Journalists being free to publish information is vital to a functioning, democratic society, and an informed population. However, a number of checks and balances are required to ensure that this right is not abused. As the Council of Europe’s guidelines on safeguarding privacy in the media state, “a journalist’s right to freedom of expression is not absolute. Journalists have rights and responsibilities” (Council of Europe, 2018). This means that the press must be ethical and responsible and that, contrary to the contention that a journalist’s right to publish is the greater good, the press cannot simply “regard ‘freedom’ as the ultimate panacea or touchstone for its mores and conduct.” (Great Britain. Leveson, L.J. 2012). In this essay, I will examine why some of these rights and responsibilities mean that publication of an article is not always for the greater good and how applying different ethical theories while looking at other external factors such as advertising and the law, can influence a journalist’s conclusion as to whether publishing an article is for the greater good.
A journalist’s own view of what the greater good is large rests with where they sit on the ethical spectrum. There are four ethical theories to consider – Utilitarianism, Deontology, the Golden Mean, and the Golden Rule. Utilitarianism, also known as ends-based thinking, “directs a choice in favour of the course of action that brings the most good to the most people” (Foreman, 2010, p126). Utilitarianism is a popular theory in journalism, as it allows journalists to be flexible and make decisions that have the best consequences and which the journalist believes bring about the greater good. In contrast, Deontology is rule-based thinking and believes that “neither the motive nor the consequences are of significance, only the nature of the act itself” (Frost, 2011, p18). Deontology is rarely found in journalism due to its rigid nature and inflexibility, which can prevent journalists from bringing crucial information to the public’s attention due to its source.
Those who abide by the Golden Rule would never do to others what they wouldn’t like done to themselves, for example, publishing an article depicting someone in a compromising position. The Golden Rule is generally unhelpful in deciding whether or not publishing is for the greater good. This is because it relies on a strong consensus of opinion, which is difficult to find in a diverse newsroom with journalists who have different ideological and political views. The last ethical theory, the Golden Mean, comes down to finding a middle ground between an excess and a deficiency. In a journalistic context, this theory could be used for redacting names from a sensitive article or blurring the faces of those who are a victim of crime.
The Golden Mean is particularly useful in assisting a journalist to decide whether publishing a story is in the greater good, in particularly sensitive situations such as terrorist attacks. Using the basis of avoiding excess or deficiency, when reporting on the 2019 London Bridge terror attack, Sky News chose to blur the faces of the perpetrator, the victims, and the anti-terror police. For this coverage, they won ‘Breaking News Story of the Year at the Drum Online Media Awards 2020. Accepting the award, Sky News said they made these decisions “having taken the responsible stance of not rushing anything to publication which could identify police or security officers” (The Drum, 2020). This demonstrates how a breaking news story chose to use the Golden Mean to ensure no graphic content was allowed into the public domain on their platforms, allowing the distressing story to be covered with sensitivity and, ultimately, for the public good.
An example of how the varying ethical theories can affect a journalist’s view on whether publishing is for the greater good is seen with the Afghan War documents leak – which in some respects is reminiscent of the earlier Pentagon Papers leak in 1971. This example shows how applying a different theory can change the outcome of the decision on whether or not to publish. In 2010, The Guardian published a piece including leaked documents detailing unreported incidents of civilian deaths and injuries in Afghanistan during the Afghanistan War. The Guardian chose to take a Utilitarian approach to the story by deciding to publish it, despite the fact the incriminating documents were obtained illegally via the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, and the documents were classified as secret. The choice to publish was determined to be in the greater good because it was beneficial to inform the public of this information about the actions of U.K. and U.S. troops. In the decision-making, there were also elements of the Golden Mean. This is demonstrated in the fact that the Guardian chose to redact any information that may lead to the identification of troops or undercover operatives.
If the Guardian’s editors had taken a Deontological approach, however, the documents would never have been published. This is because those following Deontology would never break the rules or the law, therefore would never publish illegally obtained or classified documents. If the editors of the Guardian were following the Golden Rule, they would have been unlikely to have come to a conclusion on the issue, as who decides whether you wouldn’t like this done to you so you wouldn’t do it to someone else? The varying views and beliefs in a newsroom mean that the Golden Rule is near impossible to achieve as you will inevitably struggle to get a strong consensus of opinion on an issue.
