You are a reporter and you witness an event, then what?
Be it a car crash or a society wedding, a political speech or a cricket match, when you write your report or when you record it for broadcast, you give an account of what you saw and heard.
It is the basic function of journalism. The job: to bring your audience interesting or important new facts which they themselves are not in a position to know.
If you alter facts, if you embellish or twist them, or if you deliberately omit significant details, then you are not bearing witness to reality. Instead, you are altering it – passing on fiction rather than facts. Breaking the bond of trust with your readers.
So, the stark and simple rule: if it’s not true, then it’s not journalism.
That rule is the beginning and end of journalistic ethics. Journalism operates in a complex environment and must cope with an infinite variety of pressures and dilemmas. But the first and vital test for the journalist must always be: “Is this true?”
Where the truth is difficult to detect, where it is hard to say exactly what has happened, you do your absolute best. You say to your reader: “This is what I know and this is what I have been told.” You can also say: “This is what these relevant people believe has happened.” If you do that faithfully, that is also the truth. But you go no further.
It is often said that the world has become more complicated and that journalists are under more time pressure today than ever, so the ethical terms of trade must have changed. Don’t believe it.
In every age people believe their moral environment is more demanding and sophisticated than what went before, but it’s an illusion. Human beings remain human beings: read a little Shakespeare and you’ll soon see that we are no wiser or more complicated than the men and women of the year 1600.
As for time pressure, journalism has always been in a hurry. The news agency and radio news reporters of half a century ago worked with exactly the same 24-hour-a-day sense of urgency that online journalists feel today. Then, as now, every second mattered.
So while we now have Twitter and mobile phones and 24-hour news and satellites, and while we have PR and spin and globalisation and cultural diversity, the difference between truth and fiction remains the same. And so the test for the journalist remains the same: “Is it true?”
Can you ever compromise? No. You have an obligation to your readers or your audience to try to tell them what really happened, and – just as important – you also have an obligation to the people or the person about whom you are writing.
You may be tempted one day, for example, to make up a quote, or to embellish it, because that way you will have a better, stronger story. Don’t do it, because it won’t be the truth.
And this is not about being caught. Yes, there is a chance that if you write falsehoods you will be exposed and shamed or even sacked and prosecuted, but sadly it is more likely that you will get away with it, because journalists almost always have a power advantage over the people they write about. It is very hard for the victim to bite back.
So if you do fake a quote or distort the facts and get away with it, you are a bully. But you are also a liar and a creator of fictions, and so you are not really a journalist at all.
Make no mistake, there will always be pressure to lie and distort and it will come from many directions: from editors and newspaper proprietors as well as PR people and politicians and ordinary members of the public desperate to avoid embarrassment or exposure.
Equally, there will always be rationalisations – excuses and arguments for straying from the truth. You will be told that the truth is unknowable, that there are many versions of the truth, that what you are being urged to write could be the truth, even that journalism is not about the truth but about what you can get away with. You will also be told that the pursuit of truth is unrealistic, and that journalism has always been a murky business in which compromises are made to create drama or to please vested interests.
How you react to these pressures and arguments will tell you what sort of person you are. Are you someone who provides the readers or the audience with the best approximation you can manage of what actually happened, or not? Are you someone who tries as hard as possible to accurately reflect the experience of the person you are writing about, or not?
You will make mistakes. Everybody does, and hurried journalists are more prone than most. You try to avoid it of course, but when you see it has happened you correct the record as soon as possible because you want the record to reflect the reality.
And do not believe the argument that to get ahead in journalism you have to compromise with the truth. If one thing in modern journalism is different from the past, if one thing is genuinely changing, it is this: the power of people who try to make journalists compromise is diminishing.
More journalists today have their own personal brands, thanks to blogging and tweeting, to the opening up of specialist online journalism and to the relative decline of corporate journalism. That means more journalists are personally identifiable to readers and audiences.
That gives you more power as a journalist, but at the same time it makes you more accountable. People trust you, and not just the newspaper or broadcast company you work for. They believe you and rely on you, and if you always try to tell them the truth, no matter how hard that may be, they will rely on you more. But if you are not honest with them they will turn their backs on you.
Ethics in journalism begins and ends with truth. There are plenty of other ethical challenges to be confronted in the job. Indeed, good journalists tend to live in a world of permanent ethical debate.
They have to be fair. They have to show sensitivity. They have to be honest with the people who inform them as well as with the people they inform. They may sometimes bend society’s rules, but they have to understand that society will only tolerate that if it is done for a greater good, if it is done in the public interest.
It’s not easy, but none of these challenges makes any sense if your starting point is not the faithful reporting of reality as far as you can grasp it – if you are not trying to tell the truth. And whether it is the 21st century or the 17th century, whether you are reporting it by newspaper, iPhone or word of mouth, and whether you have days to gather your thoughts or seconds, the truth is always the truth. – Brian Cathcart
Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University in south-east London. A former editor of the Sunday Independent, he was also advisor to the House of Commons committee on media tapping and is founder of the activist movement Hacked Off.
Top photo shows press baron Rupert Murdoch fronting the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of the British Press to answer questions about phonetapping practices at his newspapers. Screengrab from a BCC news report.