Aidan White, the founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, in conversation with Ada Petriczko
Aidan White has seen it all. Over the 50 years that he has been a journalist, he went from ink and paper to interface and feed. Along the way, he was a journalist at the Financial Times and The Guardian and spent 24 years as the General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). During his time in office, the IFJ grew to be the world's largest organisation of journalists, representing 600,000 media professionals in over 140 countries today.
The fight for ethical and free journalism has always been at the center of White’s work. In 1999, when NATO bombed Radio Television Serbia (RTS), killing 16 staff, White spoke out on behalf of the global journalist community, warning that this incident would lead to further violence against the media. Ten years later, he famously called for holding the United States Department of Defense accountable for hiring the Rendon Group to investigate the journalists who reported on the war on terror. In 2012, after leaving the IFJ, he founded the Ethical Journalism Network, the global coalition of over 60 media groups, which promotes ethics, good governance and the self-regulation of journalism. I called White in late September 2020, to ask him if ethics are making a come-back and why journalism has to go back to the slow lane in order to survive.
Ada Petriczko: You founded the Ethical Journalism Network at the time of the most severe crisis of journalism in modern history. What made you think that ethics were the answer?
Aidan White: You are right, in 2010, when I left the International Federation of Journalists, I was acutely aware that media and journalism, regionally and globally, were in a state of a crisis. There was a rush to try to find alternative ways to produce journalism, in the context of the growth of the internet. Originally, it was mainly a crisis of funding. We needed new business models to replace advertising. However, as the media outlets became focused on their own survival and cut their investments in journalism, they started to make big mistakes in terms of the quality of content. They were playing fast and loose with the basic principles and ethics of journalism. I realized that because of this internal and external crisis, media—and news media in particular—have begun to lose focus on the reason they were there in the first place—on the public responsibility and the moral value of journalism. It became clear to me therefore that we needed a specific initiative designed to bring journalism and the media back to basics: an institution which would remind us of why journalism exists and in what way it is different from the freedom of expression exercised on social media. That is why the EJN was launched.
In a 2016 report prepared for UNESCO, you describe one of the biggest paradoxes of the current media landscape: we are more interconnected than ever and yet we have never been more misinformed.**
The internet gave people an explosion of opportunities to talk to one another and say whatever they want publically. The problem is that, for many people, it also blurred the boundaries between journalism and free expression.
Free expression leaves no room for restraint. On social media, you don’t have to be truthful, accurate, decent or respectful. You can be offensive and you don’t have to apologize for it. Since that sort of abusive behaviour has become prevalent online, I felt it was necessary for journalism to stand aside and show that it is different from a Twitter feed or a Facebook post.
Journalism is not free expression. It is based on constructing expression through a framework of values, which constitute the ethics of journalism. For example, journalists are not allowed to tell malicious lies. They have a responsibility to be truthful, accurate and engage in fact-based communication. They must show humanity and respect for their audience. They shouldn’t promote hate speech or incite people to violence in any way. They have to be as independent as they can.
At the EJN, we wanted to emphasize that journalism based on moral values and self-restraint is not only a public good, but a public necessity.
Do you think that your work is part of a larger movement? Are ethics making a comeback after decades of unfettered capitalism? Does the rise of various movements—focusing on the rights of minorities, women, and the environment—prove that as a society we have become more aware of the ethical challenges of the moment we are living in?
Absolutely. It is not just about ethics in journalism, but also in politics, in public policy, in the judiciary—in public life in general. We feel that there is a real need for society to return to a sense of order. The problem is that in many societies, people have lost their moral compass. They have become more fearful and at the same time more ignorant about what’s going on. This is far beyond journalism—it is a challenge for liberal democracies at large. How do we combat inequalities, both in terms of gender and the terrible gulf between the rich and the poor? How do we exercise absolute intolerance for the forms of racism which are deeply embedded in state institutions and public life? All that points towards a very new and dynamic movement calling for more ethical behaviour at every level of society.
Beyond social media and the crisis of funding, what are some other challenges that ethical journalism is facing today?
The rush to publish. It is an old-fashioned, albeit not an outdated threat. One of the aims of journalists has always been to make the story exclusive: “Oh, we must get it out as soon as possible!” And actually that’s quite a noble aim—important and ambitious. The thing is that in the past, even if journalists had rushed to publish, in fact they still had the time to fact-check and make sure they got all the sides of the story. The introduction of new communication technologies changed that. Today information can circulate the globe in seconds. That raises a serious challenge for journalists. They can no longer engage in the rush to publish because if they do, that means they have to publish instantly, without reflection, which undermines their capacity to be ethical at all. Ethical journalism requires time.
