Sala de Prensa

Mayo 2008
Año X, Vol. 4




Media Ethics and Accountability Systems

Claude-Jean Bertrand *

About a century ago, a huge scandal was exposed in France: the French had lent billions of dollars to the Czarist State and faced little probability of ever being reimbursed. At the time, "any resistance to new loans was fought down by the press, which, in cahoots with the banks, had grown used to a very profitable blackmail." 1 Much closer in time, in 1990, after the news director of a major French television network had allowed opponents of the government in a country where the conglomerate that owned the network has big construction projects on the air, the conglomerate president was heard to say: "She must become aware of the interests of a large industrial group like ours. If she doesn't, then the door is wide open: let her operate elsewhere". Such an incident may escape the public. What the public does notice is that the anchorman of the most watched newscast still held his job in 1999, eight years after it was revealed that he had fabricated an interview with Fidel Castro by inserting questions into a film shot during  a press conference. And five years after he was  involved in the investigation of a major crook for having accepted important gifts from him.

No wonder opinion polls show a distrust of media among the public and a willingness to let their freedom be curtailed 2; less than a third of French people believe journalists are independent. "Americans are coming to the nearly unanimous conclusion that the press is biased, that powerful people and organizations can kill or steer news stories" 3. Everywhere, the various groups within the public express strong discontent towards the entertainment provided by the media.

Paradoxically, the media are accused of every sin at a time when they have never been better. To realize the progress, it is enough to flip through a few dailies from the 19th century, to glimpse at a few television programs from the 50s - or to read the diatribes of contemporary critics. The media are certainly better today, but still mediocre. And, mainly, while in the old days, most people could do without media, today, even in rural regions, the need is felt not just of media but of good media. Their improvement is not just a desirable change: the fate of mankind is predicated on it. Only democracy can insure the survival of human civilization and there can be no democracy without well-informed citizens and there cannot be such citizens without quality media.

Such a statement may seem exaggerated, but consider the former USSR where, between 1917 and the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of ancient books and works of art were destroyed; where vast regions were terminally polluted, where tens of millions of people were killed - because the soviet media could not, would not, expose and protest.

As the media do not fulfill their functions well enough, a crucial issue in any society can be summed up in one question: how can the media be improved?

Media. - They should be considered all together as an industry, as a public service and as a political institution. Actually not all media enjoy that triple nature : for one thing, the new technology makes it possible for little mom-and-pop media to make a come back. Besides, a part of media products has nothing to do with public service, like supermarket tabloids, for instance. Lastly, many media, like reviews serving trades and professions, play no part in political life. Nevertheless, the media which enlightened citizens care about are the carriers of general news: those nowadays cannot shed any of the three combined features.

Conflict of Liberty. - The result is a fundamental conflict between freedom of enterprise and freedom of speech. In the eyes of media entrepreneurs (and of advertisers), news and entertainment is a material with which to exploit a natural resource, consumers: and they strive to maintain a state of society which they find profitable. On the other hand, for citizens, news-and-entertainment is a tool they wish to use in their search for happiness, which they cannot attain without some changes in the status quo.

There is no easy way out of that dilemma. For many years, more than half the nations on earth did adopt one of two solutions. Both consist in eliminating one of the antagonists. Fascist dictatorships suppress freedom of speech, usually without touching ownership of media. Communist regimes suppress free enterprise and claim to maintain free speech. The effect is the same in both cases: the crippled media become means to cretinize and indoctrinate.

One option might be to give total (political) freedom to the media industry. The termination of the State monopoly over European broadcasting, and of government control, has greatly improved democracy on the Old Continent and the development of media since the early 1980s. But the growing commercialism of media in the 20th century and the concentration of ownership cannot very well co-exist with media pluralism. "Conglomeratization" is not a favorable context for the needed independence of media. If freedom was total, the media would most probably prostitute themselves in both the news sector and the realm of entertainment. Europeans fear what they observe in the US, where nearly all media are commercial and regulation is minimal 4. Eugene Roberts, the highly-respected US newspaper editor, deplores that "newspapers, with a few exceptions, concentrate on increasing profits to please share-holders " 5. In the US, a newspaper group can boast a 25% profit (Gannett) - while a television station can reach 50%.

The purpose of media cannot be just to make money. Nor just to be free: freedom is necessary but not sufficient. The goal for media is to serve all citizens well. Everywhere in the West, private media have for a long time enjoyed political freedom - yet they have quite often provided poor services. For instance, Britain's BBC is, constitutionally, less free than ABC in the US but it has always served its listeners and viewers far better 6.

So, should all media, on the contrary, be set under State control? The experience endured in the 20th century of both communism and fascism has but re-enforced the traditional distrust of people towards government. Quite rightly, they fear what could be a total manipulation of news and entertainment.

So, clearly, total media freedom would be intolerable (can anyone be allowed to issue calls to murder or racial persecution?) - and media cannot be entrusted to the State. In every democracy in the world, there is agreement over the fact that media must be free but cannot be entirely free. The problem of balance between freedom and control is not a new one : John Adams, President of the US from 1797 to 1801, wrote to a friend in 1815:

"If ever there is to be an improvement in the fate of mankind, philosophers, theologians, lawmakers, politicians and moralists will find that the regulation of the press is the most difficult, most dangerous and most important they will have to solve ". 7

In Anglo-Saxon countries generally, too much confidence is lodged in "the market" as a guarantee of good media service - while in Latin countries too much trust is placed in the Law. Both are indispensable and dangerous. Without rejecting either, we need to find a supplementary instrument. That tool could be media ethics and accountability systems.

