Research Article | Open Access
Ethics in Journalism: A Forgotten Pillar
Shivam Singh Baghel
MediaSpace: DME Journal of Communication, Vol. 1, 2020, Page 92-107
Research Article | Open Access
Shivam Singh Baghel
MediaSpace: DME Journal of Communication, Vol. 1, 2020, Page 92-107
This paper makes an attempt to establish how present day television media is communalizing people’s mind and propagating hatred. Specifically, delves with the nuance and granular analysis of daily news coverage of different Indian channels. Implication of media on every strata of society, casts duty, to be ethical and use their freedom in a responsible manner. Today, in complex environment, where society is more volatile than ever, media seems to be brutal, spreading hatred and acts of defamation among several others with little to no regard for ethics and morality.
The aim of this paper is to specifically delve with the pertinent questions about the ethical responsibilities of media. Paper reflects some deep ethical issues in journalism, which requires careful consideration, with regard to both, theoretical and pragmatic aspects. Focusing on the parallel shift in the value of truth and ethics it makes an attempt to show the hegemonic relationship that exists between media and politics. With the increasing trend of influence of politics in the media sector, on deeper examination, author argues that newsrooms have become an ideological battle ground. This paper readily exposes the violence manufactured in the language used by TV journalists, whereby certain selected terminologies are used to reveal an individual play a hegemonic role in defining them. Through the medium of this paper author problematize the domination of the hate speech that becomes the principle focal point of the television debates. This paper also touches the statutory mandates pertaining to media freedom and reasonable restrictions. Paper elucidate on the major issue of providing an appropriate or effective ways to combat unethical practice of spreading hatred by television media.
Keywords: Media, Journalism, Hate, Ethics, Ideology, Free Speech
Ethical journalism is quintessential for strengthening the forces of democracy. Theoretically, media is regarded as the watchdog of the constitutional democracy. It is meant to serve the people and become voice of voiceless. Utopian idea of journalism based on the principles of objectivity, fairness, impartiality and honesty among several others. “Journalism is meant to serve the people with news, views, comments and information on matters of public interest in a fair, accurate, unbiased and decent manner and language”. Today, in complex environment, where society is more volatile than ever, media can play constructive role in bringing social change and shaping public opinion. Media exercise a significant impact on the varied ethnic, cultural and religious population of the country and as corollary, media’s commitment to ethics comes under question. In addition, audience repose great faith and believes as correct which appears in media reporting. In a transitional society, journalistic ethics is a fundamental concern for media industry as well as to the public. In present times, when news business has become highly competitive and based on economic model, the contours of ethical journalism is seems to be ignored.
Media derives fundamental right of free speech and expression from the Constitution of India. It must be informed with the idea of justice, rule of law and human rights. Constitutional freedom of speech and expression should not be exercised in manner to deprecate and disturb the cultural fabric of society. Freedom must be exercised sparingly and with utmost responsibility. Media reporting cannot be used as tool to propagate hatred in guise of constitutional freedom.
This paper has two sections. The first section attempts at understanding media ethics and its role and responsibility. Next section of the paper makes an attempt to present nuance and granular analysis of daily news coverage of different Indian channels with reference to terminology and headlines used during the broadcast. Attempt is not to generalize, but to question the biases of certain news channels and to reach at considerable theoretical basis for claiming that a particular media reporting is unethical.
Ethics is practiced in different way in different societies and cultures. What is considered morally acceptable or ethical to one person may be considered deviancy in another. In order to analyze the daily news coverage of different Indian channels that assumingly compromising with media ethics, it is essential to first understand what is entailed within the definition of ethics and its practices within the code.
Ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos, meaning ‘custom,’ ‘usage,’ or ‘character’. It is the division of philosophy that delves with moral behavior or conduct. Ethics is distinction between ‘virtues’ and ‘vice’, which reflects societal notions regarding the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of any conduct. The desire for ethical behavior, as defined by Louis A. Day, “depends entirely upon the actions of individuals and the assumption that these people wish to act responsibly”. According to Johannesen, “multifaceted ethical situations usually arise when a moral agent commits an act within a specific context with a particular motive directed at an audience”. Ethical scholar Donald K. Wright noted that “ethics is the foundation of advanced civilization, a cornerstone that provides some stability to society’s moral expectations”. Questions concerning ethics are usually based on the individual or organizational belief system.
