(My dissertation was defended and approved in April 2009, at the University of Bergen. It is written in Norwegian, and a full text version is published at Bora, the research archive at UiB. Here is an abstract in English.)
The Ethics of Crime Journalism.
Statements from the Norwegian Press Council
elucidated from three moral philosophical positions
Dissertation for the degree doctor philosophiae (dr.philos, PhD)
at the University of Bergen
The study links practical media ethics with the theory of moral philosophy. In the dissertation, statements from the Norwegian Press Council are analyzed from the perspective of three theories: Discourse Ethics, Virtue Ethics and Ethics of Proximity. The purpose of the study is firstly to throw light on the implied but tacit moral philosophical features of professional media ethics, and secondly to explore the potential of the three theories with regard to their application to practical journalism ethics.
The Norwegian Press Council (PFU) was established by the press itself to monitor and promote the ethical and professional standards of the press. The Council receives complaints against the press, and makes statements on whether the rules of ”good press conduct” have been violated. The material chosen for analysis in this project is all the statements on crime journalism made by PFU in the years from 1972 to 2006, in all a total of 602 statements.
The Press Council faces dilemmas of media ethics which typically involve three different considerations, each pulling in its own direction; that is the protection of the individual balanced against benefit for society and speaker`s freedom. The three different considerations can each lean for support upon one of the three theories already mentioned: The notion of protection of the individual can draw support from modern ethical theories of proximity and care, characterized by a major focus on the vulnerable individual human being. The notion of benefit for society represents a consequentialism with ancient Aristotelian roots, concerned with the character and virtues of the professional as well as the good community. Speaker`s freedom is a fundamental idea in discourse ethics, and expresses a presupposition for the rational and truth-seeking public discussion. To which of the three considerations the Press Council gives priority will vary, according to the circumstances of the particular case. The study shows, however, that the authoritative body of media ethics in Norway in general is strongly influenced by discourse ethical ways of reflection. The Council is occupied with procedural norms for public discourse, and pays less attention to the character and virtues of the journalist and the quality of journalism. Some traces of a tendency to reflection in accordance with the ethics of proximity can be found in the statements, but they must regularly give way to other considerations.
Discourse ethics holds a strong position in practical media ethics, first and foremost demonstrated by the press` own conception of journalism as a rational discourse on issues of common interest, aimed at the justification of norms and open to the participation of everybody. The Press Council emphasizes the role of the press not only as an arena for open public debate, but also as a supplier of information and knowledge in order to enable the public to participate. Considerations of truth take precedence over considerations of partial care. The most frequently used arguments in PFU`s decisions express norms in accordance with discourse ethics, like simultaneous reply, diversity in choice of sources and truthful factual information. But the theory of discourse ethics also offers relevant correctives to current journalistic conduct which the Press Council seems to ignore. This applies, for instance, to questions like the hidden flows of information from strategic sources; close relations and friendship between journalists and prominent sources, and lack of transparency in the methods of journalism. Questions like these may imply that the discourse is not open and free from coercion, which discourse ethics presupposes.
Virtue ethics is present in the statements largely in one respect, namely in the Council`s conception of the press` responsibility to inform the public – and the social benefit that follows from this. The press has a certain objective or goal for its operations, namely to meet the public`s legitimate need for information. In other respects, the ”authorized” press ethics stands in opposition to an Aristotelian conception of media ethics – primarily because the Press Council limits the sphere of professional ethics to a number of written rules, and ignores questions not covered in the codex. The breadth of the ethical universe disappears.
From a virtue-ethical point of view, we can observe a striking distinction between ethics and quality in PFU`s statements. In a virtue ethics perspective, the competent journalist is the main concern – and the competent journalist is not the one who never gets caught breaking a rule. The apparatus of professional ethics does not pay much attention to reflections on the journalist`s character, on journalistic virtues and on ”standards of excellence” in professional practice.
Ethics of proximity represents a new and not yet fully developed perspective on media ethics.
Certainly the protection of privacy and consideration towards individuals has always been of major concern in publishing ethics in Norway, and the Press Council has all along emphasized the importance of avoiding ”unnecessary harm” to exposed individuals. The difficult matter of judgement concerns what is meant by “unnecessary”. The ethics of proximity, however, directs the attention away from the rules of publication and towards the encounter between the professional journalist and the vulnerable human being – a meeting which demands responses quite different from the established routines of professional journalism. The professional role – the cool observation and registration, keeping a distance, upholding the consequence-neutrality – is in some cases indefensible and unjustifiable. The radical alternative provided by the ethics of proximity implies firstly seeing the unique human being, liberated from every category and role (source, narrative figure, expert, victim, relative, any label which generally constitutes the cast of characters in a news story), and secondly, allowing and acknowledging the journalist`s subjective, emotional and biased response in the particular situation.
An ethics of proximity is difficult to employ in a profession which must necessarily have an ethical foundation of social justice. The present study suggests in its conclusions that the ethics of proximity in certain situations – when the journalist faces a vulnerable individual in crisis – should be given preference.
Developments in the period from 1972 to 2006 are not unambiguous with regard to the strength and priorities of the three ways of ethical reflection. Different features pull in different directions. Broadly speaking, the statements from PFU show a high degree of stability and consistency during the period.
The most explicit change can be found in the Council`s approach to the aesthetic and visual aspects of journalistic publication. While PFU a few years ago insisted on keeping questions of form, layout and what they call ”presentation” away from the institutional system of press ethics, this has changed in recent years. The Council started to regard as important the public`s – and even more the involved individual`s – subjective experience of the presentation of the news. This can be understood as a move away from discourse ethics towards reflections influenced by virtue ethics and the ethics of proximity.
Another observation pulls, however, in a different direction: The rights of the press have been increasingly stressed by the Council during the period, in frequency and strength. This is a notion opposed to a communitarian and virtue-ethical attention to the public`s need, and to society`s demand for quality in the media. There is a big difference between the newspaper`s right to publish a story and the newspaper`s fulfilment of it`s responsibility to society by publishing the story. Professional ethics is not constituted by the needs and rights of the professionals, but by a social task, a social responsibility.
Reflections in accordance with ethics of proximity seem to have become rather more important for the Council during the period. This applies especially to the issue of proper journalistic conduct during the research process.