A San Francisco Police Captain is interviewed by a reporter at the
Montgomery St. Station. Photo by Thomas Hawk
What is global
journalism ethics? Global journalism ethics aims at developing
a comprehensive set of principles and standards for the practice of
journalism in an age of global news media. New forms of communication
are reshaping the practice of a once parochial craft serving a local,
regional or national public. Today, news media use communication technology
to gather text, video and images from around the world, with unprecedented
speed and varying degrees of editorial control. The same technology
allows news media to disseminate this information to audiences scattered
around the globe.
Despite these global trends, most codes of ethics contain standards
for news organizations or associations in specific countries. International
associations of journalists exist, and some have constructed declarations
of principle. But no global code has been adopted by all major journalism
associations and news organizations.
In addition to statements of principle, more work needs to be done
on the equally important area of specific, practice guidelines for
covering international events.
An adequate global journalism ethics has yet to be constructed.
The global media debate Since at least the 1970s, a global media ethics
has been part of controversial attempts to establish a “new
world information order”. These international movements have
included broad “media” issues that, albeit important,
are not a primary focus of journalism ethics per se, e.g., the equal
distribution of computer technology in the world.
Developing nations and/or UN agencies such as UNESCO have led such
movements. None to date has been successful. In the late 1900s, the
movement was opposed by governments and news organizations in the
United States and Britain. They feared that non-democratic powers
might use a global ethic to justify limits to freedom of expression
and of the press.
The dream of a set of principles for equitable and responsible dissemination
of information worldwide has not died. The United Nations is currently
holding “World Summits on the Information Society.” At
a summit in Geneva in December 2003, 175 countries adopted a plan
of action and a declaration of principles. A second summit will be
held in Tunisia in November 2005.
On the history of these movements, see Gerbner, G. & Mowlana,
H. & Nordenstreng, K., eds., The Global Media Debate. Norwood,
NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1999.
Why a global ethics?
There are at least two reasons:
(1) Practical: a non-global ethic is no longer able to adequately
address the new problems that face a global journalism, and
(2) Ethical: new global responsibilities come with global impact and
Both reasons are grounded in the fact that news media now inhabit
a radically pluralistic, global community where the impact of their
reports can have far-reaching effects -- good or bad. News reports,
via satellite or the Internet, reach people around the world and influence
the actions of governments, militaries, humanitarian agencies and
warring ethnic groups. A responsible global ethic is needed in a world
where news media bring together a plurality of different religions,
traditions and ethnic groups.
One responsibility is to report issues and events in a way that reflects
this global plurality of views; to practice a journalism that helps
different groups understand each other better. Reports should be accurate,
balanced and diverse, as judged from an international perspective.
A biased and parochial journalism can wreak havoc in a tightly linked
global world. Unless reported properly, North American readers may
fail to understand the causes of violence in Middle East, or a famine
in Africa. Biased reports may incite ethnic groups in a region to
attack each other. A narrow-minded, patriotic news media can stampede
populations into war. Moreover, journalism with a global perspective
is needed to help citizens understand the daunting global problems
of poverty, environmental degradation, technological inequalities
and political instability.
New stage in journalism ethics
Since the birth of modern journalism in the 17th century, journalism
has gradually broaden the scope of the people that it claims to serve
-- from factions to specific social classes to the public of nations.
The journalistic principle of “serving the public interest”
has been understood, tacitly or explicitly, as serving one’s
own public, social class or nation. The other principles of objectivity,
impartiality and editorial independence were limited by this parochial
understanding of who journalism serves. For example, “impartiality”
meant being impartial in one’s coverage of rival groups within
one’s society, but not necessarily being impartial to groups
outside one’s national boundaries.
Global journalism ethics, then, can be seen as an extension of journalism
ethics -- to regard journalism’s “public” as the
citizens of the world, and to interpret the ethical principles of
objectivity, balance and independence in an international manner.
Journalism ethics becomes more “cosmopolitan” in tone
Components of global journalism ethics
The development of global journalism ethics has the following tasks.
New philosophical foundations for a global ethics, which include:
• global re-interpretation of the ethical role and aims of journalism
• global re-interpretation of existing journalism principles
and standards, such as objectivity, balance and independence
• construction of new norms and “best practices”
as guides for the practice of global journalism
More research into the state of journalism, amid globalization:
• studies of news media in various regions of world
• studies on the evolution and impact of globalization in news
media, with a focus on ownership, technology and practice
• studies on the ethical standards of new media in different
• studies on news coverage of international problems and issues
Actions to implement and support global standards:
• application of this global perspective to re-define the coverage
of international events and issues
• coalition-building among journalists and interested parties
with the aim of writing a global code of ethics that has wide-spread
• initiatives to defend and enhance free and responsible news
media, especially in areas where problems are the greatest
How would a global ethics be different?