Ethics and Journalism
Media ethics have to do with the decisions and actions taken by journalists while reporting. According to Mathew Kieran, good journalism aims at “discovering and promoting the audience’s understanding of an event via truth-promoting methods”. Andrew Belsey defines journalism as an “idea of virtuous conduct, facilitating the democratic process and serving the public interest”. Gordon et al. claims that ethical journalism deals with duty to self and duty to others. Similarly, Goodpaster and Matthews has claimed that individual ethical responsibility has three elements: “someone is to blame, something has to be done, and some kind of trustworthiness can be expected”. Burns states journalists must accept their responsibility in relation to affecting people’s lives and must be guided by the public interest principle.
Discussing ends of journalism, Mathew Kieran argues divergence in news reporting is bound to happen because of differences in judgment, social values and commitments towards public. He has claimed that the “journalism threatens to disappear, where reporting turns away from the goal of truth and journalists treat events as open to many interpretations, according to their prejudices, assumption, news agenda or the commercial drive towards entertainment”. In contrast, distinguishing ‘truth’, which the press could not import, and ‘news’ Lippmann argues that “what one normally gets is not truth but fact, and that fact is circumscribed by a variety of reporters, fear of libel, and that which is superficial”.
Andrew Belsey defines journalism as political service. He has discussed the contradictions between ‘industrial journalism’ and ethical journalism in an article “Journalism and ethics: Can they co-exist?”. Article raises fundamental question that whether it is even plausible to expect ethics in jounalism. He clearly recognizes that the constraints ‘industrial journalism’, which is driven by TRP based model, where the story must sell, places upon ethical practice and the production of good journalism. In spite of all the pressure of industrial journalism, ethics in journalism will never disappear completely.
Mahatma Gandhi has asserted three pertinent objectives of newspaper. Firstly, “is to understand proper feelings of the people and giving expression to it; secondly, to arouse desirable sentiments among the people; thirdly, is to fearlessly express popular defects”.
John C. Merrill in his paper “Professionalization: Fusion of press freedom and responsibility”, argues for professionalizing journalism. There is need to bring journalistic freedom and responsibility together through making journalism a true profession, self-controlling and providing high standards for the members of the profession.
According to Gordon et al., “ethical concern leads the media person to seek the summum bonum, the highest good in professional practice, thereby heightening self respect and public credibility and respect”. Tension potentially exists between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, between the actual and the ideal. Bhagat Singh noted that “the actual duty of newspapers is to educate, to liberate people from narrow-mindedness, eradicate fundamentalism, to help in creating a sense of fraternity among people, and build a common nationalism in India”. Ethical considerations rests with the journalists, it is for them to have regards for ethics. “A sense of right conduct does not come naturally; it must be developed, thought about, reasoned through, and cared deeply about”. According to Justice Ray, journalists must be very sensitive to this delicate and fragile social structure and should refrain from doing any act which may even remotely disturb the equilibrium of the society.
Code of Ethics
The premise of self-regulation is based on the code of ethics. It sets out broad parameters to guide journalist to act in responsible manner. The Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards by the News Broadcasters Association has canvassed the broad principles for the member news channels to maintain highest possible standards for public service.
In the Norms of Journalistic Conduct by Press Council of India, the focus is laid down on the principles and ethics. It defines the duty of press and guidelines for the manner of reporting in specific issues. Relevant portions of which are extracted below in relation to the maintaining communal harmony.
From the above, it is evident that the journalism is beyond pre-defined set of principles. Every journalist, exercising the freedom of expression adopts different ways of presentation of news report. Ethical journalism does not simply deal with manner of presenting facts and reporting. It encompasses in vague yet prescribed territory, the duty towards society at large and that duty can only be discharged if media comes out with a fair and proper comment and attitude. Discussions of the ethical behavior of media practitioners are usually difficult and cannot be seen in straight jacket formula. However, the attempt is not to make ethical decisions by way of making value-judgment with which everyone agrees or, for that matter, to make such decisions that surpass the societal threshold of expectations. In media discourse, questions of ethical consideration are relevant because, it oblige journalists to make thoughtful decisions while reporting.
