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How to be an ethical journalist

How to be an ethical journalist
Photo: Nader Elgadi

As freelancers, you’ll be making ethical choices all the time: even the decision to cover one story and not another has its own implications.

(Camera operator Petra Laszlo is filmed tripping Syrian refugee Osama Abdul Mohsen and his son Zaid as they cross the Hungarian border in September 2015. You can see the video here.)

When this story broke, the footage went viral in the European media. The credibility of Petra Laszlo, the Hungarian videojournalist who tripped Syrian refugee Osama Abdul Mohsen and his son Zaid before filming them on the ground, was immediately ruined. She lost her job, was personally discredited, and questions were raised about the actions of many others in the reporting community covering the passage of refugees across Europe.

It seems self-evident that the journalist acted unethically - in fact a criminal case was opened against Laszlo - but in many cases, the issues around ethics aren’t so clear cut. So how do we come to agree on what constitutes ‘ethical’ journalistic practice? And who decides?

Ethics and public trust

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about the purpose of maintaining ethical standards as a freelance journalist. Your work will only be effective when the public can trust in what you are saying and the way in which you’re saying it. - in other words, creating a space where people of different perspectives can share a common understanding of subjects in the public interest. This is where ethics comes in.

Public trust in journalism takes a long time to build, and - as seen in the case of Petra Laszlo - a short time to destroy. However, if the public know that you are acting with honesty, integrity, fairness and accuracy, the knowledge that you are bringing to the table can empower them. Instead of trying to manipulate  events to suit a particular view of reality, you are enabling members of different  societies to form their own opinion on current events.

In reality, this means making many difficult decisions, the outcomes of which may present yet more challenges. In Libya especially, the stakes are high. Some ethical principles may seem set in stone, but others might need further investigation according to the circumstances you find yourself in.

All situations are different and there is rarely an immediately right or wrong answer so  here are a few points to consider when making those difficult ethical decisions:

  • Slow down. What do I know? What do I need to know? Who can I consult?
  • Is what I’m doing fair? Am I acting with integrity, accuracy and honesty?
  • Is it safe for me and my sources to do what I’m doing?
  • What does my conscience say? What would my spouse/family and friends say?
  • Would I be happy if the public knew what I was doing while on this assignment?

The above should help you with basic questions of right and wrong. If the answer still isn’t clear to you, you might want to think about the following:

  • What will benefit the largest number of people?
  • Are you willing to set a precedent within the journalistic profession?
  • How will those directly affected feel?
  • Am I jeopardising my access to further stories?
  • The ethical standards you hold as a freelance journalist will have a far-reaching impact but ultimately, you have to make these choices for yourself. 

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