Here’s one of the tough gigs in journalism education: teaching privacy in the time of Facebook and Peter Meakin.
Journalism students, fresh from the dispiriting “journalism is dead” debate, have asked colleagues all over Australia what we thought about Channel Seven’s exposure of David Campbell and the journalism of Meakin, Adam Walters and those who run the news agenda at the top-rating news station.
The students were also asked what they’d do if they thought Campbell was holed up in Ken’s of Kensington on the day of the F3 traffic meltdown? (By the way, he wasn’t, despite what the Seven story implied.)
These highly engaged young men and women, focused on a career in journalism, have talked about it at length for the past week, in classrooms, seminars, lectures and cafes.
Was this what their careers were going to be about? Didn’t the MEAA Code of Ethics count for anything? And did it matter anyhow?
Journalism educators — and some journalists — around Australia and with connections to the Australian media say the ethical foundations of journalism have been severely breached by the story — and more than 50 academics, representing almost every major journalism school in the country, have sent an open letter to Meakin, to Walters — and to those who own Seven.
Academics and journalists such as Lawrie Zion, David Dale, Margaret Simons and Kayt Davies have put their names to the following statement:
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We the undersigned are journalists, journalism educators and student journalists. We’ve worked on broadsheets, tabloids; in television and radio; online, in blogs, on Twitter.
As journalists, we’ve pushed boundaries. As journalism educators, we’ve taught students to stick to a story, no matter how tough.
But one and all, we deplore what you did to David Campbell and his family.
We know that sometimes the private lives of public figures need to be exposed for public good, in the public interest. But you exposed this man for no public good; nor was it in the public interest. It was shameful and hurtful — not just for Campbell and his family; but for all of us.
It demeans journalism.
There is, as well, a letter being circulated by student journalists.
And let’s not blame Facebook for Meakin and Walters. They’ve been like that as long as they’ve been producing news.
Students are being moulded by at least two powerful forces — the role models at Channel Seven and the denaturing of privacy through Facebook and other social media. That may well be a toxic combination for journalism ethics.
Let’s not say that this story represents all or even the majority of commercial television news. That’s clearly not the case. The majority of the news on Seven, Nine and Ten is straightforward news reporting. And the argument that an attack on the Campbell story is an attack on the brothers at Channel Seven is clearly ridiculous. We know the difference between reporters at a commercial station in the same way we know the difference between reporters at a newspaper.
Will those at Channel Seven make dismissive noises about academics being removed from the real world? If you count all those instant Yahoo and Seven polls as any indication of the real world, then it didn’t like the Campbell story either.
Now, journalism educators are not united. Two or three have made the argument that voters have the right to know the whole story about the people they’re voting for — although the argument that Campbell was not a family man was well-demolished by Jonathan Holmes during MediaWatch on Monday night.
He pointed out that the former minister for transport had stayed with his wife and family for a very long time. Another couple of journalism educators have said academics need to stay distant from individual cases.
But it has also reinforced what journalism educators — responsible for providing the foundations of ethical practice for generations of journalists — have known for a long time — that we are in need of a thorough re-examination of our ethical underpinnings related to privacy, particularly if journalists at universities are going to use the MEAA Code of Ethics as any kind of a guide.
Students this week identified four breaches in the Campbell story, which all relate, in some way, to privacy.
As Jonathan Este, spokesman for the MEAA, said yesterday, the journalists’ union hasn’t excluded anyone for a breach of the guidelines in a very long time. And the Code itself has only been rebuilt a couple of times in 60 years.
“There has been some thought that in the light of digital and social media, we should look at it again,” he said. Some thought.
David Boeyink, whose new book Making Hard Choices in Journalism Ethics (Routledge) was released in Australia this week, said students in the time of Facebook have a very different view of privacy.
Boeyink, associate professor in the journalism school at Indiana University, said the key issue for a journalist needs to be: “What is relevant?” Two of the three issues raised by Walters in the Campbell story couldn’t stand up to scrutiny — but, says Boeyink, in the US, the question of gender preference has become very relevant to a hefty section of US voters.
“But it is possible and in fact reasonable to make the distinction between one’s private life and one’s policy decisions,” he said:
“We need to help students make decisions about what’s relevant and what’s not relevant — students need to deal with cases from the bottom up … they are not going to be helped by being given abstract theories.
“In newsrooms, journalists need to make those decisions by focusing on the process on what’s relevant.”
Chris Smyth, convenor of the ethics panel of the MEAA and head of the school of Media Communication and Culture at Murdoch, says he sees no need to reconfigure the Code of Ethics.
“We are overplaying the Code,” he says. “You need a whole range of other aspects of professional life to respect the Code, to understand it and to believe it needs to be defended. Otherwise the Code on its own is just a set of ideals.”
But he does say that young people are out of touch with the need for privacy because there has been a relaxation of the importance surrounding it.
“There is a propensity for young people to make more of their lives public — and that’s combined with a disdain for politicians,” says Smyth.
In his ethics classes, he teaches a scenario where a straight politician goes into a legal brothel — and half the students in the class say it’s perfectly OK to report on that.
Rhonda Breit, program director of the masters of journalism at the University of Queensland and on the executive of the Journalism Education Association of Australia, has not signed the letter. But she says that the MEAA Code of Ethics can only provide a guide: “It can’t help people make ethical decisions.”
The Campbell story reflected a moral decision on the part of Seven’s journalist Adam Walters and news director Peter Meakin, she said.
“Journalists respond to instinct and practise [so-called] news values … that’s the dominant factor in determining the quality of a story. The public doesn’t necessarily understand that process … But [journalists] need to operationalise ethics in a framework which takes account of the entire moral context — not just the work environment,” she said.
Would I have done this story? If I’d known, my approach might have been to try to talk to Campbell about what it might have been like to be married at 19 and then discover he was — at least — bis-xual. I reckon that’s the kind of story that might have been more instructive for the public and for reporters, for a whole range of reasons.
Let Campbell make his own decision about the timing — because it’s not as if his s-xuality had anything to do with how he did his job.
Jenna Price is a lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney and uses the MEAA Code of Ethics as a teaching tool. She is also a journalist who enthusiastically watches commercial television, the national broadcaster and reads tabloids and broadsheets.