The code of ethics outlines the pre-conditions of journalist’s accountability and responsibility. This indicates that having or adopting a code of ethics obliges the journalists to be accountable to the public, to their professions and perform their duties in a responsible manner. Ethical codes are merely a step in the direction of affixing responsibility to journalists and need not necessarily be a panacea to all the problems of ethical intolerance in media.
Doctrinal research methodology of research is used in this paper. Data for the research paper has been taken from secondary sources such as books, research articles, online sources and statues. This paper is based on descriptive analysis method.
A democracy that does not guarantee freedom of expression to its citizen is a humbug. Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution grants the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression to its citizens. In vision of the constitution framers free public discussion and debate is a central feature our democracy”. Indian constitution does not specifically provides freedom of press unlike American, but the Supreme Court in catena of cases ruled that the press freedom is included under Article 19(1)(a) and “constitutes one of the essential foundations of our democratic society”.
Article 19(2) of the constitution specifically mentions the grounds of reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression which can be imposed by state. Freedom cannot be absolute or completely unrestricted. “One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non-information all equally create uniformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce”. In case of A K Gopalan v. state of Madras, Patanjali Shastri J., categorically observed that “man is a rational being desires to do many things, but in a civil society his desires will have to be controlled with exercise of similar desire by other individuals”.
It D.C. Saxena v. Chief Justice of India, Supreme Court discussed the ethical duty of journalists towards the audience as under:
There is a correlative duty not to interfere with the liberty of others. Nobody has a right to denigrate others right to person or reputation. Interest of the people involved in the acts of expression should be looked at not only from the perspective of the speaker but also the place at which he speaks, the scenario, the audience, the reaction of the publication, the purpose of the speech and the place and the forum in which the citizen exercises his freedom of speech and expression.
In the case of Surya Prakash Khatri v. Madhu Trehan, Court emphasized over the duties of press towards society at large:
Primary function of the press is to provide comprehensive and objective information of all aspects of the nation’s socio-political, economic and cultural life. It is the duty of a true and responsible journalist to strive to inform the people with accurate and impartial presentation of news and their views after dispassionate evaluation of the facts and information received by them and to be published as a news item. The presentation of the news should be truthful, objective and comprehensive without any false and distorted expression.
In Prestige Estates Projects Limited v. State of Karnataka and Ors, Court stressed over the self-realization of journalistic duties:
In the conscience of the journalist must be ingrained the element of responsibility since in an organized society, the rights of the press are recognized with its duties and responsibilities towards the society.
In case of Mother Dairy Foods and Processing Ltd. v. Zee Telefilms Ltd, Court observed that “unethical journalistic activity muckraking or deceit will undermine public trust in media and without that relationship of trust, democratic function of journalism cannot be fulfilled”.
Regulation of propagation of hate by television media poses a challenge more than ever before. There is no single legislation or coordinated control by a centralized authority but a bundle of laws and authorities regulate the media. The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995 and rules provided in the Cable Television Network Rules of 1994 govern hate speech by television media. Rule 6 of Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994 deals with Programme Code. Rule 6(1)(e) prohibits any transmission that is “likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promote anti-national attitudes”. The Cable Television Network Act, 1995 empowers central government to prohibit the operation of any cable television network when it is “necessary or expedient to do so in the interests of public order, decency or morality”. Press Council India has power under the Press Council Act, 1978 to censure newspaper or news agency that has “offended against the standards or journalistic ethics or public taste or that an editor or a working journalist has committed any professional misconduct”. Power of Press Council is only limited to the press.
