Media Comment: Media ethics lessons from abroad

Media standards are deteriorating to the point where confidence in the news is weak.

New York Times building 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
New York Times building 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As we have pointed out in previous articles, there are multiple methods available to assure professional and ethical media activity, especially with regard to public broadcast networks.
In the Fiji Islands, for example, there has been debate on a proposal to establish an content oversight and media ownership authority; a media tribunal to hear complaints from the public; a code of ethics for journalists; and laws governing media ownership. The authority’s job would be to ensure the media does not publish material not in the interest of the public or order; against the national interest; that offends good taste and decency; or which creates communal discord.
Very draconian methods, and unacceptable in a democracy.
A free private press underlies the democratic fabric of a country. It must be allowed to operate freely, with little governmental interference.
On the other hand, media standards are deteriorating to the point where confidence in the news is weak, existing regulatory bodies almost meaningless and the media-money-politics axis increasingly dominant – to such an extent that the media consumer’s rights are not only often ignored, but actually violated. This state of affairs, too, does not bode well for democracy.
So how to on the one hand assure a free press but at the same time protect the rights of the media consumer? We will consider six complementary components.
1. Critiques being published by media forums dedicated to the principle of a truly free press, one willing to accept and deal with criticism. In the Hebrew-language press, there exist outstanding media critics, such as Ben-Dror Yemini and Kalman Liebskind.
2. The media, no matter how dominating it seeks to be, still needs people to read it, listen to it and watch it. To buy it or fund it through purchasing products it advertises. A public that takes its rights seriously and protests against unethical media is a necessary requirement for a democratically healthy society. Lethargy and indifference are a large part of the problem.
3. Public editors willing to challenge management and defend the public’s right to an ethical and pluralistic media.
For example, recently, outgoing New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane dropped a bomb in his last column.
(If only our local public editors would adapt the American standard of providing reports on what is wrong on a regular basis, rather than their bland and almost meaningless annual reports.) He accused the prestigious paper as promoting a liberal bias, both in its editorials and its hard news stories.
The paper’s staffers, he asserted, “share a kind of political and cultural progressivism” that “virtually bleeds through the fabric of the Times.” Certain high-profile liberal issues, like gay marriage and the Occupy movement, he wrote, were promoted by reporters “more like causes than news subjects.”
The new public editor, former Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan, certainly has a new baseline to protect, as the paper will be shifting its focus toward more online and social media reader engagement. Is it too imaginative to suppose that one day Yediot Aharonot, Haaretz and Israel HaYom will do the same? Brisbane’s appraisal resonates here in the sorry reality of Israel’s media bias. Substitute issues like the Rothschild Boulevard’s summer sit-in, the excessive focus on the haredi community and the under-reporting on the Arab populace, Jews residing in Judea and Samaria and, of course, our own gay parades, and the basic problem is the same.
Even another issue that irked Brisbane – the insufficient transparency of his former employer – is reflected in what happens in Israel, for example the budget of Galei Tzahal.
4. Reliable independent studies of media performance.
Israel’s Media Watch has been monitoring and researching the media both qualitatively and quantitatively for over 15 years. There have been some more recent additions such as the Tadmit group, which was followed by the US based CAMERA organization’s Presspectiva website.
In other countries, public broadcasting bodies conduct internal reviews and even request public feedback. There are citizens’ Press Councils in many locations. Have we ever received from the Israel Broadcasting Authority an in-depth review of their activities and the public’s level of satisfaction with their programming? Two weeks ago, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in the United States released a study which claimed that “different media skew campaign coverage differently” but that the most balanced are the newspapers. They also noted that “portrayal in the news media of the character and records of the two presidential contenders in 2012 has been as negative as any campaign in recent times.” However, “neither candidate has enjoyed an advantage over the other.”
Can we ever hope for a similarly open and verifiable system? Will those who own and manage media outlets here submit to a more constructive relationship with their audiences?
5. Accountability.
There should at least be a transparent system of scaled internal measures applicable to media personnel found to have been negligent or who have engaged in unethical behavior.
A media personality could be reprimanded, his personal file would have a note added, he could be suspended, an ad could be published about his case, or, perhaps, as is acceptable in the field of sports, even fines could be applied to the “players.”
6. A government-appointed commission of inquiry.
In England, Lord Justice Brian H. Leveson sent out late last week, after his hearings opened last November, an almost 100-page long notice, warning various media groups that he anticipates making rulings against them.
The areas covered include self-regulation, invasion of privacy, prior notification of publication, accuracy and public interest. Even the Press Complaints Commission is expected to be severely criticized.
Would an Israeli prime minister follow in David Cameron’s footsteps and take such a drastic step as the creation of a commission of inquiry into the publicly funded media’s activities? Would he have the courage to face down the resulting press onslaught in the name of democracy and the need for a free press?
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media