Challenging the Century-old Ethical Rules of Journalism 

The ethical rules of journalism were first put in writing in the US in the 1920s. A hundred years on, we are looking at a completely different audience. Researchers at Karlstad University have written an article that challenges old, ingrained rules.

With their article “Recoding journalism: Establishing normative dimensions for a twenty-first century news media”, researchers Michael Karlsson and Henrik Örnebring, both professors of Media and Communications, together with Raul Ferrer, Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications, wanted to create a discussion on the ethical rules of journalism.

– Even though many of us like to think of journalism as something constant, it is always changing, says Michael Karlsson, the main author of the article. We want to start a discussion about this.

“Recoding journalism: Establishing normative dimensions for a twenty-first century news media” is a theoretical article about the ethics of journalism, and the legitimacy of journalism in relation to the citizens.

– An editorial meeting in the morning is important to a journalist but has little meaning for the audience, Michael Karlsson explains. The way journalists and the audience understand journalism can differ greatly. Current ethical rules are based on journalists’ ways of working and their needs, but they must also to be anchored with the audience to gain legitimacy.

So, what is important to the audience?

– It could, for example, be that journalistic texts look like news. Journalists may not think about this, but for the audience, this is the distinct difference between editorial news and the advertisement in a newspaper.

Journalism has ethical rules on how to handle different things – sources, for example. The idea is to have many sources and that they should be cited correctly. This it the way it has been since the beginning of journalism. Today, the media landscape is completely different.

– We are arguing that there are a number of aspects within journalism today where there are no ethical rules, says Michael Karlsson. They are important in terms of how journalism is perceived by the audience and the role it plays in society. And since it is important to the audience, it is important for the legitimacy of journalism, and therefore it is also important to journalism. We have tried to identify different areas where there are latent ethical problems where journalism might slip and create controversies in relation to the audience.

The six areas are:







– What we are saying is that there are ethical problems within these areas, and we then asked ourselves how they could be solved, says Michael Karlsson. To make it more tangible, we created ethical rules for each of these areas. Empirics will show whether they provide a good solution or not.

How do you think your critique will be received by the journalist community?

– We are not expecting standing ovations. But the point of being this concrete in the article is that it can help create a clearer discussion regarding which areas that need ethical rules and what they might look like. We don’t believe that the media houses will take our ideas and apply them straight off – but it makes it easier to create a discussion, and possibly a conflict, on these issues. And above all, forward the discussion to the citizens.

What could a discussion about these issues lead to?

– The main focus of our work is about how journalism should relate to itself, to the surrounding community, accountability, and legitimacy. For example, I believe that the introduction of so-called “native advertising” is a great danger to journalism. So, the value of having this type of discussion is that journalists keep their credibility in relation to the audience, since credibility is the central currency for all media houses. We hope that a discussion can lead to a closer relationship between journalism and the citizens.

What does the audience perceive as more credible?

– For journalists, it is very important that work is conducted in certain ways, but that does not necessarily mean that it is important for the audience – generally, most people trust that journalists do their job. The audience encounters journalism in a different way than journalists do, for example, through the user interface – that is, the way it is packaged. And this may differ for different target groups. Young people may want a modern, “Netflix presentation” of the material, while an older audience may prefer a more traditional package with a headline, opening paragraph, body, and an image. However, both of these presentations require thorough and well-prepared work to count as accurate journalism.

Is there a need for a revolution in journalism and a return to the core?

– I don’t know, but the fact that you raise the question shows that presentation is important. The way information is presented needs to be developed in collaboration between the citizens and the media houses. In our article, we point out that the form of presentation is important and a central asset for journalism. It is not something that should be used to charge more for advertisements, it is part of the core of journalism. Our purpose with the article is to shed light on these issues where there is a need for ethical considerations, but where ethical discussions to a great extent have been absent.

This text was first published by Karlstad University.

Picture by brotiN biswaS via Pexels.

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Recoding Journalism: Establishing Normative Dimensions for a Twenty-First Century News Media

This essay argues that there are overlooked yet important journalistic beliefs, norms, rules and practices regarding, aesthetics, automation, distribution, engagement, identity, and proximity that could be a part of formalized codes of ethics. There are four reasons why these should be formalized. First, making the implicit normative dimensions explicit allow for a shared understanding of journalism, cutting across institutional borders. Second, it promotes a more unified and homogenized understanding of journalism across the institution based on those shared explicit norms (normative isomorphism). Third, it reduces the fuzziness of these codes and sharpens their functions as boundary objects, simplifying the negotiation between journalists and audiences. Fourth, and finally, these implicit codes might be an untapped resource that could make journalism better connect with citizens and increase its legitimacy. The paper offers two main contributions to journalism studies. First, it shows that elements of journalistic practice and culture that seem disparate in fact play similar institutional roles, forming boundary objects as sites of tension where codes are negotiated by different actors. Second, systematizing these informal codes into the style of traditional codes of ethics renders them more visible and could help journalism scholars understand the uneven formation and evolution of journalistic norms.
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Recoding Journalism: Establishing Normative Dimensions for a Twenty-First Century News Media