Much To Learn From The Tragic NoTW Scandal: Middleton [INTERVIEW]

Posted on August 20, 2011 in Interviews

Co-founder of Center for International Media Ethics (CIME), London-based Melisande Middleton, coined the term ‘J-ethinomics’ in 2010. Herself a Stanford alumnus, she coordinates the independent organisation that supports local initiatives for improvement of media ethics and global expertise in the topic. CIME works as a media watchdog with a dedicated team of illustrious personalities pioneering the cause of ethical practices in global journalism. She tells our editor Abhirup Bhunia that user generated news has altered journalism, and that journalists should reflect on the Murdoch episode. She places the CIME view of things. Excerpts:

1. With the saga of News of The World (NoTW) and Murdoch family, has media ethics come right back into focus?

The News of the World scandal has generated renewed energy and focus for the importance of media ethics and high journalistic standards. And because it has garnered such strong public interest, mass media has been able to spread this crucial message internationally from country to country, allowing journalists from all over the world to reflect and honestly evaluate the state of their profession. So despite the great tragedies of the scandal, there is much to be learned from it. Journalists should treat it as an important reminder of what can happen when investigative reporters behave irresponsibly and go too far.

2. Can media houses possibly take care of profitability and ethics simultaneously?

Definitely, we believe that ethical reporting and reliable news are the long-term strategy to follow. As the public tends to value trustworthy information in the long term, they will only be willing to pay for content that represents real benefit and accurate data. The parallel between ethical media and profitability is the founding principal of media ethics. The term J-Ethinomics unites the concepts of Ethics and Economics in the field of Journalism. Previous research discovers that there is a positive correlation between trust and long-term costumer relationship. Therefore, the practice of responsible journalism, that which generates trust, can support a news organization’s ability to thrive economically.

3. How do you see the deep relationship between mediapersons and politicians? Is it a cosy nexus?

On the one hand, it is extremely important for journalists and politicians to have a close relationship. The only way the majority of the public will understand what the politicians are saying is through media coverage. When politicians are more comfortable with journalists they will speak more freely and openly. This can be an extremely positive thing.

However, the forming of this cosy nexus means that certain deals can be struck between the two parties in order to ensure that both gain some advantage while the public miss out. As illustrated in the recent exposure in the United Kingdom of the close relationship between senior politicians and senior members of News International, the problem can occur at an extremely high level of political governance.

4. Amidst all this, what is the impact on audiences?

If political figures work towards having certain views represented in the news and not others, public opinion will not have the opportunity to form freely. This is especially problematic in the months leading up to an election. An election process is ineffective if voters have not been made aware of the wide range of opinions that constitute a political landscape. If the media is dominated by certain views and not others, the public misses out on the chance to form its own opinions in choosing a vote.

5. Your view on non-mainstream media – the scores of quality portals that provide objective news and analysis?

Non-mainstream media’s independence is both its greatest weakness and its greatest asset. Established journalism, often multi-national and directed in the interests of states and shareholders, needs to be held to account as much as other powerful institutions do, and the evolving emergence of a ‘5th wall’ is key. It may be partisan or misinformed, but multiplicity of viewpoint and opinion is healthy for the news industry. The alternative is silence.

6. Ethics apart, how has digital technology and internet altered the way we get news?

Citizen journalism and user generated content (UCG) has greatly altered the way we get news. It is possible to follow events as they unfold to the second on sites such as Twitter, and news is shared and disseminated via online communities of likeminded people across the globe which has never before existed. There is, however, a danger involved with this — the rapidity with which news is reported, and the plethora of sources it comes from, means accuracy can easily be lost. A story can be broken across the globe in a matter of minutes; it’s very exciting.

7. Finally, how do you react to newspapers taking open political stances not only in op-ed pages but in news reports?

It is of great importance that news reports are as neutral as possible. The news sections of newspapers should aim to report the news accurately and truthfully, in a tone that makes the reader aware of the different political stances that can be taken on each issue. Even stating simple facts can still be biased if presented out of context. It is the responsibility of each journalist to practice self-awareness: if you know that you have a tendency towards a certain political bent, make an effort to consider other perspectives try to balance your writing accordingly so that readers can still form their own opinions. Op-ed pages need to be clearly labelled as such and can say what they like as long as the reader is aware that what is discussed is the author’s own views and not the definitive take on any given situation.