Why teaching journalism ethics really matters

A casual conversation with a stranger at a book launch last week took a familiar turn after the what-do-you-do question. “You teach journalism ethics? Really? Isn’t that the very definition of an oxymoron? No disrespect, but I mean…”

Yes disrespect, sorry to say. Not that I was surprised because journalists have always suffered from – irony alert – a bad press.

In opinion poll surveys about trust, journalists are down there with politicians, estate agents and – second irony alert – pollsters.

Throughout my career, I have noted how newspaper colleagues shrugged aside the criticism, adopting a form of Millwall-style cynicism: “No one likes us, we don’t care”.

One of the most quoted quotes by journalists about their trade is Nick Tomalin’s quip: "The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability".

See, not only don’t we care what people think, we revel in their disapproval. We appear only too happy to be cast as rogues. We refuse to treat our own trade with respect.

I find endless instances of the same unscrupulous attitude in journalists’ memoirs. Veteran reporters are only too delighted to tell of their unethical exploits in pursuit of stories.

They like to exhibit a disdain for the law and all forms of authority. Look how we misbehaved to land a scoop. See how we got the story by deceit. And here’s how we fiddled our expenses. Great fun, eh?

Former editors do tend to be more circumspect in their self-justifying books, but their message could not be clearer: we journalists are, and should be, a breed apart. It’s a dirty job and the public should be grateful that we are prepared to do it on their behalf.

I readily admit that I’m hardly a journalistic paragon. My career has been studded with dodgy escapades, although I won’t be falling into the trap of boasting about them, nor excusing them, in an autobiography.

But we veterans need to stop and think about the consequences of our insouciance. Enough of the exculpation. With the activity of journalism, meaning “mainstream journalism”, now on the back foot, we need to be more positive about what we do.

That doesn’t mean being pompous or po-faced, but it does mean taking pride in the mission of journalism.

I know, I know. The very mention of “mission” is enough to make many journalists scoff. And that, of course, is the problem. They are uncomfortable with the notion that what they do is of far-reaching importance.

They hold contradictory views about journalism. They know that it is an exceptional job but, at the same time, they pretend it isn’t. They hate to see it as vocation and therefore deliberately underplay its significance.

A vocation? Yes. That is not an exaggeration. It is, to a remarkable extent, the case. Leaving aside the rewards, they fail to appreciate that they are engaged in a public service.

Again, I see this characterisation being pooh-poohed. Too solemn. Too serious. Too far-fetched. Give us a break, Roy. You’ve spent too many years in a university. Get back to reality.

I would counter by pointing to the modern reality about how we are portrayed in the most negative of terms. I read the below-the-line comments on newspaper websites from readers frustrated by journalistic output.

Every day, on Twitter, I pick up on the criticism, fair and unfair, of what journalists do, and don’t do. There is an insistent message from the people we claim to serve: your journalism is not good enough.

In fact, I am delighted to say that a lot of it is good. The public do not understand how difficult it is to get information of genuine public benefit. It doesn’t fall into our laps. We employ skills in order to dig and delve.

But, too often, we seek to minimise our achievements. In so doing, we provide ammunition for the critics, for a public that fails to value what we reveal because we fail to value ourselves.

Although that derisive response about “journalism ethics” by the woman I met at the book launch is common enough among the public, a similar view is also held by journalists.

They scorn the persona of a high-minded seeker after truth in favour of Tomalin’s rat-like cunning. I wish I had a pound for every time someone makes the joke about ethics being nothing more than a county to the east of London.

Teaching ethics, which is common in universities and in NCTJ training courses, is a valid attempt to create a legion of journalists who care about the status of their chosen careers.  

Now, more than ever, we need the public on our side. We need public support to ensure that journalism thrives and, in turn, that democracy thrives.

And one big step towards winning public trust would be for retired journalists to think twice before writing their memoirs.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*