A European View of Media Ethics

The Other Two Aims of Media Ethics

by Claude-Jean Bertrand

Of course, the primary purpose of media ethics is to improve the services that news media provide to the public. But it is not the only one. And two others can be considered more important, though they are insufficiently mentioned.

Good journalistic service has always been threatened by Big Government and now it is increasingly threatened by Big Business. What can an ethical reporter do against such threats? Not very much.

But the individual journalist need not be alone. Two allies are available. Or could be. And only media ethics can mobilize those mighty forces.

"Media ethics" usually takes the shape of principles and rules gathered in a code. Codes give concrete, practical existence to ideals and guidelines. Certainly. But media ethics can do more: it can help unite journalists into a profession that shares the same values and is sufficiently attached to them to fight in their defense. Tight-knit professions can do much to protect their autonomy.

Moreover, ethics is of little use if there are no means to enforce its codes. Not governmental means or managerial means, like jail or firing. What I have in mind are "Media Accountability Systems" (M.A.S.). About 60 exist, using peer-pressure and public pressure to obtain respect for the rules.

Among the best known M.A.S.' are correction boxes, ombudsmen, journalism reviews and press councils. Among the least acknowledged: readership surveys, awareness programs, higher education and non-profit research. Among the least used: in-house critics, ethical audits and associations of media consumers.

M.A.S. aim at eradicating the sins that journalists commit. Sure.

But there's a danger there. Journalists commit lots of visible little sins but the worst sins by far are committed by the media. Ethics should not be used to turn news people into scapegoats. On the contrary, it should assist the journalistic profession in fighting media sins, in countering attacks on the freedom and the quality of the press.

That is why I believe that the main purpose of M.A.S. is to rebuild public trust in the news media, which is low everywhere and getting lower. Most M.A.S. are means for journalists to listen to the public and to work with it in order to improve services.

Do you doubt the capacity of the public to improve the press? Just think of the early 1980's when the French public pressured the newly elected socialist government into lifting the old State monopoly on broadcasting (which right wing governments over the previous 23 years had refused to abolish): that liberation superbly improved radio and television news.

The profession needs to recover and increase the trust of the public, by listening to it and rendering accounts to it. Then journalists will be able to mobilize millions of voters and consumers - and fight their opponents, political and economic, with a good chance of winning.


Claude-Jean Bertrand is emeritus professor at the French Press Institute at the University of Paris 2. He has recently written a book about Media Accountability Systems: Media Ethics and Accountability Systems, New Brunswick (NJ) & London, Transaction, 2000 - 164 pages ISBN. He also edited An Arsenal For Democracy: Media Accountability Systems , Cresskill (NJ), Hampton Press, Fall 2001.

You can contact him directly at cjbertrand@noos.fr