Freedom of the media carries with it certain responsibilities of honesty, fairness, accuracy and accountability. In this essay I will discuss issues relating to media responsibility today.
The media are responsible for the majority of the observations and experiences from which we build up our personal understanding of the world and how it works. Much of our view of reality is based on media messages that have been pre-constructed and have attitudes, interpretations and conclusions already built in. The media, to a great extent, give us our sense of reality. Without mass media, openness and accountability are impossible in contemporary democracies. Freedom of the media carries with it certain responsibilities of honesty, fairness, accuracy and accountability. The power of the media to create and destroy human values comes with great responsibility. Such power ought not to be in the hands of a few.
In this essay I will attempt to define the meaning of responsibility, and will discuss the power and various responsibilities of the media. I will then proceed to address hate speech and it’s consequences and then examine the various problems regarding media ownership when in the hands of a few. I will conclude with a discussion regarding our role as socially responsible citizens to take a stand for what we expect from the media.
The media are a centre of power in the political system, having great influence on politics and on forming social change. Television can greatly influence the election of a national leader on the basis of image. The power is the power to decide who will communicate what to whom.
Today even those who loathe the media must use the media. The Taliban, to take an extreme example, banned television, photographs and computers but now use what they called ‘tools of the devil’ to refocus world attention on the war in Afghanistan.
The media’s main impact is psychological and intellectual. Media and entertainment companies shape public opinion and help frame the terms of public debate. The media is what we read, listen to and watch. In parallel, through its close relationship with advertisers, the media also exerts a powerful influence on the decisions we make, the products we buy, and the sort of questions we ask when we make our everyday choices.
The long view of history proves media’s power by showing that the medium itself, in the long run, is more powerful than the messages it carries, because the medium determines what can be communicated and how we think about that communication. (Gibbons ;2000,10)
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word responsible (adj) as having an obligation to do something, as part of one’s job or role:or having control over or care for someone, liable to be called to account (to a person or for a thing). To be accountable, answerable, to blame, blameworthy, at fault, guilty, culpable. While responsibility (n) is defined as the state or fact of being responsible, the ability to act independently and make decisions,the state of being answerable for one’s performance according to the terms of reference of the Code of Professional Conduct. Socially, peoples’ responsibilities are those things for which they are accountable; failure to discharge a responsibility renders one liable to some censure or penalty as part of a job, or profession, or social role .
According to Paul Ricoeur responsibility is tied to ethical identity, both at the individual and at the community level. Ethical identity, for its part, is born of tradition, critical and normative thought, and the capacity to exercise sensitive judgement in the manner of Aristotle’s Phronesis . It is because such an identity can be attested to by ethical subjects and communities that responsibility can be imputed to them and should be accepted and honoured by them. (Ricoeur,2000,p27)
Maintaining that the press plays an important role in the development and stability of modern society, advocates of Social Responsibility press theory believe it imperative that a commitment of social responsibility be imposed on mass media ( Merrill, 1974). In their eyes, the press has a moral obligation to consider the overall needs of society when making journalistic decisions that will produce the greatest good or the greatest number. Moreover, this utilitarian goal can be accomplished only through a concerted effort to further various ethical ideals agreed upon by all concerned with this “improvement” of society. To allow unchanneled and uncontrolled distribution of ideas and information supported by the libertarian press notion was considered neither responsible nor beneficial to society and could not be considered ethical. (Lloyd ;1991:6)
Professional journalists do have a code of ethics. Journalists make judgments about what’s safe and appropriate to report which often involves difficult choices. Let us consider the journalists’ share of responsibility for the consequences of their reporting? German sociologist Max Weber distinguishes between an ‘ethics of conviction’ and an ‘ethics of responsibility.’ According to the latter, journalists must take into account the foreseeable consequences of their reporting, the impact on society. The ethics of conviction on the other hand posits that journalists have an absolute duty to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. War journalism tends to regard this mission to reveal the truth as a sufficient condition for ethical reporting, although according to Weber both ethics are complementary rather than opposites.
The underlying assumption of social responsibility is that moral and ethical commandments dictate journalistic excellence (even if authoritarian control is needed to uphold such laws) instead of the individual reasoned choices of reporters and editors. (Lloyd; 1991;6)
For a multi media company, trust is a keyword. It is essential to have mutual trust with readers, viewers and listeners, as well as employees, owners and society at large. One does not gain trust without taking responsibility. For Media companies it is of vital importance to be identified as being ethical and responsible.
