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University of Silesia in Katowice

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Deontological journalism in relation to the conflict in Ukraine – interview with Waldemar Sobera, PhD

11.10.2022 - 10:09 update 21.10.2022 - 09:05
Editors: violettakulik

Sensation or realism?

Waldemar Sobera, PhD, whose research interests include crisis communication, political communication, public relations of public institutions, as well as internal security and crisis management, discusses the ethical problems faced by the journalists in the context of reporting events.

Violetta Kulik: Journalists are a professional group that voluntarily exposes themselves to the legal risk of bringing a lawsuit related to the protection of personal rights. What is journalism ethics?

Waldemar Sobera, PhD: Journalism ethics, in general, is a set of values, norms, and principles that should be followed by this particular professional group in order to ensure professionalism, objectivity, and the highest quality of performing the entrusted tasks. It refers to the values that journalists should follow in their daily work. Not all of them are indicated directly in legal acts, e.g. in the Act on Press Law or in the Civil Code. Some of them are regulated in codes of ethics (the general ones, or those adopted by specific associations of journalists). The most significant act in this case is the Media Ethics Charter of 1995, signed, among others, by the largest media companies operating on the market at that time, as well as associations of journalists. It includes the principles of key importance for the profession: honesty, objectivity, truth, respect for the welfare of the recipient, professional responsibility. Although they are descirbed rather generally, they indicate what values journalists should follow in their daily work. Other codes of associations, such as the Journalists’ Code of Manners of the Association of Journalists of the Republic of Poland or the Code of Ethics of the Association of Polish Journalists contain more detailed rules, but they have their foundations in the Media Ethics Charter. Journalists are a professional group that voluntarily exposes themselves to the legal risk of bringing a lawsuit related to the protection of personal rights. In my opinion, it all depends on the specifics of the work undertaken by the journalist. It can even be assumed that in some editorial offices focused on breaking news, the so-called tabloid media, the risk of exposure to processes related to the protection of personal rights is included in the professional activity. Editorial offices are able to bear the costs of possible unfavorable court decisions, because information that may possibly violate the rules of ethics, is an opportunity for them to increase their economic profits (sales) or generate greater interest. Some of you probably remember the postmortem photo of Waldemar Milewicz, fatally shot during the coverage of the conflict in Iraq – it was published on the cover of SuperExpress… It caused a great outrage in the community and many recipients, but this is probably what the editors of the journal meant.

Violetta Kulik: Does the art of careful journalism still exist and are there any rules that journalists should follow?

Waldemar Sobera, PhD: If we assumed that careful journalism has become a thing of the past, could we still talk about journalism then? Journalism is a profession of public trust, which should be characterised by high standards, including ethical ones. Although in the previous question I indicated that some editorial offices may not follow ethical principles for some reason, we should not treat this as a generalisation characteristic of the entire profession. Certainly, the specificity of the journalistic profession is changing nowadays, new technologies have appeared, which, for the older generation of journalists, made life very difficult. Even the students complained that when they were browsing job offers, they found out that future journalists were required to be able to position websites on the Internet, for example. This is precisely the manifestation of changes – nowadays the Internet has become the dominant source of information for a large part of society. Information is expected immediately if something happens. The editorial offices on the Internet must inform about it quickly, because if they are late, their competitor will gain an advantage and take over the interest of the recipients. In my opinion, this greatly influences the accuracy of texts and materials that can be found on the Internet. When you have to do something as soon as possible, it is natural that something may go wrong. Once, I took part in international research of the journalistic profession in Russia, Sweden and Poland, as a member of the Polish team. We talked to journalists and analysed the survey results. The respondents from our country also drew attention to the problem of time pressure and publishing content as soon as possible. Publishing online requires many additional skills: a journalist also becomes a camera operator, editor and website SEO specialist. Articles on the Internet, even if published on the editorial pages of the press, must be enhanced by videos and photos. What matters the most is the so-called click-through rate, and unfortunately, many readers expect quick and accessible information. The average recipient does not want to spend a lot of time reading the written text. They prefer to watch a short video, photos – or, which is even worse – to base their opinion on a given topic on the headline itself. Unfortunately, we live in a time when journalists have to either get used to it or leave the profession. However, I do not think that careful journalism cannot exist today. If journalists are specialists in their field, have economic, political, and social knowledge, they will prepare a careful article even if they have little time for it. That is why I keep telling my students to pursue their passions and gain knowledge, because nowadays graduating journalism is not enough. After all, the principles of objectivity, honesty, and respect for the welfare of the reader refer to this – journalists should maintain the highest standards in what they do and should be convinced that their profession is a mission to work for the benefit of the to society. Changes occur, we live during crazy times, but this core of the journalistic profession should remain untouched. If we forget about the ethical principles, journalism will become exctinct, and our only source of information will be the opinions of other users who may not know anything on the subject they describe. This is what fake news is based on – these are often opinions, not information – of course properly fabricated. In this case, one can refer to another principle from the Media Ethics Charter – separating information from comment. Information is not an opinion, and its preparation should be based on reliable sources, knowledge, and objectivity of the person preparing the material. No technological advancement should change that.

