Journalism and media ethics Fact Sheet - updated May 2010
Journalists, just like lawyers, doctors, and politicians, constantly face ethical dilemmas.
Situations arise every day in newsrooms across Australia that requires reporters, editors, and publishers to balance professional and legal obligations with the public’s interest.
For the most part, the ethical rules are not black or white; rather, they fall into a grey area. For example, there is no written guideline for when an interviewee wants to go ‘off the record’. Some journalists don’t mind it; others will always refuse.
There are two types of ethical codes that most Australian journalists are exposed to: the internal codes of individual media outlets and the Australian Journalist Association’s code.
The AJA’s code was last amended in 1998. If provides a preamble, guidance clause, and 12 rules that all journalists are expected to follow. While most journalists see the AJA code as a useful tool, it is not enforceable.
Internal codes are developed by most major media outlets, such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation or the Sydney Morning Herald. For the most part, they are binding on their employed journalists and any violation could be met with disciplinary action at the discretion of the respective organisation.
Both types of codes are helpful in navigating through difficult situations, however, none are strictly binding. The Australian Journalist Association code of ethics acknowledges that ethical values “often need interpretation and sometimes come into conflict.”
In some cases, Journalists who act “unethically” have been penalised by the courts. This is due to either a breach of statutory duty or the commission of a tort (i.e./ Defamation, trespassing, nuisance, etc.) For example, see Jane Doe v ABC.
The most common reason for the courts to get involved in journalistic matters is when an issue arises concerning defamation. Journalists have several defences available, which are discussed under the Free Speech and Defamation section of this website.
In determining whether a person has been defamed, a court will sometimes consider what is and what is not ethical, as seen in Haertsch v Channel Nine Pty Ltd.
However, ethical standards are not judged by the courts in relation to any professional code. In Reader's Digest v Lamb, the High Court of Australia determined that journalistic codes of ethics are not admissible because they “did not reflect general community standards but rather the attitude of a particular group.”
Nevertheless, if a court concludes there has been a breach of statutory duty or liability in tort as a result of a journalist’s conduct, it will generally award damages and where possible, grant an injunction.
Broadcast journalism faces unique ethical challenges, mainly in connection with the gathering and presentation of television footage. For example, sometimes an investigative report requires a journalist to go “undercover” and/or broadcasts footage obtained by hidden cameras. Most codes of ethics advise against such practices, but they can be justified if the information received is in the public’s interest.
Another ethical issue unique to broadcasters is the “cash for comment” controversy. This occurs when a reporter speaks positively about a product or service on-air, in exchange for payment. Clause 7 of the AJA’s Code of Ethics states that journalists must do their “utmost to ensure disclosure of any direct or indirect payment made for interviews, pictures, information or stories.”
In 1999, the ABC’s Media Watchbroke a story that a high-profile commercial radio host was being paid to make positive comment about an organisation representing Australian banks. These comments were allegedly made in addition to paid advertisements. The fallout from this controversy led to significant regulatory reforms, including giving increased powers to the Australian Communications and Media Authority to bring civil proceedings.
The ACMA regulates the codes of practice for most broadcasters. All codes require news and current affairs programs to be (in some form of wording) accurate, impartial, and balanced. They also deal with correcting errors and presenting some form of balance of significant viewpoints. Section 123 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) includes a list of matters that may be included in a code of practice, one of which is “promoting accuracy and fairness in news and current affairs programs”.
The National Broadcasters (the ABC and SBS) are covered by their own codes of practice.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (Cth) requires the ABC to develop and maintain an independent service for broadcasting news. The ABC Code of Practice includes the provision that every reasonable effort must be made to ensure that the content of news and current affairs programs is accurate, impartial, and balanced.
The Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 (Cth) requires SBS to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is accurate and balanced over time and across the schedule of programs broadcast.
Most codes establish a complaints system whereby complaints must be made to the broadcaster before they can be referred to the ACMA.
Print journalists in Australia are self-regulated by the Australian Press Council. The agency is funded and governed by its members who belong to print media organisations (newspapers, magazines, and journals). Its aim is twofold: to help preserve the traditional freedom of the press within Australia and to ensure that the free press acts responsibly and ethically.
- Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair, and balanced.
