Media Ethics and Responsible Journalism

By | April 29, 2020
Media Ethics OR Ethical Journalism

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Media laws and media ethics have always been a centre point of examination in any country. The fundamental objective of responsible journalism is to serve people with information, views and comments on matters beneficial to the public interest in an accurate, fair and unbiased manner. But the problem arises when the media overarched its ethical position and adherence to moral standards, and that always ends up with essential issues.

The objective of this article is to comprehend the need of moral ethics in news media by drawing a couple of occurrences from the late history. The article further investigates the idea of responsible journalism and talks about the ethical norms and standards of media law and ethics with specific references from journalistic ethics repeatedly edged by Indian news and entertainment media.

Introduction – Media Ethics and Responsible Journalism

Ethics are moral set of values and principles that guides us to differentiate between good and bad with a core obligation appended to it towards the benefits of the society. Media law and ethics is one of the fundamental disciplines which have always been a centre point of examination by the members of the community. This is because media is seen as a legitimate reflection of larger public interest, views and opinion and is thus considered as the fourth pillar in democratic governance.

Media power and its apparent influence are long realized globally for many years now. Many sought to control its regulation by limiting its right to criticize, publish and broadcast freely by trying to manipulate and using them as a tool of their third grade propaganda. This holds very true in the case of a democratic country like India. But then Constitution of India is always there to safeguard the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression of all the media institutions through self regulation and advocacy. Universal Declaration of Human Rights also states- “Everyone has the freedom of opinion and expressions, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and idea through any media and regardless of frontiers.”[1]

A free media is considered as a legitimate voice and opinion of the general public. The pre-requisites of its good governance follow from the ensured guarantee of media freedom from the constitution. This indeed facilitates in regulating the unnecessary restrictions put on freedom of media by powerful institutions. The constitution also works as guiding principles for media with the means of reasonable restrictions, if it tries to go across the board of journalistic ethics and standards. The norms and guidelines enunciated in this article when applied with refined insight, due diligence and adaptation to varying circumstances of each case will help the media to self-regulate its conduct.

I. Concept of Ethical Journalism

Media ethics is a finest division of applied ethics that includes specific ethical standards that media should opt, be it, broadcast media, print media or the internet. Media ethics promotes and defends values such as a universal respect for life and the rule of law and legality.[2]

Journalistic ethics and standards is subset of media ethics, also known as journalism’s professional “code of ethics” and the “canons of journalism.”[3] It consists of standardized principles of belief, conscience, and conduct of good practice that helps in decision-making process particularly for baffled ethical challenges and moral questions faced by a journalist.

The primary objective of Journalism is to serve people by disseminating correct information regarding matters concerning public interest. A free media acts as a watchdog over the government[4] and is also a sole channel to connect people with its government. The media has an apparent influence on the minds of the people and can mould their decisions. It may also lay down an agenda for the nation and pursue it. This unlimited power is also virtually unaccountable in a liberal democratic state where even “an irresponsible press is preferable to no press” (Thomas Jefferson).[5] Any attempt made from outside to control and regulate the functioning of media is likely to cause more harm than good. The norms to regulate the media and to raise its professional standards must come from inside.[6]

The media has not just remained as fourth estate but has also has an influential impact on society that it can on no ground, lose sight of its duties and obligations towards people. So, they are mandated to follow the ethical guidelines in the collection and dissemination of information by ensuring the authenticity of the news, an impartial but decent reporting. They are also required to take into account the cascading effect of their reporting on the society and concerned individual or institutions, as the case may be.

a. Principles of Ethical Journalism

The principles of ethical journalism provides for a strong foundation for the circulation of information from all corners of media and journalist fraternity. A responsible journalism calls for imparting accurate information only after dispassionate thorough check of the facts learned and to present them without any false or distorted expression. Correct and accurate information helps the public to understand the issues thoroughly so that they would be able to form informed opinion and choices of their own.