Media Ethics. -  It consists in a body of principles and rules, fashioned by the profession, preferably in cooperation with media users, in order that media can better serve most, if not all,  groups within the population. Journalism is special among democratic institutions in that its status is not based on a social contract, a delegation of power by the people, either through an election or appointment dependent on degrees - or again through laws that would set norms of behavior for it. So to keep their prestige and independence, media need a deep awareness of their primary responsibility to provide a good public service.

Their ethics does not participate of legislation - or even of morality, in the narrow sense of the term. It is not a question of being honest or courteous but to assume a major social function. Certainly, quality service is not easy to define, except in a negative way. What is excluded, for example, is limiting a regional daily to a bunch of zoned pages filled with little local events, as in the French provincial press - or again, for a big network,  never devoting any of its programs to the education of children, as is the case in the US.

Of course, media ethics can only exist in a democracy. Whoever believes that humans are incapable of thinking independently, of running their own lives, cannot accept self-control. Auto-regulation can only be seriously considered in places that enjoy freedom of expression 8, relatively prosperous media and competent journalists, proud of their job. In poor countries, there are few consumers, hence little advertising; so media are penniless, corrupt or subsidized and controlled by the State. This implies that in many nations, even though they be officially democratic, media ethics is largely irrelevant.

Why now?

There was a time when, at the mention of media ethics, media professionals would respond with scornful silence or some angry remark. Now more and more of them are developing an interest. They show it in books, in the editorials and articles of newspapers, in special issues of trade magazines, in broadcasts, symposiums, workshops. Why?

When the question is asked of European journalists 9,  their answers vary. They cite technological progress; concentration of ownership ; the increasing commercialization of media ; the mix of news and ads ; the growing inaccuracy of the news ; the Timisoara slaughter hoax 10  and the Gulf War ;  serious violations of professional morals by some reporters (invasions of privacy, especially in the popular press); a decline of the profession's credibility and prestige ; the unjustified role of media in a political crisis ; unacceptable links between media and government ; the threat of legal restrictions on freedom of the press ; an awakening of journalists' associations ; a reaction to the laissez-faire of the 80s; violence and reality-shows on television etc.

Factors of the Evolution. - The main factors seem to number about half a dozen. First, the rise in the educational level of the public makes it more demanding and militant. More people understand how important good media services are ; how unsuited to the modern world is the traditional concept of news. And media consumers are now realizing that they can and should do something about it.

Journalists are far better educated too. It seems that more of them wish to fulfill their functions satisfactorily and to enjoy greater social prestige. In that quest, the majority finds it unacceptable to suffer from the ethical misbehavior of a minority.

The mediocrity of media hurts even those who are to blame for it. Nearly everywhere, newspaper proprietors lament the decline of sales and of the time spent watching the major networks. Also the advertisers rightly worry about the credibility of the media in which they place their ads. Moreover, for a number of years, business people in general have shown more concern for the impact of the products they put on the market. More realize now that quality , that is to say public service, does pay 11.

Both the bad and the good effects of technology, have helped media ethics. It makes media more democratic because more numerous and less expensive. At the same time, it causes distortion: the reporter on the scene talks directly to the viewer, with no pause to analyze. And the manipulation of information is made easier, the falsification of pictures especially.

And then, of course, there is the Web. In January 1998, for the first time, it was discovered to be a news medium - when Matt Drudge launched the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in cyberspace. Everyone can access Internet, which is wonderfully democratic. On the other hand, anybody can dump anything there. So the need will grow, ceaselessly, for honest screeners, for journalists that can be trusted, who are competent and accountable.

The growing profit-orientation of media makes them more sensitive to public opinion but it multiplies the reasons they have to distort the news and to vulgarize entertainment  - and to mix the two. Highly visible is the proliferation of the professional persuaders: admen / press officers / media consultants / experts in electoral campaigning.

Lastly, the collapse of the Soviet Union contributed to the change. By putting an end to the myth of a State solution to media problems, it revitalized ethics, the only acceptable strategy against exploitation of media by economic forces. Also, media ethics had suffered from being sometimes associated with communist propaganda, filled as the latter was with noble denunciations (of racism, of colonialism) and purple patches (about world peace or economic development) - which were echoed by the governments of "non-aligned" nations and, in democratic nations, relayed by various marxist academics.

Nowadays, ethics suffers mainly from not being known and understood by the general public, of course, but also, more surprisingly, in media circles. 

* Claude-Jean Bertrand fue profesor emérito del Institut Français de Presse en la Universidad de Paris-II. Este texto es la introducción del libro de su autoría La Déontologie des médias, (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1997). La traducción del francés al inglés fue hecha por el propio C-J. Bertrand y enviada a Sala de Prensa antes de su muerte, el 21 de septiembre de 2007. Este es el mensaje que entonces recibimos de su esposa: "Son épouse, Michèle, ses quatre enfants et ses cinq petits-enfants, ont la grande tristesse de vous faire part du décès de Claude Jean Bertrand, Professeur émérite de l'Université de Paris II. Spécialiste de la déontologie des médias, il fut l'ardent défenseur à travers le monde du concept d'éthique et de la responsabilité sociale des médias. Une cérémonie civile sera célébrée le jeudi 27 septembre à 14h30 au crématorium du Mont Valérien (Nanterre)". Hoy le rendimos homenaje.

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