Apart from regulatory legislations, penal laws have been seen as antidote to hate speech by television media. Section 153A of Indian Penal Code, 1860 prescribes punishment for the “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”. Section 153B of Indian Penal Code, 1860 makes act punishable whoever creates imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration. Section 295A of Indian Penal Code, 1860 provides punishment for “deliberate and malicious acts that are intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. Section 298 of Indian Penal Code, 1860 prescribes punishment for “deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person”. Section 505(1) of Indian Penal Code, 1860 deals with “publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report with intent to incite, or which is likely to incite, any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community”.
Over the past few years media has failed to effectively perform ethical duty of promoting peace in times of social disharmony rather added fuel to the fire. Large section of Indian media, reports through the lens of hyper nationalism. Television news media nowadays prefer sensationalism in search for ratings. They arouse public sentiment through violent headlines and heated communal debates. Bhagat Singh in 1927 noted “the profession of journalism, which is highly respected once, has become extremely dirty today. These people provoke the feeling of people by giving bold headlines against each other and make them fight”.
The prevalent media rhetoric is a deplorable one, it is working antithetical to the main objective of journalism and seems to be spreading hatred, fundamentalism, inciting clashes and destroying the harmony of India. Without prejudice towards any particular media platform, author makes an attempt to cite pertinent examples of media coverage to establish the above mentioned argument. It starts with selection of topic of debate to give communal angle; invitation of the panelist from the different religious groups; debate that ends with ugly spat between the panelist from opposite religious group; provocative language is being used while discussion among panelists and anchor. I am reproducing sample headlines used during certain news shows. ‘Janmabhoomi Hamari Ram Humare masjid waale kaha se padhare’ (birthplace and Ram is ours, where did these masjidwalahs come from?), ‘Muslim Mukt’ Bharat! (Muslim free India) and ‘Shaheen Bagh me tukde tukde gang?’ by AajTak. ‘Jihadi Gang fears Zee news’ by Zee News. Thoughtless use of such headlines can be described as the TRP seeking so that more people with particular ideological bias tune to show. Prejudicial conviction against particular community is visible in the headlines chosen by anchors.
Recently on 4th July 2020 on Republic TV debate, one panelist used expletive language against other. Previously panelist even used expletive language against the News 18 anchor Amish Devgan during live debate. As author recalls, in one such debate, panelist referred to another from a particular religion as ‘ISIS agent’, ‘Pakistani agent’ and call him to sit down in very aggressive manner referring, ‘Maulana Baith Jaa tu’. Use of such foul and derogatory language has been normalized in the television debates. On deeper examination, this kind of language hurts the religious sentiments and incites violence.
During the Anti-CAA protest certain sections of mainstream media run extensive campaign to delegitimize the protests and accused protesters as anti-nationals. Media houses have either underreported the stories or carried distorted versions of them. Media instead of putting forth the version of protestors was actively involved in discrediting protest and justifying the CAA Act as being the mouthpiece of government. Respectable channels fostered the communal narrative around CAA protests and unlimited spices were added by the fake news through social media. Communal propaganda seamlessly worked within the eco-chambers of media newsroom. Media constructed Anti-CAA protestors as ‘enemies’ of the country. During the Delhi riots few media outlets were focusing on the plight of the ‘Hindus’ and few only upon “Muslims”. Mainstream media were engaged in blame game accusing Anti-CAA and Pro-CAA protesters for the riots. On February 25, News 18 anchor, Amish Devgan while analyzing Delhi riots shifts burden of on the Shaheen Bagh protest, which he described as being ‘religiously motivated’ and whole protest based on religious ideology. On February 26, Sudarshan News had given inflammatory headline ‘Jihadiyon ka jhund’, it sweepingly blamed the violence in Delhi on Islamist fundamentalists. Anchor referring the protestors with jihadi intentions only understands language of kicks, not talks. Further, said that Anti-CAA protestors made northeast Delhi situation like Iraq and Syria. On March 11, Zee News Editor-in-chief Sudhir Chaudhary, was showing viewers ‘Jihad ka diagram’ to demonize the Muslim community. On 31st March, 2020 India TV broadcast a ‘complete inside story’ on the Nizamuddin cluster case. Ticker ran during the show that ‘Corona aaya Maulana laya’ i.e. ‘Maulana’ brings coronavirus. Recently, Sudarshan TV’s aired programme “UPSC Jihad”, which showed big expose on the conspiracy regarding Muslims infiltration in government service. Supreme Court had restraint the telecast of the show after making a prima facie observation that the object intent and the purpose of the show was to vilify Muslim community. Unfortunately yet without surprise, media has discovered novel issues to foster communalism even amidst a global pandemic.