The decision by The Guardian to publish the Afghan War documents was ultimately one of Utilitarianism, but it highlights the complexities and dilemmas of the ethical theories when faced with a decision like this and also reveals how the ethical theories can sometimes overlap, as we saw elements of the Golden Mean blending with Utilitarianism. Explaining the Guardian’s decision to publish the confidential documents, Alan Rusbridger – who was Editor at the time of publication – offered a classic utilitarian approach, stating, “in the end, you weigh up what you believe to be public good against public harm, you try to minimize the harm by highlighting public material of most public interest” (Elliott, 2010).
The Guardian’s decision on the Afghan War documents also demonstrates the importance of a story that is in the public interest, so publication is justified despite the illegality of obtaining the documents. This is particularly important because, when deciding whether or not to publish a particular piece, the first place a journalist will often look is to the law and journalistic Codes of Conduct – even before looking at their own personal ethical views. Some countries such as North Korea, which is ranked bottom of the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, use the law to apply heavy censorship to their press, making the law unhelpful as a source of ethical guidance. In contrast, the U.K. system provides support to journalists facing difficult ethical decisions, as the legal framework applicable to journalists largely stems from independent journalistic bodies.
The largest of these is IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation), which sets out a Code of Conduct that journalists are expected to abide by. Within this, there are certain exceptions to the prohibited behaviors – this is the public interest defense. The public interest includes, but is not confined to, detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety, protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement by an individual, and protecting public health and safety, among other justifications (IPSO, 2019). The code can also affect and restrict what journalists see as the greater good, although the ambiguity of the public interest defense means that looking to ethical theories is inevitably still required. For example, if a journalist takes a utilitarian approach and publishes a story that is in the public interest but breaks laws, then the public interest defense covers them legally. As pointed out by the Leveson Inquiry “otherwise unethical practices may be made ethical simply by virtue of the fact that they are justified, in the circumstances, in the public interest” (Great Britain. Leveson, L.J. 2012). An example of this would include the covert filming tactics used to gather proof that Cambridge Analytica had exploited the data of individuals to bombard them with political messages and misinformation – highlighting to the public the misuse of their data also did more harm than good and emphasizing how the public interest defense and utilitarian ethics often go hand-in-hand.
However, if a journalist chooses to publish a story that is of interest to the public rather than in the public interest – for example, a celebrity gossip story – then it does not reach the threshold for the public interest defense in law. In 2020, former Panorama presenter Martin Bashir was accused by Diana, Princess of Wales’s brother, Earl Spencer, of using “yellow journalism” and “sheer dishonesty”, including falsifying documents, in order to secure an exclusive interview with the Princess in 1995 (English, R, and Kay, R, 2020). This is a prime example of journalists abusing the power placed in them by the public to deliver information. By using these dishonest tactics to gain a sensationalist interview, Bashir was trying to obtain a story that is of interest to the public, rather than in the public interest. Such stories are not published for the greater good of society, but for the greater good of the publication – which should not be high on a journalist’s ethical priority list. Therefore, the limit on what is defined as the public interest in law can act as a way for journalists to check whether what they’re doing is actually for the greater good – if it doesn’t meet the threshold for defense, then it’s probably not what they should be doing.
U.K. journalists are also protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Article 10 guarantees the right to freedom of expression and allows journalists to protect their sources, while Article 8 gives a right to respect for one’s private and family life (Great Britain. Human Rights Act 1998). Article 10 gives journalists a right which assists them to publish stories – but this freedom of expression can be abused due to varying views on the greater good of publication and the wide freedom of Article 10 must therefore be limited by a journalist’s own ethical beliefs in the shape of the theories outlined above. However, Article 10 does clash with the ethical theory of Deontology, as it holds protecting your sources as “one of the basic conditions of press freedom” (Goodwin v the United Kingdom, 1996). This is in contrast to Deontology’s insistence on not holding anything back from the reader, including sources, and emphasizes why Deontology is scarcely used in journalism, due to its incompatibility with modern Human Rights.
