Global Journalism Ethics

September 16, 2010

A lifetime's exposure to human suffering in locations as diverse as Finland and Vietnam persuaded Martha Gelhorn that journalism could not make the world good. The reporter's job, she concluded, was to witness honestly and describe meticulously. With great effort and talent a first draft might be attainable: global justice was not.

Gelhorn's was a pragmatic verdict for a generation of journalists propelled to the brink of cynicism by conflicts between nation states. She and her contemporaries covered international stories for national audiences. Their subjects did not read what was written about them. This was reporting for "us" about "them". Even when informed by ideals of common humanity, it was replete with the strangeness of the other.

Stephen Ward's pursuit of a journalism that is capable of informing ethical debate about issues including human rights, terrorism and global inequality is optimistic but not naive. Spectacular advances in digital, wireless media have made newsgathering and dissemination global. Journalism ethics must be reinvented if the profession is to serve the global public sphere.

His core question is how journalism ethics should change to take account of global news media and global audiences. From a foundation of cosmopolitanism, he theorises an ideal with its roots in stoicism, Roman civic law and Christian humanism, and Kant's categorical imperative. His goal is a system of global journalism ethics anchored in philosophy and yet practical enough "to be seen as useful and important by working journalists".

Media theorists who aspire to such valuable purpose are rare. Many have aimed low and still missed. Ward deserves to be read with respect because his idealism is informed by unembarrassed commitment to the principles and practices that journalists cherish.

Despite his "primary ethical allegiance to a borderless moral community of humans", he is not a dithering moral relativist. He understands that professional journalism is a product of liberal democracy and a crucial ingredient in every liberal democratic polity. He believes that journalists have a specific duty to promote ethical flourishing in a democratic global society. This is high-minded, but not unrealistic.

As professional reporting struggles against competition from those amateur peddlers of opinion mischaracterised as "citizen journalists", a renewed sense of mission is essential. Free citizens know that ethical market-based journalism can hold power to account. But power is no longer located mainly within nation states and the objects of our ethical concern are not restricted within national borders.

Ward combines the right and the good to formulate a philosophy of journalism ethics for the truly global world of instant multimedia news. He does not attempt to write the newsroom policies that alone could make his ideals real. This book is a stimulus to discussion and an invitation to debate.

The author seeks a dialogue "with liberal and humanitarian forms of thought from all and any cultures". For some in the field of media studies such language will raise hackles. But it would be glib to dismiss this book because it is a product of predominantly Western ideas. No system of ethics can be constructed from ideas that lack a coherent history, and the history of professional journalism is largely Western.

He is courageous and right to suggest that a modernised and ethically reinvigorated reinterpretation of that tradition can help to create journalism that will serve the interests of people throughout the developing world. Journalism in the 21st century should promote global democratic structures.

Professional journalists are prone to laugh at such idealism. On reading this fine and useful book they should abandon that response to people who imagine that satisfactory global ethics cannot be built on ideas of Western origin.

Global Journalism Ethics

By Stephen J. A. Ward. McGill-Queen's University Press 296pp, £76.00 and £20.99. ISBN 9780773536784 and 36937. Published 8 June 2010

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