Essentially, there are five core principles of journalism. The following are some of the general ethical issues or guidelines that will help media fraternity providing the public with truth based facts and information:

  1. Accuracy: Accuracy has a vital reference and close doesn’t count. It involves gathering of all the relevant facts and information media have and verifying them thoroughly using more than one source. It also means giving equal representation to all of the sides involved in an issue so that it helps in deciding the authenticity and credibility of news.
  2. Truth and fairness: This is embedded as a core principle for ethical journalism. Journalists should always maintain truth and fairness in newsgathering, reporting and interpreting information.
  3. Independence– Journalists must have independent voices and should not act on behalf of special interests.
  4. Objectivity: Objectivity, a significant principle in professional journalism means to depend on certain norms such as do a multiple source check for confirmation of facts and try to present all relevant and important aspects of a story.
  5. Accountability– A sure sign of professionalism and responsible journalism is the ability to hold ourselves accountable.

b. Application of Harm-Limitation principle

Harm-limitation principle deals with the questions of whether everything gathered should be reported? If so yes, how? The meaning is that some weight is required to be given to the negative consequences that could come out of full disclosure, creating again a possible ethical dilemma. Therefore, media needs to do reporting with great sensitivity and in such a way that it does not harm the people involved and concerned. The aim mainly is to avoid causing harm to the reputation of innocents, victim, accused, and any such concerned person.

The Society of Professional Journalists, an internationally recognized body for journalists provides a code of ethics[7] for maintaining professional journalism. Following are those:

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. The pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
  • Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
  • Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
  • Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
  • Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
  • Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

Further, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) under Section 228A deals with disclosure of the identity of the victim of certain offences etc. The provision states that, “Whoever prints or publishes the name or any matter which may make known the identity of any person against whom an offence under section 376, section 376A, section 376B, section 376C or section 376D is alleged or found to have been committed shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine.”[8]

Example could be taken from the Nirbhaya Case, when Indian government ensured strict mandate against revealing of her identity forcing Media to label her as ‘Nirbhaya’. Another valid instance is of The Aarushi murder case, when the Supreme Court passed a controlling request banishing the media from releasing any shocking information. Justice Altamas Kabir had expressed “We are asking the press must not sensationalize something which affects one’s reputations.”

II. Ethical neglect in Responsible Journalism

The function of media is to collect, convey and comment on the information in order to facilitate the administration of justice. This includes as a right also for cases of before, during and after trial, without violating the presumption of innocence.[9] Today, the issue that persists with journalism varies from paid news to news and show business. This shows an increasing trend towards the commercialization of journalism which has possibly diverted their main attention to increase in viewership. This often affects the dissemination of certain issues which are of equal prime importance but are ignored due to lack of attention.

An instance of ethical neglect could be taken from 2002 carnage of Muslims in Gujarat riots. The state government played complicit role and it was apparent in the coverage of news between the Gujarati and English language news paper. Where national media coverage about the riots was applauded for its truth-telling, the Gujarati print media on the contrary was seen as trying to cover most of the truth. This segment of article aims at analyzing the similar events of neglect and related occurrences.

a. Paid News

The problem of ‘paid news’ goes beyond the individual corruption of journalists and media houses. It is undermining the democratic system in India. News is meant to be fair and unbiased and this is what makes them different from the regular advertisements, paid by the government and other private institutions. However, this difference gets blurred out in instances of ‘paid news’.

In India, this phenomenon of paid news came into notice during the 2009 General elections when reports suggested various under-table financial transactions happening between the media and political parties. To deal with the problem, Press Council of India (PCI) formulated a sub-committee to look over the issue and based on their recommendations appointed a drafting committee.

The committee prepared a final report and has defined paid news as,

“Any news or analysis appearing in any media (Print and Electronic) for a price in kind or cash as consideration.”

This Phenomenon violates election conducts and affects the objective analysis of voters towards election candidates. Media houses on the other side earn corrupted money which is exclusive of the Income-tax rules and Companies act. The menace caused by this is very much affecting the democracy.

b. News and shows business

Today television more seems like show business. Reason being, trying to adapt to the growing advancements and competition, this branch of journalism has adopted means of show business. Television is seen as a medium of entertainment and this idea to continue entertaining not only affects the product they show on the screen but also the journalists who are working hard to run this information.

The news and show business make a reporter to act as a performer and this is when the media deviates from its very purpose which is to keep the people informed with the substantive information of what is actually happening in the real world. The primary duty of media is to inform, then comes any secondary business and a balance is required to maintain between this two.

c. Deception

Media certainly acts as a watchdog and to fulfil its role they may use means of deception as a tool to unveil the truth and unmasks those doing harm to the public. Even though it constitutes a series of invasion in privacy of such people, it is justified on the ground that they are doing so for the larger public interest. However, journalists while using deception as a means are necessarily required to deliberate upon the reasons that should be socially significant as well. They may adopt deception as a means of exposing truth only in exceptional cases when the other alternative is exhausted.

