The philosophy of journalism

By Joe Hung, Special to The China Post

Two cable TV networks were disciplined by the National Communications Commission for airing fabricated video footage some time back. TVBS put on air the footage its own reporter shot but passed it off as one produced by a mobster who threatened to kill his capo, displaying two pistols and as many rifles along with lots of ammunition. The other channel, Sanlih Entertainment, borrowed a documentary, took out a scene of an execution shot in Shanghai in 1948, and then broadcast it as one in Keelung where government troops killed innocent islanders in the previous year to mark the 60th anniversary of the Feb. 28 Incident of 1947. Both stations were fined NT$1 million each. But the commission ordered the latter’s senior staff to attend lectures — lasting not less than eight hours — on journalistic ethics. The staff of the former were not so required. Opinion is divided over whether Sanlih senior staff and indeed practicing, as well as would-be journalists, should be taught codes of journalism in universities or elsewhere. Most practicing journalists, including editors, consider school inculcation to be of no use and a sheer waste of time. Some academics, however, insist that professional ethics have to be taught, though they lament there are few qualified instructors and little literature in this specific field of study to draw on. In fact, both editors and academics are right, but something has to be done to help media workers uphold their professional standards. To the best of my understanding, Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale must be the only institute of higher learning to offer a graduate course on journalistic ethics, which is somewhat high-soundingly called philosophy of journalism. I took that course in 1965 and was disappointed. I learned practically next to nothing except that conscientious journalists should strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty and that professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Well, I thought, it shouldn’t take one whole quarter — SIU was run on a quarter system then — to learn just those two things, honesty being the fundamental tenet taught in class.

Our kind-hearted and learned professor gave us quite a number of case studies to drive the two points home. We were told of how the Kansas City Star resisted the threat of its biggest advertiser and published the first story exposing the relationship between smoking and cancer two decades after medical researchers had established that relationship. We were acquainted with the story of a small town paper that came out with a blank column once in a while. The editor killed the story of a teenage law breaker and kept the space for the story blank in order to protect the young delinquent who promised to do good. We had to write term papers, and I got an A for mine, though I couldn’t honestly say I learned anything useful. However, such case studies can and should be taught to journalism students in Taiwan in a course, which can be named philosophy of journalism. Such a course is necessary because so far schools of journalism have offered practically nothing about the journalistic code except a cursory and perfunctory citation of the canons of journalism adopted from the United States more than seven decades ago. No wonder press editors — probably, all trained in Taiwan — think the teaching of the professional code is of little use to practicing journalists in our increasingly Machiavellian society. That makes it all the more necessary to teach aspiring journalists the virtues of honesty and integrity in reporting. One thing the academics may have forgotten is that the codes and canons evolved to a large extent via observation of and in response to past ethical lapses by journalists and publishers. They are no laws. They are not legislated for their creation or alteration. They are dependent for their existence on the consent of media workers, lacking effective machinery of enforcement, difficult to ascertain and regularly disregarded. They have no teeth, for offenders are seldom punished. Media operators even encourage reporters to break the code in the name of competition for higher ratings or a large circulation that brings in more advertising income. Many news organizations in the United States and the United Kingdom maintain an in-house ombudsman whose role is, in part, to keep their own organizations honest and accountable to the public. The ombudsman is intended to mediate in conflicts stemming from internal and/or external pressures, and to maintain accountability to the public for news reported, as well as to foster self-criticism and to encourage adherence to both codified and uncodified ethics and standards. This position may be the same or similar to the public editor, though public editors also act as a liaison with readers and do not generally become members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. We have no in-house ombudsmen in Taiwan. Nor have we set up an organization of news ombudsmen. But Taiwan has a press council, which, unlike its opposite numbers in countries with freedom of the press, is largely ceremonial. In the United Kingdom, a Press Complaints Commission, set up by newspapers and magazines, is capable of applying fairly consistent standards and dealing with a higher volume of complaints, albeit it may not escape criticisms of being toothless. Moreover, Taiwan is seriously afflicted with media bias, particularly on political issues. Prejudiced press reports are aired by unlicensed radio stations. To them, canons of journalism are not even worth the paper on which they are written. Their operators never bother to fulfill the mission of timely distribution of information in service of the public interest. What Taiwan needs most is to form a commission on freedom of the press like the one headed by University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins in 1947. The Hutchins report, published separately as “Free and Responsible Press,” triggered a media reform in the United States. I hope we will have such a commission to find out what is wrong with the press in Taiwan and come up with a new set of canons of journalism that can be taught in school and adhered to by all media workers.