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Morals and the Media Black, White and Grey: Ethics in South African Journalism Review

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Perhaps the greatest hindrance to the development of a global journalism ethic is the inherent complexity of the concept. Two recently published texts in journalism ethics, one written by Canadian Nick Russell and the other by South African journalist Franz Kruger, underline this problem. The goals of the authors are similar, but their approaches diverge tremendously.

Russell, writing primarily for journalism students in this second edition of his well-used textbook, uses an interrogative style to focus his readers’ attention on the practical issues of the day. Ethical philosophy is generally absent, ousted by more practical musings on untrusting (and hard-to-please) publics, demanding advertisers, and the looming “bottom line.”

Kruger’s text is written for the practicing journalists of a newly liberated South African press. Free expression is so novel that the central theme in Black, White and Grey is outlining the (possibly idealistic) truth-spreading, myth-busting responsibilities of free-press journalists. The commodification of news that dominates Russell’s text is minimized. Instead, Kruger addresses journalistic ethics in terms of the duties inherent in the profession, rather than the decisions journalists are forced to make by the practicalities of the industry. As a South African, he writes from a background of longstanding civil unrest and decade of racial hatred. His book “attempts to measure the traditional standards of journalism against the demands of a changing society.” It was born of a debate over national transformation, and he sees journalism’s role as vital in that social and national task.

Despite the great differences in style and tone, Russell and Kruger adhere to the same basic principles and standards of media ethics, but they disagree on how and to what degree these standards can be attained. Both Kruger, a university professor, and Russell, a former professor, have distinguished histories as journalists, and they have spent a great deal of time immersed in discussions over journalistic integrity. Kruger certainly believes in a global journalistic ethic that would link South African journalism to Europe and North America, and Russell embraces the idea that as more voices participate in news more news will be successfully transmitted. Fundamentally, both authors aspire to a journalism unbiased by monetary enticements, racial, social, or religious prejudices, or government interest.

But beyond this basic understanding, the ethics of the two authors – and perhaps the two nations – part ways. The economic interests that sometimes seem to blind Russell’s ethics are conversely a blind spot for Kruger. In this divergence, the authors lay bare the shortfalls of each other’s conception of the ethical ideal. Russell’s audience is a public sphere that encompasses diverse interests, all of which must be considered in order to maintain circulation levels. Kruger’s audience is charged with regrouping and rejecting biases, regardless of public resistance or financial hardship.

“Money dominates journalism,” Morals and the Media proclaims. This fairly narrow view dominates Russell’s assessment of media ethics. News organizations compete for audiences, are owned by large corporations, and subsist on funds from advertisers. Russell notes that this may be problematic, but it remains questionable as to how journalists can maintain the ethical high ground if, as Russell notes, newsrooms must divide their loyalty between the public and the paycheck writers.

Given its economic pessimism, Russell’s Morals is extremely useful as a depiction of the issues that face Canadian journalists. It addresses – at least cursorily – almost every ethical obstacle from sexual bias to public distrust to financial woes. Russell emphasizes the public’s response more than the journalist’s duties. Morals is less about the ethical decisions involved in news-making than it is about news-making decisions in light of public ethics. He is pessimistic about the financial pressures on journalists and news organizations, and he believes that public money decides the news agenda more authoritatively than reporters and editors do. He councils his readers to be sensitive to what the public is ready to see, in terms of gender issues, race issues, and violence. Economics, emotion, and media-public relations are at the heart of his text.

In light of that economic pressure, Russell’s ethics reflect a public sense of propriety, because papers that displease the community won’t sell. His chapter title sums up his position concisely: “Bitch, bitch, bitch: news consumer’s prime complaints.” The complaints primarily address accuracy, fairness, sensationalism, and sensitivity. Russell, perhaps wishing to stay detached from his subject, does not let on that he finds these complaints reasonable. Instead, he notes that journalists can never “get it right” for everyone, and someone will always be disappointed with coverage of an event.

Russell promotes the idea of community involvement to fill the gap between the public and the news media. Civic journalism, empowering the public to make news, is among the options (and the option he favoured in the book’s 1994 first edition). Also recommended are peer condemnation, codes, and journalism reviews. Traditional journalism cannot stand alone; there must be a multimedia response. This, Russell claims, will help mitigate the public’s distrust for news media. It was surprising that Russell does not address the other possible effect of civic journalism: elevating the level of debate on important social issues.

Kruger’s approach to journalism stems from the opposite standpoint. The purpose of journalism ethics in Black, White and Grey is to edify a socially and financially stratified nation that has only a burgeoning understanding of democratic principles. He addresses journalism ethics in terms of public needs rather than public desires. Kruger stresses the journalist’s ethical duty to help remedy race issues, combat misogyny, and disperse dangerous rumors. When the press plays such a proactive role in society, it changes the basis for ethical decisions. He exemplifies this in his explanation of film footage aired as apartheid was breathing its last. The footage showed “rebels” shooting two AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, South Africa’s white supremacist right-wing political group) members at point-blank-range when their car, affixed with the Nazi-like flag, was stopped by the Defense Force. Despite the harm to the men’s families, “the significance of the incident was such as to make it unthinkable to withhold the footage. The hapless AWB men were caught up in a historic moment, and their tragedy was no longer private.” This type of coverage seems to run counter to Russell’s ‘saying’: “If in doubt, leave it out.” The ethical issue is not a matter distasteful imagery but of a hateful regime overthrown.

Death is a reality to any South African old enough to remember apartheid, so squeamishness is ethically important for Kruger. When he addresses AIDS, he addresses the responsibility of a journalist with a sniffle to cancel an interview with an HIV positive patient. This is not the sensitivity of semantics, but the sensitivity of humanity. When Russell addresses AIDS, he breezes over the semantics of copy (the section starts with the journalistic history of the word “condom” and goes little further). In Russell’s chapter on dishonesty, he includes April Fools pranks. Kruger’s discussion of lying includes toddlers being raped after rumors spread that sex with a virgin could cure AIDS. Russell’s gender issues tends to center around bikini clad bunnies and lexicons of misogyny. Kruger’s confronts sexist laws, chauvinistic judicial rulings, and the marginalizing of black female reporters.

This is not to trivialize the ethical dilemmas that Russell presents, but to note that the ethical dilemmas facing journalists might be deeper than he implies and that his public might need more reality than they are presently “prepared” for. Canadian children are raped and murdered; Canadian citizen groups are marginalized; AIDS – while obviously less rampant than in South Africa – is a problem in Canada. Russell vividly depicts the media landscape from Canada where economics play a key role in any function of a capitalistic, democratic society. But that should not relegate the ethics of reporting to second place, behind business.

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December 20th, 2019 at 12:11 am

Posted in Feature

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