It is imperative to understand that there is huge nexus between the politics and media. Malla in his article for website Medium analyzed the ownership structure of Indian media houses. He argues that all television media are owned or affiliated to one or the other political party. Media has never been bereft of political intervention and it is part of political process. In relation to the media, problem is twofold. Firstly, ruling government always tries to muzzle the dissenting voice of media. Secondly, there is tendency in media to act as propaganda tool for the government or for the political masters. During emergency, Indira Gandhi then Prime Minister muzzled the right to question of the media. Legislations were passed for the press censorship. Recently, according to the report of Rights & Risks Analysis Group, “about 55 journalists faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show causes notices, physical assaults and threats for reportage on COVID-19 or exercising freedom of expression during the national lockdown from 25 March to 31 May 2020”. On 21st April Arnab Goswami on Republic Bharat, where he hosts a debate in Hindi called ‘Poochta Hai Bharat’ said “two saints have been murdered in broad daylight in a country where 80 percent of the people are Hindu and follow the ‘Sanatan Dharam’, it has become a crime to be Hindu. I don’t accept this in my country and this is my country. Would there be silence if a Maulvi or Padri was murdered.” Arnab’s question to the silence of interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi does not seems to be journalistic question, but political. Question posed by journalist seems to be foster communal tension between two communities by giving the story communal angle.
From the above cited examples, it is evident that there is systematic propagation of hatred and violence by the mainstream media. On critical examination it could be said that mainstream media model is based on the economy of fear and hatred. It makes viewer skeptic towards other religions and creates binary of fear in mind of the viewer against the particular religion. According to senior journalist and Magsaysay Award winner Ravish Kumar, “instead of promoting a scientific temper among people, much of the media in India is today supporting superstition and injecting communal poison in the hearts and minds of viewers and readers”. This model has gained legitimacy in terms of the viewership and Television Rating Point (TRP). It aims at bifurcating communities into ‘us’ and ‘them’. Focus is on majoritarian narrative, discrediting and dehumanizing communities that they mark as ‘the other’. The ideology of ruling class is being diffused throughout public as well as private dimensions of life. Rampant use of political jargon like ‘Tukde-Tukde Gang’, ‘Jihadi Gang’ and binaries of ‘nationalist’ & ‘anti-nationals’ in the media debates & reports is ruining the social as well as personal relationships. It has the effect of promoting and exploiting strife between different communities and religious groups, which can be particularly damaging in any multicultural country. Noted Journalist Prabhu Chawla in his article “Media must rediscover dignity with independence” discussed that:
The coverage of both the pro and anti-citizenship legislation was a classic case of destruction of media’s image. Most of the newspapers and channels refrained from discussing the fine print of the actual laws, but would indulge in foul and fierce verbal slanging matches. For almost two months, media was just involved more in serving the political interests rather than serving facts to viewers and readers. The media became a willing partner in devoting itself totally to the issues which divided India along communal lines.
Noise, shouting, slandering, sloganeering and unfettered attacks has become an everyday phenomenon in Indian news channel debates. “News channel debates take place within a vocabulary of exclusionary nationalism wherein they seek to replace the collective history and memory of the nation with that of the ruling party’s in their viewers’ minds”. News depends on stereotypes, standardization, routine judgment and disregards for subtlety. Media has denounced its roots of analytical news and has ventured into an opinionated and prejudicial domain. “It has turned into a profit-making business not a public service. It has enthroned entertainment and not credible information and analysis”. The nature of news is now more political than ever. Culture of opinion based TV debates is replacing the information and ground reporting. Headlines are being selected on prejudicial basis and facts are being presented in stereotypical manner. Journalism is now reduced to the selection of news, which suits to the journalist’s purpose. Considering the pattern and manner of reporting in recent times, it seems that most of anchors are intentionally adopting mischievous way to create communal tension and satisfy the political agenda. Concededly, section of Indian news channels is blatantly disregarding the ethical code and principles of journalism in dealing with communal sensitive matter.