The apex court of India has observed not only the freedom of media to publish reports concerning a sub-judice matter but also that they can do a sting operation on the matter of pending trial, in a manner as they please. However, the legal boundaries within which the report or comment can be made on a sub-judice matter are well refined and any action against it would indeed invite consequences. A sting operation in comparison to normal reporting is an incalculable more risky and dangerous thing to do. A sting is based on deception and, therefore, it would attract the legal restrictions with far greater stringency and any infraction would invite more severe punishment.[10]

d. Trial by Media

Trial of media is another example of ethical neglect in responsible journalism which has increased the growing concern of judiciary. In certain cases, media gives such a wide coverage unaccompanied with any verifiable facts of the story that already influence the view and opinion of people before the judicial trial even happens. The sensational presentation of a sensitive event is a unique talent of media that it won’t be wrong to say that they have self-assumed the role of a ‘Public Court’.

A famous example is from 2008 Arushi Talwar murder case where the Supreme Court has criticized media for self-assuming the role of an investigating authority and tarnishing the image of deceased and accused. This unnecessary trial by media only prejudices the right to a fair trial of accused and it needs to be strictly regulated by the PCI. Media should never overstep its ethical boundaries and try to interrupt the functioning of the judicial system.

e. National security

The Indian Constitution safeguards the freedom of media as under fundamental right of speech and expressions; however, it also restricts that freedom under Article 19(2) as reasonable restrictions. National security is one such restriction under the provision and acts as a ground of restricting the broadcast or publishing of any sensitive information concerning security of the country. To legislate upon such laws, foreseeing instances that may affect national security is a tough task. So, in those circumstances, media has to itself act in a sensible and prudent manner to avoid any risks that may come with such broadcasting.

The coverage of the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008 is one of the suggestive instances about media’s callous attitude. Covering the attack live for almost 2-3 days, the media disclosed the actions and moves taken by police and armed forces in combating the terrorists and this resulted in the transfer of India’s security plan to terrorists located in Pakistan who instructed their subordinates participating in the attack and ultimately leading to loss of life for policemen and armed personnel.[11]

This is surely not an isolated incident where insensitive journalism endangers national security. The news reports about communal conflicts are also sometimes presented in such a manner that it furthers incites the violence and worsens the ongoing conflict.

Conclusion – Media Ethics and Responsible Journalism

The implementation of journalistic standards builds public confidence and reliability. Absence of strict directives makes it difficult to adjudge the right path. Hence, there is a need for categorically laying down directives for media functioning in an ethical and responsible manner. The Press Council (as a watchdog of the press) is required to make a stringent moral and ethical code of conduct for the journalist to be followed while expressing their freedom of speech and expression to deliver the impartial truth with accuracy and in an unbiased manner. This would help in lessening the prejudiced opinion and will pave a way for everyone to make their own views and opinions without getting influenced in the wrong direction.

Media must show conscious efforts towards its responsibilities to the public, which they should elevate by building public trust and confidence about their trustworthiness and should follow the journalistic ethics to assert its reliability beyond any speculation.

Hence, the media has to continue to perform the tough task of purporting information ethically against contrasting factors acting together, ensuring the integrity and nationalism of the country. Thus, this article believes that a comprehensive social framework rather than a strict legal framework would aid in governing the media ethics by virtue of established morals and principles.


[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, Article 19.

[2]  Moldovan Gratian, “Media Ethics in the Ideological Context of the Twentieth Century,” Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, 6:589-593.

[3] “Statement of Principles” American Society of News Editors (ASNE), last assessed April 27, 2020, https://members.newsleaders.org/content.asp?pl=24&sl=171&contentid=171

[4] Lakshminath and Mukunda Sarda, CNLU Lj(6) [2016-17] 1.

[5] Justice P.B Sawant, (2000) 2 LW (JS) 74.

[6] R.K Anand v. Registrar, Delhi High court, (2009) 8 SCC 106.

[7] Dean, Catherine, Truth and the media, last assessed April 27, 2020, http://www.strathmore.edu/research/truth_media.pdf.

[8] Indian Penal Code, 1860, section 228A

[9] Surya Prakash Khatri v. Madhu Trehan, 2001 (92) DLT.

[10] R.K Anand v. Registrar, Delhi High court, (2009) 8 SCC 106.

[11] The print media coverage of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks: A study on the coverage of leading Indian news projects and its impact on people, M. Neelamalar, P. Chitra and Arun Darwin, Journal Media and Communication Studies Vol. 1(6) pp. 95-105, 2009.


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  • Aashutoh says:

    Well researched article! Thanks!