Philosophically, the distinct conceptual element of a global ethics
can be summarized by three imperatives:
1. Act as global agents
Journalists should see themselves as agents of a global public sphere.
The goal of their collective actions is a well-informed, diverse and
tolerant global “info-sphere” that challenges the distortions
of tyrants, the abuse of human rights and the manipulation of information
by special interests.
2. Serve the citizens of the world
The global journalist’s primary loyalty is to the information
needs of world citizens. Journalists should refuse to define themselves
as attached primarily to factions, regions or even countries. Serving
the public means serving more than one’s local readership or
audience, or even the public of one’s country.
3. Promote non-parochial understandings
The global journalist frames issues broadly and uses a diversity of
sources and perspectives to promote a nuanced understanding of issues
from an international perspective. Journalism should work against
a narrow ethnocentrism or patriotism. What do these three imperatives
imply for specific standards of journalism, such as objectivity? Under
global journalism ethics, objectivity becomes the ideal of informing
impartially from an international stance. Objectivity in journalism
has usually been understood as the duty to avoid bias toward groups
within one’s own country. Global objectivity takes on the additional
responsibility of allowing bias towards one’s country or culture
as a whole to distort reports, especially reports on international
Objective reports, to be accurate and balanced, must contain all relevant
international sources and cross-cultural perspectives. In addition,
global journalism asks journalists to be more conscious of how they
frame the global public’s perspective on major stories, and
how they set the international news agenda. The aim of global journalism
should be more than helping the public sphere “go well”
at home, as civic journalists say. The aim should be to facilitate
rational deliberation in a global public sphere.
Global journalism ethics implies a firm journalistic response to inward-looking
attitudes, such as extreme patriotism. It was disturbing to see how
some news organizations during the Iraq War of 2003 so quickly shucked
their peacetime commitments to independent, impartial reporting as
soon as the drums of war started beating. Cosmopolitanism means that
the primary ethical duty of a global journalism in times of conflict
and uncertainty is not a patriotism of blind allegiance, or muted
criticism. Public duty calls for independent, hard-edged news, along
with investigations and analysis.
top Problems and obstacles
Among advocates of global ethics, there is disagreement over whether
ethicists need to identify “universal values” among all
journalists, or humans. Do such universal values exist? What might
Recently, a growing group of ethicists have attempted to identify
a common core of values in various places: in codes of journalism
ethics, in international treaties on human rights, in anthropological
studies of culture.
See Black, J. and R. Barney, eds., Search for a global media ethic.
[Special issue] Journal of Mass (Eds.). Media Ethics, 17(4), (2002).
One view is that neither universal values nor universal consent is
required for a plausible, global code. This view sometimes stems from
a contractual or ‘constructionist” view of ethics. The
constructionist does not believe that ethics depends on “finding”
or “discovering”, through empirical means, a set of universal
values that all rational people acknowledge. Rather, the correct method
of global ethics is to see whether all or most interested parties
are able to “construct” and agree upon a set of principles
through a fair process of deliberation. On this view, it is also not
clear that a set of values must gain universal consensus -- a demand
that seems unduly strong, given the variety of new media in the world.
A weaker requirement would aim at the construction of a set of principles
agreed to by most major journalism associations and news organizations.
Note: On a constructionist approach, see Ward, S. J. A., Philosophical
Foundations of Global Journalism Ethics, Journal of Mass Media
Ethics, 20(1), (2005), 3-21.
Global journalism ethics will have to amount to more than a dreamy
spiritualism about the brotherhood of man and universal benevolence.
Conceptually, there is work to be done. Global journalism ethics must
show, in detail, how its ideas imply changes to norms and practices.
What exactly do journalists “owe” citizens in a distant
land? How can global journalists integrate their partial and impartial
perspectives? How can journalists support global values while remaining
Reforming media practices
The slow, complex, practical task of developing better media practices
is no less imposing. Exhorting individual journalists to be ethical
will be futile unless supported by an institutional climate that encourages
global values in the newsroom. Aware of such difficulties, some journalists
may accuse global journalism ethicists of being unrealistic in thinking
that news organizations will provide the education, expertise and
extra resources needed to achieve a high-quality cosmopolitan journalism.
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