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Perhaps the industry should rethink journalistic ethics as media access grows

By Vivian Warby

ANA Publishing

Cape Town, South Africa


How sustainable is journalism in its present form? Do we need a new code of ethics and new policies to make it viable not only in the short term but in 50 years’ time?

These are some things I have been pondering as I rewrite a policy document, including a code of ethics, that is only four years old. I had initially written this document for all journalists who work on the property, home, and green sections of our business.

In 2016, when native advertising (which had replaced the old advertorial) was beginning to thrive, it was necessary to add a few new things to our policies: Native advertising would always be marked as such (and we listed specific ways this would be done). And readers would always know exactly what they were reading and whether it was paid for or not, amongst other things.

An increasing amount of “news” doesn't abide by journalistic ethics.
An increasing amount of “news” doesn't abide by journalistic ethics.

But what happens now in the subtleties that exist in an ever-changing world and media landscape? And not only an ever-changing landscape, but one which is becoming more imperfect to its supporters — the consumers.

The recent tell-all of Harry and Meghan on Oprah Winfrey’s Show and how different media reacted to it — some slamming the Duke and Duchess — put a spotlight on the insidious use of access journalism.

According to an interpretation of it, access journalism refers to journalism that prioritises access (media time with important, rich, famous, powerful, or otherwise influential people in politics, culture, sports, and other areas) over journalistic objectivity and integrity.

Critics of access journalism point out that trying to be friends with important figures for access betrays the original and fundamental role of journalism. It is alleged that when one sees how some British media have reacted to the Meghan and Harry tell-all interview, it appears they are writing positive stories about the monarchy to keep their access to people within the royal circles. This sort of journalism happens, apparently. Many of us wish it did not.

With access journalism — self-censorship, fake news, paid-for journalism, conspiracy theories, lapdog as opposed to watchdog journalism, and similar forms of reporting — it is clear those of us in journalism are in some sort of crisis. It is certainly hard to know any more as a consumer what is real and who to trust in the media landscape. This will only become worse as new ways of accessing media and news grows.

While we try to reinvent ourselves, pivot and stay above water in a pandemic, as an international news media association here at INMA, we are perfectly placed to bring together influential and diverse leaders to figure out how we can survive these challenges. Perhaps we could ask ourselves how relevant the old way of being in this new world of journalism is. And, whether the policies and ethics I am spending long nights fine-tuning still have a role to play, and, if yes, what is that role?

I can’t say for sure whether in this new world we can still live by old codes. Maybe this is the time to rethink things, perhaps make some changes, and then to also name things what they are — whether native advertising, lapdog journalism, access journalism, or just damn fine straight good journalism.

Whatever it is, let it matter enough for us to have the conversation.

(By the way, have you read the journalistic code of ethics lately? Take the time to read it and once again feel proud of our profession.)

About Vivian Warby

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