The public’s right to know of events of public importance and interest is the overriding mission of the mass media. The purpose of distributing news and enlightened opinion is to serve the general welfare. Journalists who use their professional status as representatives of the public for selfish or other unworthy motives violate a high trust. Freedom of the press is to be guarded as an inalienable right of people in a free society. It carries with it the freedom and the responsibility to discuss, question, and challenge actions and utterances of our government and of our public and private institutions. Journalists uphold the right to speak unpopular opinions and the privilege to agree with the majority. Their social responsibilities to the public are paramount. That is the nature of their profession. (Knowlton;1995;5)
No issue is more problematic for those concerned with media freedom and responsibility than the issue of “hate speech”. The term is generally used to refer to advocacy of national, racial, religious or other hatred. The issue, in essence, is how far it is proper or acceptable to limit the right to freedom of expression, when the views being expressed support the limitation or infringement of the rights of others. These issues become even more acute in a country with a history of communal or
ethnic violence, where the media are known to have played a role in fanning hostilities.
In 1946, the judges at Nuremberg found Julius Streicher, the Nazi publisher of Der Sturmer, guilty of “inciting of the population to abuse, maltreat and slay their fellow citizens, to stir up passion, hate, violence and destruction among the people themselves aims at breaking the moral backbone even of those the invader chooses to spare.” The judges sentenced him to death because “his incitement to murder and extermination at the time when Jews in the East were being killed under the most horrible conditions clearly constitutes persecution on political and racial grounds and (therefore) a Crime against Humanity.”
Forty- seven years later, in Dec. 2003, in a landmark verdict, the war crimes tribunal for Rwanda convicted three media figures of genocide for inciting people to take part in the wave of killing that swept across Rwanda in 1994. The defendants were found guilty for their use of a popular radio station and a newspaper to inflame hatred against the country’s Tutsi minority and to direct and encourage the campaign of slaughter. The lesson in the conviction of the three is that social responsibility is at the root of journalistic practice. In an interview with The New York Times, Stephen Rapp, the senior prosecutor on the case, said “A key question will be what kind of speech is protected and where the limits lie. It is important to draw that line. We hope the judgment will give the world some guidance. He also noted that in terms of international legal standards there has been no decision since Nuremberg. “Those who control the media are accountable for its consequences,” the Arusha, Tanzania, based international court said before handing down the convictions.
In my opinion the media should not cooperate with hate-mongers by providing them an uncontrolled platform for disseminating their ideas. This is not to say that the media should fail to report about the conduct of hate mongers. Instead, the media coverage of hate speech should be cautious and sensitive to the interests of the group under attack, and above all be ‘responsible.’
Without a doubt information is power, and the big owners of the main medium to get information to the people, the mainstream media, are very powerful people. Therefore we may well ask how can there be credible democratic discourse in any country when the major public information channels, television and newspapers, are owned or controlled by a handful of individuals accountable only to themselves?
Interestingly, for Karl Marx, the mass media was simply an instrument of bourgeois control over the proletariat, a part of the overall superstructure of society, along with religion, the family and education.
Whether one agrees with Marx’s political dimension or not, what is clear is that Marxism presents to us an extremely useful model in which to study the mass media today. Though Marx was writing at a time when the main organs of mass media would’ve essentially meant newspapers and books, Marxist analysis can be applied to today’s media: the mass media, a privatized means of production, is there to replicate capitalist ideology and to promote a ‘false consciousness’ amongst the working class. (http://www.marxists.org/glossary/index.htm)
Television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and internet sites are, largely, owned and controlled by profit-making businesses. Since it is the bourgeoisie who control the media, it is only natural that it is their ideas get promoted through both things like advertising and the actual media products themselves – movies, soap opera, tabloid newspapers, consumer magazines and so on.
