned by a responsible news organization.
Sometimes ethics and the law intersect. In Northern Ireland, for example, Suzanne Breen, the Belfast-based editor for Dublin’s Sunday Tribune, faced a legal and ethical dilemma. Breen had been telephoned by an individual who claimed responsibility for murdering two soldiers at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. The police demanded that she turn over her cell phone, computer records, and notes about her contacts with the paramilitary Real IRA organization. Breen resisted, arguing that to do so would breach her professional obligation to protect the confidentiality of her sources. She also candidly acknowledged that complying with the law enforcement demands could endanger her life, and the lives of her family members. But if she defied the order, Breen faced the prospect of up to five years in jail for contempt.
In June 2009, a judge in Belfast ruled that compelling Breen to surrender her news-gathering materials would put her life at risk in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights.
By contrast, in the United States, New York Times reporter Judith Miller refused to cooperate in a criminal investigation seeking the identity of a government official who had revealed the identity of a covert intelligence agent. Miller defied orders to testify, even after judicial rulings that journalists possessed no special privilege to decline naming confidential sources. She spent 85 days in jail in 2005. Some judges and members of the public argued that journalists can never hold themselves above the law. But the ethics policies of most news organizations would require a reporter to honor a promise given to a source, even if it means going to jail.
Legal and ethical provisions vary from country to country. Reasonable people — and even journalists themselves — may disagree on how they should apply in a particular situation and whether they strike the proper balance between competing societal interests.