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Ethics vs. Profit

How much of what we read is ethical? How many articles and reports comply with the classical rules of journalism and moral minimum? How much manipulation and how much ignorance or malevolence there is?
If a journalist is obliged to get information from multiple sources, audience/reader is also welcome to do the same to have an overview on a subject.
If until a few years ago people could get information just from a single source (and I refer here only to the audience), now, if people want to be informed correctly, they shall consider several press materials covering the same subject.
How we got here?
In the 90’ the public of Romania considered Romanian journalism as a “fair”, “honest”, “efficient” one. For several years, the public perception has been absolutely different, i.e. opposed to the perception of 25 years ago: “interesting”, “manipulating”, “wrong”, “far away from citizen”.
Romanian press declined when the institution empowered to regulate the audio-visual market in Romania issued more broadcasting licenses than in any other European country. In Romania, in 2008, there were 747 legally established media outlets.
Can we talk about ethical rules, about consciousness of every journalist and then, obviously, about manipulation and media education.
A few years ago, when the need to identify the problem of poor professionalism of press in Romania, the Centre for Research in Applied Ethics of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest, carried out an empirical research to assess the state of ethical management in Romanian editorial offices. Four editorial offices were selected: the daily paper “Gandul”, Radio Romania News, Romanian Television, the editorial office of the private television channel “Realitatea TV”.
The questionnaire contained 29 questions. The conclusions were as follows: the vast majority of journalists do not know the ethical training tools. As a whole, the journalists made no clear distinction in the moral relationship between compliance with moral rules and increase in profits. Their conception consists in complying always with moral rules in their activity would hinder the increase in profits. The surveyed journalists consider themselves able to head an ethics committee of the press entity in which they work, although they are the ones who say they do not know what duties an ethics committee has. The institutional framework governing ethical instruments is considered almost inexistent (87%), and where it exists, journalists do not also know that institutional strategies would cover moral issues. Other instruments, such as ethical audit and ethics training are totally unknown to the surveyed journalists, both as a possible existence of such means of ethical management, as well as importance of their existence.
The lacking knowledge of ethical instruments , which could be used for a quality management, may also directly result in the fact that almost half of the surveyed journalists think that a press entity has no moral obligations to customers, i.e. to the public, thus showing that many journalists are not aware of the social responsibility of their profession. The fact that the journalists do not consider observance of their moral obligations to the public as a professional duty, can also be justified and explained by the fact that, as a whole, such approach is not cultivated in editorial offices, moreover, editorial offices seem to be far away of what we call in theory moral organizational culture. The Research Center for Applied Ethics concluded, based on the qualitative interpretation of answers of the surveyed journalists, that there is no any cult of moral values in the editorial offices, but rather a cult of the ability of editor to comply without comments with the requirements of chiefs, while criteria of professionalism are surpassed by criteria of attitude and behavior, both in recruitment, as well as in promotion. For this reason, the journalists consider inopportune recruitment of such specialists on ethical issues as ethicists, the role of whom they do not understand even in editing the code of ethics.
It was also found that, usually in an editorial office, complying with the decision of the direct supervisor is regarded as a professional duty, which is not discussed and commented on. As a rule, the editor in chief asks to produce a particular material, giving sometimes instructions on how to address a subject, and the journalist neither knows, nor has the courage to recourse to the conscience clause (existing in the code) to refuse a professional task since he/she found a mismatch between the line received from the chief and the real facts to be investigated.
Another conclusion of the study was that in the relationship of journalists with the public moral criteria have a relative role with adverse consequences and, with the public opinion, which, as the survey data say, they ignore when it has reproaches on how the journalist performs his/her mission (to inform correctly, always saying the truth).
Things have not changed very much after this study. We could say, on the contrary.
“Populus vult decepi, decipiatus”. – “People want to be deceived, so let them be deceived.”
Manipulation is available to all: journalists, politicians, advertising industry. The moment we understand that the media is used deliberately to shape or control our, i.e. the public reactions, is a revolt one. But how do we identify this in our relationship with the press? Media education courses shall be in place in schools, colleges and universities, regardless of their profile. Currently, in Romania, such courses are organized by the Centre for Independent Journalism. But how many people have access to them?
The only thing available to the public helping it to detect an attempted manipulation is the attention with which it read a particular journalistic material. If the media product complies with the classic formula answering to the questions: “what, who, where, when, how” we can say that it is an objective product. Meanwhile, if the journalist used three distinct sources of information to prepare a material and they are embodied in the media product, then, yes, it is objective. A few days ago Romanian Television channel broadcasted a comprehensive report about orphans of Romania. All interviews were only incriminating, the other two parties that were discussed were absent. People who knew the subject could understand from the announcement of the report that it is manipulative: we do not talk in Romania about “orphans”, but about abandoned children. It is very easy to manipulate someone who does not know the real things, saying that in Romania there are over 60,000 orphans, without a figure being stated by a civil servant from the Authority for Child Protection, or representatives of organizations dealing with institutionalized children.

Cristina LIBERIS,
journalist, former special correspondent at TVR, Romania

This material is published within the project "Freedom of expression and media development in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and South Caucasus", implemented by CIJ during the period May-September 2015, supported by Deutsche Welle Akademie and financed by German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The opinions expressed in this material belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the financer’s opinion.