The case for imposing limits on media ownership is based solely on democratic, social and journalistic concerns. The media have a social responsibility that makes them unlike other commercial activities. As such, freedom of the press is not just the proprietary right of owners to do as they see fit. It is a right of the Australian people. (http://www.presscampaign.org/proposals.htm)
The current level of ownership concentration here in Australia continues to be one of the highest in the world. Rupert Murdoch, the world’s most powerful media mogul, already decides what’s fit to print in Adelaide, Brisbane and many regional cities, where he owns the only newspaper. In Melbourne and Sydney he dominates the newspaper market and he owns the only national daily, The Australian . Kerry Packer is Australia’s richest, most powerful businessman, and owns the dominant Nine TV network as well as a large stable of news, women’s and other magazines. Companies run by the two media moguls and their sons, James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch, are also equal shareholders in the pay-TV group Foxtel
The film Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism , a recently released documentary about the Fox News channel in the US, exposes the methods and props used by the Fox Network to mold the news. It also displays the influence these methods have had on the major media groups. Fox News claims to be ‘Fair and balanced’ but in reality is anything but. For the first time ever, this documentary reveals the secrets of former Fox News producers, reporters, bookers and writers who expose what it’s like to work for Fox News. These former Fox employees talk about how they were forced to push a ‘right-wing’ point of view or risk their jobs. Some have even chosen to remain anonymous in order to protect their current livelihoods. As one employee said, ‘There’s no sense of integrity as far as having a line that can’t be crossed.’ The film demonstrataes the impact on society when a broad swath of media is controlled by one person. (http://www.disinfo.com/site/)
An Australian media without a strong, independent ABC and an independently-owned Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review would no longer be a free media. It would be controlled by powerful political and business players, and they will decide what’s fit to read, what stories to publish, and what opinions to disseminate. (http://www.xmedia.org.au/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=28&Itemid=)
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, through programs such as Media Watch, Frontline and the Media Report, has contributed much. The effect has been to raise public awareness of the processes of journalism.
In addition Four Corners has carved a long and proud tradition of investigative journalism, exposing corruption in high places and peering into neglected corners of society.(http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/4c40/essays/ricketson.htm)
To conclude, the largest transmitter of information today is the mass media. Here a mere fraction of a percent of the western world population decides what the rest of the world is to know and not to know. Technological advances continue to increase the power of the media to effect cultural change, manipulate public opinion and influence government policy. I don’t want to censor the media I just want them to understand their power to influence minds and use it responsibly. The greater the power, the greater the responsibility.
The core problem is that most journalists are employees, not autonomous professionals like, say, a barrister. The main issue for truth in reporting is advertisers or media owners putting pressure on editors and journalists to publish or hold stories. Unfortunately journalists don’t always control the end product of their work as published or broadcast. Regrettably the majority of the key decision-makers in media organisations (such as the owners), the people who really wield power and from whom responsibility should be extracted, are not subject to any ethical codes or enforcement system (http://www.alliance.org.au/work/aja/ethics/ethics1.html)
Private media ownership; the mass media conglomerate,a concentration of media ownership in too few hands is a danger to society. This can constitute a threat to democracy itself, where major political parties are almost held to ransom by media proprietors, who can wield enormous power through their ability to manipulate the opinion of the electorate, should they choose to do so.
It is my view that such power and responsibility should never be left in the hands of a few. The public need a wide range of contrasting perspectives from the media, not simply the opinions of a handful of conglomerates and their owners.
Working journalists in the monopolized television and newspaper media must know that, where there is conflict between the principles of public interest journalism and the direction set by ownership, there is a channel of appeal where professional standards reign.
For this reason there need to be rules which media owners respect and accept. We need rules to prevent one company from having too much control over the media content. We must have reliable systems developed which ensure a diversity of media ownership, so that competition within the media stimulates a wide range of perspectives on public policy issues and acts as a check on the political power of the media magnates .(http://www.transparency.org/sourcebook/14.html)
Finally, I believe it is our responsibility as concerned citizens to make sure we are not merely passive viewers, readers or listeners, after all we are also voters and consumers. Together we can wield a huge influence on the media by playing an active part in improving the output of all our media services by making our views known where it counts.
Each of us has a responsibility to reject any obvious biases and take a stand for what we expect from the media by demanding equal representation of issues and political candidates. Nowadays we have the Internet to assist democracy by giving a voice to every citizen in every library, every office and every home.
Complaints processes exist for anyone wanting to complain about something they have watched, heard or read in a variety of media. This includes complaints in relation to television or radio content; advertising; online content; film, videos and literature; and the print media.
It is important for our society that the media and their owners are accountable. It is up to every one of us to closely follow the critical issues of the day, monitor the performance of the media and, through grassroots activism, use our powers of purchase and persuasion to expose media bias and fraud; bring pressure to bear for media reform; and when faced with cases of continued bias, inaccuracy or unfairness, make our objections heard and direct others toward more reliable and responsible new sources.
Gibbons J & R Eldon Hieberet 2000 Exploring Mass Media for a Changing World Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Mahwah, NJ. p10
Knowlton S. R & Parsons P.R. 1995 The Journalist’s Moral Compass: Basic Principles. Praeger Publishers Westport, CT. p5
Lloyd Scott, 1991 A Criticism of Social Responsibility Theory: an Ethical Perspective
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Ricoeur Paul 2000 The Just, The University of Chicago Press Chicago and London; p25
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