Journalism matters. The modern world is quite simply unimaginable
without the media, which provide a critical arena where societies meet,
debate and fight. As a result, journalists are privileged in many
Most profoundly, we work in greater freedom than any other
profession. It’s called freedom of speech, and it’s probably the most
important thing in any journalist’s toolbox. But with it, as they say,
comes responsibility. The trust people have in us can be quickly
squandered. Ethics provide the guidelines for exercising our freedom.
They set markers we can use to orientate ourselves.
For many, the
idea of ethics evokes an image of the Ten Commandments, fixed and
clear. Unfortunately, real life is often quite complicated. Although
codes of conduct do quite a good job of setting out the do’s and don’ts
of the profession, applying them to real situations is often not at all
straighforward. In many cases, different imperatives pull us in
different directions – the public’s right to know, for instance, cuts
across an individual’s right to privacy. The title of this book is
intended to reflect an approach which is prepared to see beyond simple
black and white, and acknowledge shades of grey.
decisionmaking requires thought, time and discussion. That may seem an
unattainable luxury in South African newsrooms, too many of which are
under constant pressure to produce more with less. But journalists
have a responsibility to find the time for this work. It’s possible to
be a successful journalist without taking time to confront ethical
issues, but you can’t be a good one. I hope that this book will
encourage journalists to take the time and trouble to explore ethical
decisionmaking as a professional skill that is as important as any
Editors and owners have responsibilities, too: they need
to create the right conditions for careful, thoughtful and ethical
journalism. In the long run, trustworthy journalism is in the
interests of the bottom line, too.
In South Africa, the debate
about journalism ethics has taken particular turns in recent years.
Issues of transformation and race have sparked heated debates in the
profession, and there have been calls for the codes themselves to be
revisited, to bring them into line with the new South African reality.
This book grew out of these discussions. Among other things, it
attempts to measure the traditional standards of journalism against the
demands of a changing society.
What you will find in this book:
the discussion of various areas of ethics, the chapters contain a set
of case studies drawn from real events. They also include talking
points – short contributions by some of the most prominent people in
South African journalism. They provide additional voices on the
various areas, offering a different perspective or sometimes discussing
the way an issue plays itself out in particular circumstances.
text is intended to be as practical as possible. I have developed a
tool to use when dealing with a particular dilemma. It’s called the
ethics roadmap. There is also a set of discussions and exercises that
could be used in a classroom situation. Finally, a selection of codes
have also been included – chiefly the industry codes used in print and
I owe a debt of gratitude
to many people. They include the editors who agreed to be interviewed
so that their insights could inform this book, as well as Mandla Radebe
and Rosemary Ramsay who helped with the interviewing; my Wits students
who allowed me to test ideas; Barney Mthombothi and Latiefa Mobara, who
offered advice and feedback; Ferial Haffajee, my almost co-author who
helped with interviews and much useful feedback; and Professor Anton
Harber, who supported this project in many different ways.
I gratefully acknowledge the support of the SA National Editors’ Forum and Rhodes University’s journalism programme.
research for the book was carried out under a fellowship in the
journalism programme of Wits University, and was funded by the European
Foundation for Human Rights. . I owe these two institutions a large
debt of gratitude, since I would not have been able to complete the
project without them.
Finally, thanks to my family, Lindy, Ruth and Thomas, who gave support far beyond the call of duty.