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Public expectations and media standards

By Steven | December 14, 2011

The Law Commission suggests that its proposed independent media regulator consult with the public to establish what their expectations are of journalistic standards, so that these can be reflected in the structures and ethics codes it draws up (see paras 5.93 and 6.95).

Is this really the right question? I rather doubt it. If you’re asking what standards the public expect of the media, new and old, I wouldn’t be surprised if you got some fairly cynical responses.

But I suppose it’s implicit in this that we’re asking them what standards they think the media should be held to. Even then, is this a sensible question? When the BSA conducted a survey about what people’s expectations of privacy and the media were, they discovered that people disagreed wildly about it.

I really wonder whether many people have really thought about it. Do we want journalistic standards to be determined by what a bunch of random people happen to pull out of their heads when someone phones them? Why should we think their answers will be grounded in the realities of news-gathering or forged by the experience of being the subject of news stories? Aren’t we really more interested in what standards people desire after they’re schooled up on the issues?

If that’s the case, why are we going to the public at all? Do we go to the public when we’re setting ethical standards for lawyers or accountants? Consumer standards? I don’t think we do. We consult experts, talk to people engaged in the issues, look at best practice elsewhere, look for evidence and convincing reasoning about what works and best reflects the values we identify as important. In fact, that’s the way the Law Commission goes about its business. At some point it invites public submissions, and generally only gets responses from stakeholders. It doesn’t tend to conduct public surveys about what the law should be.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek public feedback. But we shouldn’t expect it to provide any clear answers, and in many cases it probably won’t even provide thoughtful ones. We’ve got a very good idea about what constitutes ethical journalism from the similarity of hundreds of codes of ethics around the world and the experience of veteran journalists. Maybe we need to think harder about exactly which questions we want public feedback on and what information we provide people with first…

Topics: Media ethics | 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “Public expectations and media standards”

  1. Number Eleven Says:
    January 27th, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    And todya there is the story of the life-guard in the Taranaki who, when asked to confirm a story that a middle aged woman had been sun-bathing topless on her beach, refused to confirm or deny. A statement about her view of journalists and their ethics, I wonder?

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