What then of ethics in the media? Inasmuch as all sorts of workers are required to perform, financial objectives predominate and there seem to be little scope for ethics irrespective of the worker’s own personal motives and desires.
We could even argue that in journalism the situation is worse, because the doctors who exploit the vulnerable patient for sexual favours can be struck off and lose the privilege of practicing; an accountant who steals would be sent to jail, but a journalist who misbehaves may get a scoop and promotion.
The theoretical and practical difficulty, however, lies in deciding what constitutes journalistic behaviour.
Journalists have two contradicting pressures, the first one they are subject to the attention of politicians and public seekers who do not only want their stories to be heard, but also be slanted in their favour. When we adhere to them, we compromise the ethics of the profession.
The second aspect can be subdivided into two parts; firstly, much of the practice of discovering and printing information that some people would keep secret is absolutely and legitimately central to journalism.
Investigative journalism, finding out what is really going on in the society, keeping people well informed about political, economic and other matters, providing information, analysis and comments, is precisely what a responsible press should do in a democracy in order to serve the public interest.
But are there boundaries of public interest? That is the question that always arises, they do not coincide, as has often been pointed out with what the public is interested in.
The second part of discovering and printing what some people would prefer to keep secret often involves information that the public would be interested in, but should not be, from an ethical point of view. This is what is not legitimately part of journalism.
This can be any information that is ethically dubious in presentation and investigation. The content may be what is properly secret or at least private. Thus personal privacy should be respected, although it is difficult to draw the line, there are some things clearly on the wrong side of it, like invasion of private grief and suffering.
Also there is the question of presentation; dubious materials are always presented dubiously, involving trivialization, sensationalism, obscenity, vulgarity, racism, sexism and homophobia.
In Sierra Leone even legitimate information is often presented to the public unethically that is not good for the profession and can cause offence. It is a point always overlooked in discussions on media ethics.
Methods of investigation receive more ethical attention, as there are technological aids like long range cameras, telephone taps etc. used to spy on people and pry into their private lives.
We cannot blame modern technology for this unethical way of investigation, since deception, lying and trespass have always been open to journalists.
It is not a hidden secret that journalists behave in this unethical way to get information, but because it is unethical, we should not do it at all. I wish it was as simple as that for us all, but words like spy, pry, lie and deception have the ethical valuation, the condemnation built on them.
In the investigation of crime or corruption, or just incompetence, perhaps the journalist would resort to use deception to get information. This is why the people that are involved would like to keep things secret, but the public has a right to know some of this information.
Investigative journalism like police work is not glamorous but consists of a minute analysis and comparison of thousands of documents. This is where some journalists would use the deceptive and eavesdropping methods to obtain the information as they will be the only available means. Use of these methods poses the question whether it is ethical or not.
Most journalists have to resort to this unethical practice especially when investigating drug pushers, gangsters and war lords. It is almost impossible to get the required information from such people if one doesn’t apply the unethical methods. Infact trying to be ethical would cost one’s life.
So journalism is just a job in the market economy in which the usual pressures of work discourage practice based on ethical principles. But there is another reality in which journalism is a profession based on ethical principles, indeed constituted by ethical practice.
Ethical journalism even has a sort of physical embodiment in its code of practice in many developed countries even though those codes fail to be sufficient from the ethical point of view.
Before we consider the claims of journalism to have an ethical existence, we should look at the question of professionalism. Ethics and professionalism are often seemed as co-requisites. So what then is a profession? Traditionally a profession involves the giving of a service by a certified expert to an individual client for a fee and on basis of mutual trust and respect.
On this account journalism doesn’t sound like a profession, but then neither do many occupational areas claim professional status. Even the traditional professions often fail to match their traditional image, as social, economic and technological changes alter the relationship between the service-seekers and the service provider.
Perhaps then the emphasis should be on the idea of ethical practice and adherence to an ethical code. Indeed it is the proliferation of such codes among occupational groups that is used to justify the claim of professional status.
If all occupation groups are code based professions, professional status no longer points to any significant ethical distinction between one occupation and another.
The media should always be considered as facilitators of the democratic process and it is not true to say we have moved into the information age, because in the developed world and in Sierra Leone particularly, the constitution recognized the freedom of speech or of the press. Autocratic governments control information and regard secrecy as an important weapon. But a government that is accountable to its people must give them the information as they should always know what is going on. If the people are to cast their vote wisely and rationally, why then should information be withheld from them?
Information flow is necessary for a successful democracy, in as much as it requires the free circulation of news, opinion, debate and discussion. Hence the incorporation of freedom of expression and freedom of information in international charters like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A democratic necessity is transformed to a human right.
If the media are to be part of a democratic process because of their role in the origination and circulation of information and opinion, then the quality of that information or opinion is going to be a vital issue.
Quality here is meant in a typically ethical sense, so that the ethics and the politics of media are not really different or separable issues. Ethical journalism serves the public interest. One good reason for putting the point in terms of virtues is that although virtues might become ingrained dispositions they are not arbitrary or irrational but based on sound ethical principles.
Virtues are no algorithm, but the very nature of their principle-based flexibility enables them to deal successfully with novel situation that can be a set of rules embodied in a code of practice