BY ROSEMARY OKELLO
The recent concerns raised by the Media Council of Kenya on the Muliro Garden photos published on a local newspaper raise a fundamental question on the issue of public interest and the respect of the code of conduct in media practice.
For once, the media came under serious public scrutiny on its role in upholding ethical standards in its practice. The photo reminded us that the code of conduct on ethical journalism that the media fraternity developed a couple of years ago and the provisions in the new Constitution on media, are not being adhered to in full.
While the new Constitution gives media far reaching freedom, its places a caveat on this freedom. In Article 33 section 2, the New Constitution requires media to be responsible when selling content to the public.
It is instructive to note that media scholars and practitioners are currently re-examining the code of conduct in line with the new constitution and the new media Bill scheduled for publication.
Indeed, as the photo reminded us about the ethics, it also raised other important questions: Which ethics? Who needs to be ethically conscious? And how will the ethical standards be met?
Journalism ethics is concerned with making sound moral decisions in journalistic performance and it assumes the presence of societal morality. Morality has to do with actions guided by generally acceptable human values and responsibilities. Compatible human values and responsibilities constitute a moral system.
A journalist should ask him or herself to whom his or her sense of duty is when writing a story, choosing words, and deciding on the pictures to use. Is the duty owed to self, readers, audience, media houses, colleagues, or to society?
The answer to the question of what duties a journalist owes to self and to all other parties may itself have various permutations: respect for human dignity; respect for privacy; preservation of human life; not allowing other human beings to suffer unnecessarily because of our actions; maintaining human decency and good taste, among others.
Who needs to be ethically conscious?
Journalism scholar the late Francis Kasoma formerly of University of Zambia said: "When journalists are aware that people know their unethical practices and can protest about them, they are likely to be more careful about how they practice in their profession."
But who should be ethically conscious. Unlike the traditional professions of law and medicine, journalism is a team profession. The reporter or the producer, the immediate supervising editor, the editor-in-chief of the director, the publisher or the station director, the printer or transmitting engineer and many more in between are all active participants in the journalistic process. Any of them can undo or improve on the other\’s work with telling ethical effects.
While a lawyer\’s or doctor\’s ethical or unethical deed usually begin and end with her or him, the same cannot be said of journalists. The personal acts of journalists have a way of affecting the whole team in one way or the other.
For example when a reporter report lies, it affects all journalists instead of the reporter alone. From such incidence, people start forming stereotypes about the profession, such as the idea that \’journalists are liars or corrupt,\’ this is common in Kenya.
It is therefore the whole journalistic team, starting from the reporter up to media houses that needs to be ethically conscious.
Likewise, the concern of moral journalism should not be restricted to journalists only. People – newsmakers and the media consumers alike – who are the real victims of unethical journalistic practice, should be conscious about ethical journalism. They have a broad moral duty to police the media because journalists derive their moral authority and existence because we are the public\’s watchdog.
It is the people who are adversely affected by unethical journalistic behaviour. The people can help to promote better journalistic morals by demonstrating that they are aware of, and take great exception to, unethical journalistic practices.
How will the ethical standards be met?
It has been pointed out that education in journalism ethics for both journalists and members of the public would help the conscience of journalists towards practicing ethical journalism.
What I feel lacking is that we have not indicated exactly how education and public pressure would encourage or in fact force journalists to have an ethical approach to their work.
And yet in most cases people have reduced journalism ethics to the study of codes of journalists\’ conduct, an approach some scholars are uncomfortable with.
Dickson in the Golden Mean of Journalism argues that equating journalism ethics with codes of conduct encourages ad hoc or situational ethics. She writes;
Because such codes are at best normative guidelines based on no common moral philosophy, journalists tend to resort to situation by situation analyses of their ethical practices. The problem with a situational approach is that journalist\’s evaluation of his or her actions is always as hoc in nature. Unfortunately, ad hoc evaluations based on situational ethics are insufficient to ensure that in the future journalists will act in a moral and responsible fashion.
The other thing we have failed to do is focus on media managers as well when tackling ethical issues in the media. Journalists, who bear the brunt of unethical reporting, find it difficult, if not impossible, to apply ethical standards if they work under bosses who do not understand what journalism ethics is all about and have no intention of promoting it.
For now, the lessons the media houses must have learnt from this photo incident is their audiences are increasingly becoming media literate and are going to hold the media accountable for any unethical practices.
(The writer is the Executive Director of African Woman and Child Features)