Violetta Kulik: An important ethical concept in relation to the journalistic profession is deontology. What is deontological journalism?

Waldemar Sobera, PhD: Deontology is based on the existence and observance of moral principles, certain imperatives that should guide media professionals. Deontology refers to the observance of the principles contained in the codes of ethics, which I mentioned earlier. It would be ideal to assume that all journalists are ethical in their work and do not break the rules. At the same time, from time to time we witness the apologies of various media, issued as a result of lost lawsuits. For this reason, it can be concluded that not everyone follows the rules. An additional problem, which I also pay attention to in my texts, is that not many journalists actually belong to journalist associations, and relatively small financial penalties that may befall them for not following the rules. If we explore the codes, the possible punishments for violating ethical principles include: reprimand, censure, or exclusion from the association. We can ask ourselves – are they enough for journalists who break ethical rules? Membership in journalist associations is not obligatory in Poland, so exclusion from the group does not bring any major consequences for the journalist. This, in my opinion, is another problem that influences the condition of ethical journalism in our country. However, I would like to emphasise that we cannot generalise and say that journalism in Poland is unethical. Of course, there are some cases of breaking the rules, but this should be treated as the “exception proving the rule”.

Violetta Kulik: What ethical problems are faced by the journalists reporting the events since the beginning of the confict in Ukraine?

Waldemar Sobera, PhD: This is a very complex and controversial topic. I will try to outline several levels of ethics in reporting the conflict in Ukraine. First of all, the conflict takes place close to our border, and from the very beginning Poland has played a significant role in helping the Ukrainian nation. This closeness of the threat, as well as the drama of people fleeing the border, evokes many emotions. We can talk about the fact that the journalists should be objective, honest, and prepare their texts without emotions. When I refer to press spokesmen in crisis situations, I always tell my students that they are also people of flesh and blood, who have their own emotions, experiences, and often hidden traumas. Suddenly, when they are thrown into the vortex and do their work many hours a day under difficult conditions, their emotions can take precedence over compliance with ethical principles. However, we should not blame them for that – instead, we should consider what can be done in order to avoid such situations. When reporting on the war in Ukraine, journalists should consider whether to show the realism of events related to the death of innocent people, children deprived of their parents, and enormous damage; or to spare sensitive viewers such drastic pictures. Therefore, at the beginning of my answer, I stated that this is a controversial topic, and I guess that many people might say that the end justifies the means – journalistic reports from the beginning of military operations, although filled with drama, emotions, and often devoid of objectivity, can become factual material, an evidence in possible future cases before international tribunals that will hold the guilty accountable. In addition, someone could say that if people didn’t see the drama of the inhabitants of Ukraine, the bodies on the streets, which were not even well masked on TV, Poles would not be open to helping people fleeing the war. At the same time – and here I will refer to scientific theories – the audience may feel bored with this constant compassion. In this case, an interesting theory was put forward by Susan D. Moeller, she called it a “compassion fatigue”. It assumes that when we are exposed to strong emotional stimuli by the media related to human dramas, after some time we will not be susceptible to them anymore. We somehow get used to them, and in this case, the war in Ukraine may just become commonplace for some recipients. Now, when the war has been going on for over half a year, I noticed that although we still receive tragic information from abroad, we do not react in the same way as we did at the beginning. Of course, we cannot take the perspective that what is happening beyond our eastern border is something that does not cause emotions and does not interest us. However, too much emotionality in the media and exposing the audience to a huge wave of negative emotions (death, sadness, anger, human drama) for a long time could cause psychological defensive reactions that result in avoiding information, suppressing it, or simply getting used to it.