Meanwhile, Article 8 places a responsibility on journalists to abide by this respect for one’s privacy and not go too far in their publication of stories that are of interest to the public, rather than in the public interest. This is a useful legal check and balance for a journalist to decide whether their ethical intuition is correct.
As well as sourcing sensationalist stories to produce readership, there are other external factors that also come into play when considering whether the journalist’s right to publish is the greater good. Advertising and political leanings are two of these factors. A media organization’s view on whether something is the greater good to publish can be heavily influenced by the power of advertising. If a negative story has emerged about one of a media organization’s most influential donors, for example, the media organization may choose to ignore the story and neglect to cover it, therefore feeling that the greater good in this situation is to keep the backing of the powerful donor, in order to keep the publication financially viable. The constraints of advertising, affecting what journalists perceive to be the greater good, was seen in 2015 when The Daily Telegraph’s former chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, resigned from the paper and revealed that the Telegraph was removing or failing to publish negative stories about one of their major advertisers, HSBC. After his exit, Oborne said that the paper was “committing a fraud on its readers” and had “been placing what it perceives to be the interest of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers” (Oborne, 2015). Clearly, the Telegraph felt that the greater good was to not publish these stories about HSBC, demonstrating how the power of advertising can skew a journalist’s ethical convictions.
Another external factor that can distort the view of the greater good is the political leaning of a media organization. Similar to advertising donors, media organizations may feel that the greater good in this situation is to avoid negative stories about whichever political party they have affiliations to. The different ideological views, varying ethics, and conflicting moral codes often found in a diverse newsroom can make deciding what the greater good actually is very difficult. These external factors can lead to abuse of the power given to journalists by the public, who expect them to deliver truthful, accurate news. Perhaps it is even arguable that it is in the greater good not to publish a story that is heavily influenced by political leanings, which distort the truth.
One final pressure on journalists, laid bare by the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press, is the newsroom culture and how the ethics of the senior staff members and editorial team can filter down to and contaminate the ethics of more junior staff members.
A key focus of the Leveson Inquiry, held throughout 2011 and 2012, was the highly unethical practices of phone hacking and harassment at the now-defunct News of The World. The inquiry concluded that there was a broad culture at the newspaper that “regarded the imperative of getting information for stories as more important than respecting the rights of any individuals concerned or, indeed, compliance with the Editors’ Code or the law” (Great Britain. Leveson, L.J. 2012).
The cultural acceptance of illegal and unethical practices within the newsroom demonstrates how the ethics of journalists – particularly young, impressionable journalists – and their decisions on whether the publication is for the greater good can be heavily influenced by the ethics of those around them and the ‘peer pressure’ mentality in a newsroom, as well as once again illustrating the dangers of the commercial and competitive nature of the newspaper business placing an emphasis on selling copies as opposed to upholding the highest standards of professional ethics.
The current era of social media also presents new challenges for journalists to navigate, including where the greater good lies when confronted with fast-moving methods of news dissemination. Easily accessible, social media now presents an opportunity for anyone with a computer to call themselves a journalist and post whatever they want online on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, without adhering to the ethical codes of practice that bind professional journalists. This can undermine the credibility of professional journalists, who may then resort to unacceptable, unethical, and underhand ‘clickbait’ methods, or news obtained by unverified sources, to ensure the viability of their news organization due to the increasing commercial pressures which the freedom of social media information places on print newspapers as physical circulation of newspapers continues to decline. Journalists are also still grappling with how to apply traditional ethics, such as sources and privacy, to a social media era and can sometimes overstep the line in the methods they use to gather information on these platforms, such as sending friend requests to individuals on social networking sites and then using their posts to inform stories.
Overall, I believe that the journalist’s right to publish is the greater good is accurate in most instances, but there can be occasions where the trust placed in journalists by the public is abused. This abuse often comes when external influences, such as commercial pressures, advertising, and political affiliations, cause media organizations to alter their view of what the greater good is, based on what will serve their interests and sell newspapers accordingly. To promote strong, independent journalism, we, as journalists, need to ensure that our personal interests and the personal interests of our media organization don’t stop us from delivering accurate, important news to the wider public. The journalist’s right to publish is undoubtedly the greater good when the content being published is causing the most good to the largest number of people.