- Information obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless there is an over-riding public interest.
- Rumor and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such.
Among its several roles, the APC handles complaints and concerns about material in newspapers, magazines and journals, published either in print or on the internet. In 2008/09, the APC received over 500 complaints, mainly from private citizens. The majority of the complaints concerned suspected bias reporting or inaccuracies.
The APC attempts to mediate the complaint before adjudication. If a complaint does go to adjudication, the APC will consider its merits and either uphold, uphold in part, or dismiss the complaint. If a complaint is upheld, the adjudication is published by the newspaper, magazine, or journal complained against.
If an apology or retraction isn’t enough, a complainant also has the courts available. This avenue is often used when a person has suffered some sort of financial damage or damage to reputation, as was the case in French v The Herald and Weekly Times.
Internet journalism is a developing medium, considered to be the “wild west” of journalism. Anyone, anywhere can say practically anything they want. This inherently gives rise to many ethical issues.
As stated above, the online version of newspapers, magazines, and journals are subject to the Australian Press Council.
If an article had been published by an independent blogger instead of a news agency such as the AAP, the Press Council would not have been able to adjudicate the matter.
There is currently no code of ethics that relates to strictly online journalism or blogging, although some professional bloggers have called out for one. The AJA Code of Ethics could certainly apply to the realm of online journalism, however, it doesn’t address internet-specific issues such as linking websites, user-comment monitoring, and anonymous posting.
Whether they like it or not, bloggers are part of the world of journalism, and as such, the same codes that apply to journalists apply to bloggers as well.
Over the past decade, the courts have had to increasingly deal with issues involving the questionable conduct of bloggers, as seen in Kaplan v Go Daddy Group and 2 Ors.
Another ethical issue plaguing online journalism is the digital alteration of photographs. User-friendly software allows photos to be changed and manipulated very easily, often with very realistic results.
The AJA Code of Ethics clearly states that any “manipulation [of photos] likely to mislead should be disclosed.” For the most part, image enhancement is a common practice in online journalism, but mainly for technical clarity. When a photo is altered to the point where it could deceive, whether intentional or not, it should be disclosed on the website. But as previously mentioned, there is no mechanism in place to enforce this practice.
In an article published by the Washington Post, Paul Grabowicz of the University of California-Berkeley’s New Media Program said about bloggers: “I don't think they need to be held to the same standards [as journalists]. I would rephrase it as expectations. If you are going to be running a blog and you want people to listen to you, then it seems to me that you have some sort of internal standards ... or else who is going to pay attention.”
Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance
Australian Press Council decisions
Australian Journalists Code of Ethics
ABC TV’s Media Watch
Australian Communications and Media Authority
The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism
National Union of Journalists’ Code of Conduct (U.K.)
Canadian Association of Journalists Statement of Principles and Ethical Guidelines
Broadcasting Standards Authority of New Zealand
Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics (United States)
Journalism, Privacy, and the High Court
Australian Journalists’ Professional and Ethical Values
The News Manual: Ethics & the Law
Cash for Comment in Commercial Radio
Ethical Blogging – A 10-point guide
Is it time to update the Australian Journalist Association’s Code of Ethics?
ABC v Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd  HCA 63
Craftsman Homes Australia Pty Ltd v TCN Channel 9 Pty Ltd  NSWSC 519
Davis v Nationwide News (2008) NSWSC 946
French v The Herald and Weekly Times Pty Ltd (No 2)  VSC 155
Haertsch v Channel Nine Pty Ltd & Ors  NSWSC 182 (http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/nsw/supreme_ct/2010/182.html)
Jane Doe v ABC  VCC 281
Kaplan v Go Daddy Group and 2 Ors  NSWSC 636
Radio 2UE Sydney Pty Ltd v Chesterton  HCA 16
Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd v Lamb  HCA 4
TCN Channel Nine Pty. Ltd. v Anning  NSWCA 82
TCN Channel Nine Pty Ltd v Ilvariy Pty Ltd  NSWCA 9
Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (Cth)
Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/bsa1992214/
Defamation Act 2005 (NSW)
Printing and Newspapers Act 1973 (NSW) http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/nsw/consol_act/pana1973262/
Privacy Act 1988 (Cth)
Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act 1998 (NSW)
Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991 (Cth)