Ethical journalism is thinking journalism. You have to reflect on what you’ve written and take the time to make sure your story is complete. A rush to publish is OK on Twitter or Facebook, but journalism needs to go back to the slow lane.
We have to place information in the slow lane. It may take us more time to get our stories out, but when we put them out, they will be accurate, truthful, honest and useful to the public at large.
Can climate change be a threat to ethical journalism? The way I see it is that it can—in the sense that as reporters, we are no longer able to travel for assignments the way we used to. However, it is also an opportunity, as we can reflect on our methods and turn to more ethical ones, such as cross-border collaboration.
I agree with you very much. The climate emergency gives journalism itself a role to play in promoting best practices. We need to find new ways of story-telling and working in the field which fit in with the strategies of dealing with climate change, such as cross-border journalism.
I don’t think climate change itself is going to pose a great threat to journalism. What I see as a much more serious problem is the wave of populist, authoritarian politics that is sweeping through Europe and the United States. Such politics are at odds with the essential ingredients of democracy—plurality and tolerance for other cultures and points of view. We see a politics emerging which is less tolerant and seeks to impose a political dogma, which is doing great damage to the public discourse and confidence in democracy as a whole.
One of the hallmarks of this new form of politics is that, almost in every place, it targets journalists. The reporters, who are trying to be honest and inclusive in their story-telling, inevitably become the enemies of the propagandists. Across the globe, many journalists are under severe pressure for not toeing the political party line. This is very dangerous and corrosive to democracy and needs to be properly understood by the population at large.
How do we deal with this threat? How can we get the message across that if you attack one journalist, you attack the whole community?
We live in a world in which journalists need to stick together. Journalism has no passport, it doesn’t recognize borders. The principles of journalism are the same across the world. There are 400 different journalism codes of conduct in the world, but if you examine them closely, they all boil down to the same five core principles: accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity and accountability. As journalists, we have common values and we need to show solidarity with each other. We should work together more—for example, through the International Federation of Journalism, the European Federation of Journalism, national journalism organizations etc.—to demonstrate that as a community, democracy and inclusivity are our core values. We also need to make sure that, in this community, all opinions are heard, including the views of minorities. Journalists have to learn not to work alone.
This brings me to a question about cross-border teams. While we share the same values as journalists, we may interpret or express them differently, depending on our background. How do we navigate these differences in a team?
There are practical ways in which these ethical dilemmas need to be dealt with. At EJN, we have always promoted two key elements for journalists to follow. The first one is the code of conduct, which sets out the moral values—normally this is a very short document. The second one is the editorial guidelines. These are detailed instructions which help journalists resolve challenging questions, such as: how do we choose the sources of information, what are the circumstances in which we grant anonymity, how do we report on children, vulnerable minorities, survivors of violence? These are all crucial questions, which touch on the humanity of the journalism we produce. At EJN, we help to develop such guidelines.
Is there such a thing as an unethical story? Are there stories which should not be told due to ethical reasons? Or, on the contrary, is it only a matter of finding a way to do so ethically?
Censorship is not a good way to combat ignorance. We can help people confront difficult facts, without encouraging them to be fearful or uncertain about the world they live in. This can be achieved if these stories are told in context—for example, if we give people an understanding of why conflict is happening, why people are risking their lives to migrate from one continent to another, why it is important to support those who are fleeing oppression. We can do that without scaring people, but that requires quality journalism. A good journalist has to confront the uncertainties that many people legitimately feel about things like migration. We shouldn’t be afraid to tell stories, even if sometimes the facts of the stories are deeply disturbing and unsettling.
When I look at the media landscape, I see editorial offices shrinking. How do we safeguard slow, ethical journalism, if we cannot afford to keep editors and journalists at work?
The other great challenge of the future is to live with the reality that journalism no longer makes money. You cannot run it as a profitable exercise. We need to maintain our moral and ethical values, but you are right, the question is, who will pay for it?
I think that the new models of media funding will involve different streams of income. One stream will still be advertising, another fundraising. The readers and viewers will be asked to contribute, like at The Guardian, where up to two million people make regular donations to keep it afloat. We also need forms of public funding. Without that, the public interest journalism of the BBC would not exist—a great tragedy for democracy, not just in the UK. We need to build around the idea that public interest journalism has to be supported through public subscription.