Ethical limitations within the Media are vital to ensure that industry professionals are not abusing the power that is granted to those passing factual and valuable information to an expansive audience. An issue however, presents itself when the source of information is under scrutiny and a journalist is put in the position to reveal or refuse to disclose their identity.
The Code of Ethics
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and The Journalist Code of ethics states in section 3 of the code of ethics that Media Workers should;
“Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.” (MEAA, 2019)
The section highlights the importance of maintaining credible sources and that when anonymity is given, it should under no circumstances be relinquished. However, this issue that this article intends to present is; When in fact, would it be more ethical to breach these ethical guidelines? Or should media practitioners be completely bound by the ethical standards that their industries regulatory bodies have devised?
Was breaking the ‘Code of Ethics’, ethical?
This discussion stems from controversy that surrounded freelance reporter, Nick Martin-Clarke in July 1996. After the murder or a Taxi Driver in Northern Ireland, Martin-Clarke was given the opportunity to report on the case. Martin-Clarke then, to gain access to the suspect whom was already in prison, faked his way into the penitentiary, by acting as a governing official. (Smith, 2010)
After conversing with the prisoner, McKeown, Martin-Clarke reportedly offered complete anonymity in return for information from the case. After the promise was made, McKeown stated that he shot a taxi driver 5 times as a “Birthday Present” to a loyalist. (Smith, 2010)
When the information was obtained, Martin-Clarke defied the Code of Ethics which confined him to keeping his source anonymous, by releasing the information to the investigating police officers.
“After swearing me to silence about the killing, he then boasted about it to me… I am now in witness protection for the rest of my life… Despite the difficulty of going against a source this was a promise I eventually felt, I could not keep.” (Smith, 2010)
Martin Clarke was criticised for his actions, with ‘Great’ reporter claiming that
“Although it is certainly in the public’s interest to put away a cold-blooded murderer, it cannot be done at the expense of Journalists Credibility.” (Smith, 2010)
This question remains, If Martin-Clarke’s actions sparked such an outrage, are these journalistic guidelines truly looking after the public’s interest?
The Belfast Telegraph released an article which has two very opposing opinions of the actions that Martin-Clarke took. The widow of the murdered taxi driver gave a statement-
“What Martin-Clarke did, we are very thankful… Because of him coming forward, this helped bring McKeown to court.”(Wallace, 2003)
The reaction of the widowed mother to Martin-Clarkes action is contrasted by that of John Toner, the organiser of the National Union of Journalists, whom stated
“The NUJ was horrified that Mr Martin-Clark simply ignored such a basic principle of journalistic ethics and I understand a lot of our members who work in the north of Ireland are very concerned about his behaviour and the repercussions it may have on them.”(Wallace, 2003)
As demonstrated by the completely contrasting reactions by both individuals, it is easy to assume that there is a substantial gap between the ethics provided in the Code of Ethics, and basic ethical values that the public share.
What about Legislation?
In reference to legislation, shield laws have been established to ensure journalists will give up a confidential source inside the court if it is deemed vital information by a judge. If the Journalists does not give up the source, then they have committed contempt of the court and are subject to serious penalty’s as harsh as prison time. (Sarre, 2018)
This means that in Australia, even legislation is preventing journalist to act in accordance to the Code of Ethics in which they are meant to abide by. The Supreme court case involving Fairfax journalists, Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker, whom refused to reveal a source since 2012. The source revealed that “high ranking executives in Reserve bank of Australia used Bribes to secure note-printing contract in Asia”(Lidberg, 2013)
The Bank’s governor denied the claims and sued the journalists for defamation. McKenzie and Baker have kept their source anonymous and in turn are facing the possibility of prison time for contempt of the court.(Lidberg, 2013)
What is worst, breaking the code of ethics, or allowing someone to break the law?
Unlike the previous case, McKenzie and Baker are following their Journalistic code of Ethics, however, are now breaching legislative codes. It is important to remind ourselves that it is the journalists duty to provide the readers with information that is in the interest of the public. Even though Mr Martin-Clarke breached the Journalist code of Ethics, the information that he released proved vital to a court case of a murderer and completely in the public’s best interest.
Mr McKenzie and Mr Baker, whom have been praised by the journalist community, have indeed supressed information that is in fact, very much in the interest of the Australian public and users of the Reserve bank of Australia. It Is in my opinion that yes, McKenzie and Baker provide an outstanding example of following ethical media practices, but the same cannot be said for the way they are withholding valuable information to the Australian public.
Should I follow the ethical codes, even though it goes against my own morals?
In resolution, there is a clear issue with the ethical regulations around Sources and Confidentiality. The Code of Ethics restricted Mr Martin-Clarke from freely giving the confession of a murderer to the police, and once he did, he became out casted by the journalist community. It is important to note that, once confidential sources are exposed, it does have a negative effect on the credibility of other journalists in the eye of the reader. It may also result in people not speaking to journalists out of fear of being exposed. (Pearson and Polden 2019)
However, when information that is vital to Australian people and a defamation case in the Supreme court is withheld from court because of a reporter’s journalistic integrity, it goes against the very nature of journalism itself.
What do you think?
With the information presented I now leave the question to you. Do the current guidelines set by the Journalist code of ethics abide by your moral compass? If you were in a similar situation to Martin-Clarke, or Mr McKenzie and Mr Baker, would you act as they did? Would you give up a source to help resolve an unsolved murder, or would you choose to disclose the source that could provide information that could potentially affect thousands of Australian people?
Thank you for reading.
MEAA. (2019). MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics. [online] Available at: https://www.meaa.org/meaa-media/code-of-ethics/ [Accessed 26 May 2019].
Smith, S. (2010). Media Ethics Case Study: Nick Martin-Clark Broke Source Confidentiality Agreement. [online] iMediaEthics. Available at: https://www.imediaethics.org/media-ethics-case-study-nick-martin-clark-broke-source-confidentiality-agreement/ [Accessed 26 May 2019].
Wallace, A. (2013). Union kicks out journalist – BelfastTelegraph.co.uk. [online] BelfastTelegraph.co.uk. Available at: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/imported/union-kicks-out-journalist-28154342.html [Accessed 26 May 2019].
Sarre, R. (2018). Why shield laws can be ineffective in protecting journalists’ sources. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/why-shield-laws-can-be-ineffective-in-protecting-journalists-sources-101106 [Accessed 26 May 2019].
Lidberg, J. (2013). Journalists McKenzie and Baker go unshielded before demands to reveal sources. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/journalists-mckenzie-and-baker-go-unshielded-before-demands-to-reveal-sources-11914 [Accessed 26 May 2019].
Gif 1- GIPHY. (2019). Tom Hanks Wtf GIF – Find & Share on GIPHY. [online] Available at: https://giphy.com/gifs/frustrated-email-5QFbWsGn5rLOg [Accessed 26 May 2019].
Image- Slideplayer.com. (2019). Journalists’ Sources 19th November ppt download. [online] Available at: https://slideplayer.com/slide/9822283/ [Accessed 26 May 2019].
youtube video- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6AaVA6pclg (2019). Independent. Always. The Age – Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker. [image] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6AaVA6pclg [Accessed 26 May 2019].
MEAA Code of Ethics snapshot- journlaw. (2019). The MEAA Code of Ethics: all spin and no stick. [online] Available at: https://journlaw.com/2013/11/26/the-meaa-code-of-ethics-all-spin-and-no-stick/ [Accessed 26 May 2019].
Pearson, M & Polden, M 2019 ‘The Journalist’s guide to media law; a handbook for communications in a digital world’, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.