Another area that appears in the topic is live coverage, which is, by the way, also somehow forced by the development of modern technologies. For example, a missile flew over the journalist, hitting a house several hundred metres from the place where the report was broadcasted, or the journalist and the operator had to run to shelters to protect themselves from the air raids. And everything was happening live. What is more, live interviews can also get out of hand, especially when they include the thrilled inhabitants of the war areas. These examples indicate that there should be fewer live coverages from such places, or that they should be delayed by a few seconds so that they can be interrupted at any moment, in the case of some unexpected action. What if someone opened fire towards the journalists? The viewers would become witnesses of a murder, without even expecting that. Another very important element of the war in Ukraine are social media. Videos and photos taken by the so called citizen journalists show the reality of the war from the perspective of Ukrainian inhabitants. Television, but also the recipients themselves, disseminated the materials on the Internet, often without making sure if they were true, and the time pressure made it even impossible to check it, which, after all, violates the basic principles of ethics. It often turned out that some of them were fake, which misled the public opinion. On the other hand, if not for them, we would often not even know what the war looks like “from the inside”. The case of respecting the principles of ethics is in that case controversial and hard to assess, but science should comment on difficult issues in order to provoke a discussion. I think that the topic of ethics in the case of reporting on the conflict in Ukraine should not be ommited, an this is why I wrote the article.

Violetta Kulik: Your article “Sensation or realism? Ethics of communication on the example of the war in Ukraine” was published in the last issue of “Horyzonty Polityki” (Politics’ Horizons). Whats does it refer to, and what research methods have been applied?

Waldemar Sobera, PhD: I’ve already mentioned the topic of the article, but I can add that the article was written in march, that is, at the very beginning of the operations, when nobody knew what is going to happen next. In the article I referred to the events taking place at the very beginning of the war, and I took into conideration the initial reports published and broadcast in the mainstrem media. Back then, there was no time to do a thorough analysis, and soon there will probably appear more and more articles on this topic. For this reason, I used two methods: case study and desk research. When it comes to the latter, I conducted theoretical considerations on the principles of ethics existing in Poland, relating specifically to extraordinary events. The study by Karol Jakubowicz, “A Journalist in Crisis Situations”, which, although it was written in 2008, turned out to be very helpful in this case. It contains ethical guidelines and values that should be way more often taken into account by people practicing journalism due to the instability of the modern world. For this reason, the premise of my article was to draw attention to theoretical issues related to journalistic ethics, obviously based on examples from the first wave of reporting the conflict. The aim was to trigger a discussion on how to improve the portrayal of extraordinary events in the future in order to make them as ethical as possible. I believe that your offer to conduct an interview with me is the result of the publication and the implementation of my goal – provoking a wider discussion. Although we can talk about journalistic ethics for hours, I would like some red flags to go up sometimes in the minds of future journalists and provide us with objective, honest, independent, and ethical journalism in the future.

Violetta Kulik: Thank you for the interview.





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