One of the fundamental principles of ethical journalism is not to promote or incite hatred, notwithstanding this, the present socio-political milieu witnesses a considerable number of journalists drawing political propagandas thus enticing communal group. In today’s intricate news environment journalists are sometimes causal victims of prejudices and political agenda. Ignorance and a lack of appreciation of different religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs form the characteristic of today’s media reporting.
Theoretically speaking, the constitution though guarantees a fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression to media, at the same time it does not provide for a prescriptive list of what and how media should cover story. As has been argued in the above segments, notwithstanding a constitutional, legal or judicial vacuum in this arena, a media story per se cannot be biased and perpetuating hatred. A journalist’s questions during the debate may carry certain political/ideological prejudice but the same should not be posed in such manner that acts as a potent weapon against religious susceptibilities of a complex ethno-cultural population. Journalistic freedom does not include right to be irresponsible, and compromise ethical duty towards profession and society.
Ethical journalism is beyond the domain of law. Ethical journalism has its root in the culture, belief and mindset of journalist. Law can only provide mere framework and cannot regulate in totality. As of now parliament has not yet thought it appropriate to legislate on the concept of ‘hate speech’ by media. The major question arises whether parliament should come up with legislation to curb ‘media hate’. There are compelling reasons to believe that use of penal laws or government control over journalist will leads to anarchic situation, where government may pick and choose to harass them. In a country with multidimensional freedom of speech and expression, even meagre censorship by the government would be detrimental to the health of democracy. “We cannot have the spectacle of a Damocles’ sword hanging over the head of a journalist while conducting a public debate”.
To deal with the problem of media hate, model of self-regulation holds out the promise of greater compliance for ethics of conduct through mechanisms of self-realization. Media need to take some key self-corrective steps soon, before social pressure gives governments the mandate to intervene. “Media needs to look beyond short-term profits, and take action in the interests of their own long-term freedom and credibility”. It is for media itself to devised mechanism to regulate the right of freedom of media. Mahatma Gandhi in his autobiography wrote while sharing his experience of Indian Opinion that:
The sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops, even so uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within.
There might be the case where journalists may turn into propaganda machinery to support hate-filled political causes, but they can be isolated by the audience. In Jennison v. Baker, it is stated that “the law should not be seen to sit by limply, while those who defy it go free, and those who seek its protection lose hope.”
Outlining judicial restraint to counter media biases and upholding freedom of expression, court in Shashi Tharoor v. Arnab Goswami and Ors, beautifully observed that:
Undoubtedly, TV viewers who want to watch ‘action films’ should not watch TV debates on current affairs on the ground that it contains more action and violence than any action film. There is need to lift the level of TV debates, but other than expressing a fond hope, the Court can do no more.
Journalists must not oblivious of the fact that their words and headlines have deep and consequential impact on different communities. To meet virtues of ethical journalism, they must have constructive knowledge of different ideologies, religion, cultures, traditions and beliefs and appreciate all. To be effective, journalism must be inclusive, accountable and a reflection of the whole community. In the prevailing volatile situation, it is vital that media should come forward and play constructive role in preserving social fabric of the country. Media should use its constitutional freedom of speech & expression that is guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) for promoting communal peace and amity not hatred.
Lastly, to say the least, the need is to inculcate self realization of duty towards society and to develop temperament that represent the diversity of thought, feeling, and experience of the people they serve. Divided media organizations have to take responsibility collectively to avoid prejudiced based reporting. However, this is easier said than done in modern newsroom environment. To put it succinctly, “aim of journalism can be achieved through the self realization of ethical duties.”
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Shivam Singh Baghel: Student, Final Year, B.A.LL.B.(Hons), Himachal Pradesh National Law University, Shimla, Shivamsinghbaghel47@gmail.com