December 06, 2007

Are codes of ethics the answer to everything?

As I mentioned already, there are different codes of ethical conduct that define which principles journalists should follow in their every day work. They set up guidelines about how material or information should be obtained, how journalistic content should be put together and what boundaries journalists have to respect when they follow a story.
But do codes of ethics have the right answer for every situation? The following example shows, they certainly don’t:
It was last month on November 6 that the British newspaper The Sun published pictures of the British musician Pete Doherty injecting heroin on a public toilet. The pictures are blurred, but they show every step and detail of the deed.
Publishing these pictures may not exactly infringe the code of ethics or violate a law, but they certainly raise the question if it is ethical to publish them anyway:
Children will be confronted with the pictures when they pass a newsstand or lay their hands on a copy. Furthermore, these pictures could ´glamourize` or trivialize drug abuse, as they show a celebrity, who is successful and popular despite or may be even because of his drug abuse.
In spite of possible concerns, the journalists and editors behind the story decided to publish the pictures – with the following explanation:
„The Sun is well aware of the sickening nature of the images — and prints them only to show Doherty is not cured [after his withdrawal treatment] and is a terrible role model.“

So, despite several guidelines set by different codes of ethical conduct, journalists have to decide for themselves what is ethical and what is not, as the case arises – and the right answer is not always obvious.
This is why I want to discuss different cases from the present and the past, where decisions that journalists made led to content that was ethically dodgy, broke the code for a certain reason or led to heavy debates.

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