The ethical challenges in business journalism

Trusting the inherent goodness of people or laying down firm codes of conduct, ethics in business journalism raises some intense debates in the industry

e4m by Shanta Saikia
Published: Feb 27, 2012 9:12 AM  | 4 min read
The ethical challenges in business journalism

When it comes to ethical challenges in business journalism, the media industry has some strong views on it. While some feel that ethics is more of one’s inherent sense of fairness and integrity, others want definitive codes of conduct laid down to rule out any ambiguity in the way business journalists should function.

AK Bhattacharya, Editor, Business Standard, subscribes to the former view, when he said, “The way I look at ethical challenges in business journalism, I don’t see them as challenges. To me, ethics in business journalism is part and parcel of business journalism. If it is posing a challenge, then it is a reflection of the system, the way we function, the way we organise, the way we do our reporting. What is really ethics? It is not really what is right or wrong, neither is it part of religious belief. Ethics is not defined by law, in fact, it even goes beyond law. It is an inherent sense of fairness, honesty and integrity. Code of conduct is not to be confused with ethics.”

Agreeing with him, Dilip Cherian, Founding Partner, Perfect Relations, felt that the issue of ethics and the way it had to be defined involved the very core of the individual. “It is a sense of ethics as opposed to code of conduct. There are no moral blueprints,” he added. He felt that good governance was important since with the advent of social media, the chances of any malpractice being found out were more.

Taking a contrary view, R Sukumar, Editor, Mint, stressed, “You can’t take the inherent goodness of people for granted. You need to have some rules and codes that are all encompassing.” These codes of conduct needed to be communicated to whom one was covering. According to him, “Ethics is a system of moral principles. We cannot make people good or bad, but we can influence them while as work.” He further said that if an organisation did not follow a certain code, then it could not stand up to the reports it carries. “We need to remember that it’s just a job and not a crusade. The code ensures that you never lose objectivity,” he maintained.

For BV Rao, Editor, Governance Now, ethics defined what one was. He, too, felt that organisational ethics was important. “What matters is where we stand as an organisation. If this idea of what you are is clear, there is no confusion,” he maintained, adding, “We have certain accountability towards the people, since what we write can create or destruct others.”

For Bhattacharya, ethics was an individual matter, while code of ethics was an organisational matter imposed on individuals. He maintained, “Ethics goes much beyond and is much larger than any code or rules.”

Meanwhile, Sukumar stressed that rules set behavior in an organisation. Speaking about Mint, he said that the paper had drafted a code of conduct in 2007. “No reporter is entirely objective. A strong line editor will ensure there’s objectivity in a report. These are hygiene issues,” he added.

Cherian too felt that a clear cut set of codes of conduct gave a clear idea of what the set perimeter was.

All the industry experts were unanimous in the view that the government should stay out as far as setting codes for news organisations was concerned. BV Rao insisted that the government should definitely stay out and that self-regulation was the way forward. At the same time, he said that an industry level code was needed rather than an individual one. Elaborating on this point he remarked, “Our self-regulation is more about keeping quiet. There is no code for the journalism profession in India, people are only protecting their own interests so that they are not in the direct line of fire.”

On the other hand, Bhattacharya felt that an industry wide code was not the answer here. An industry body might form the rules that suit it, but might not necessarily be ethical, he maintained. According to him, the answer probably lay in the market. “Readers are getting more discerning by the day,” he noted.

Sukumar, too, found it worrisome of the government stepped in. One check on news media, according to him, would be if advertisers moved away from media that did not practice ethical codes.

AK Bhattacharya, BV Rao, Dilip Cherian, and R Sukumar were speaking at the day-long work shop on ‘Reporting on Business in a Global World’ for business journalists, held in Delhi on February 23, 2012. The workshop was organised by the High Commission of Canada, in collaboration with exchange4media.

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