Justice should be the driving force for reporting on the refugee crisis

Journalists follow young refugees at the Hungarian border. Marko Djurica/Reuters

If truth, accuracy and objectivity guaranteed that all journalism would be ethical, the cause of the Syrian refugees would have been taken up long before the shocking images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach. The publication of the image triggered a brief volte-face in sections of the British press that had been blaming the victims for the refugee crisis.

Newspapers agonised over the ethical issues raised by publishing such a shocking image. In response to reader’s complaints for publishing the image, Berlin-based newspaper Bild removed every image from a subsequent edition.

This will become a staple case study for journalism ethics students at universities. But it will also raise questions about how journalists are trained. Journalism education should not only be able to teach people how to do journalism but also why.

Blaming the refugees

The way that sections of the British press have blamed the victims of the refugee crisis will receive far less attention on the ethics curriculum. Prior to the publication of the photograph refugees had been described as “freeloaders” (the Daily Express), who were “swamping” (the Sun) the UK with either “desperate families” or “chancers” (the Daily Mail).

This split between “deserving” and “undeserving” victims is a familiar trope in news coverage of vulnerable groups such as refugees and people living in poverty. Political economist Thomas Malthus argued that the population would eventually outgrow available resources, so it is a mistake to help the most vulnerable people because it would accelerate population growth.

This distinction forms part of a rationale of news reporting which focuses on scarcity of resources rather than their distribution. This passage from an article in The Telegraph in August is a good example:

If we submit to pressure, and open our doors further, where on Earth will those coming through them live, given the chronic shortage of housing? And where will their children go to school, given the pressure on places especially in the South East?

If this issue was framed through the lens of social justice rather than Malthusian ideology, the reporter might have noted that in 2014 there were 11m empty houses in Europe.

In the meantime, news articles about refugees have got more extreme. Katie Hopkins, a columnist for the Sun described people trying to get to the UK as a “plague of feral humans” who were “like cockroaches”. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights complained that Hopkins used “language very similar” to the language used by the Kangura newspaper and Radio Mille Collines prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) rejected complaints that the article was discriminatory. This prompted the chair of the National Union of Journalist’s ethical council to say that “such language must be considered a breach of ethical codes”. IPSO was set up following the 2012 Leveson Inquiry, the public inquiry into the press following the recent phone-hacking scandal, where employers and educators of the next generation of journalists emphasised their commitment to high ethical standards.

Ethical frameworks for journalism

Broadly speaking, there are three dominant paradigms used to teach these ethics in journalism. Deontological ethics, based on the teachings of Immanuel Kant, is a “rule” based system of ethics. This approach has questionable utility for UK journalists, whose rules are set by various codes of practice which have repeatedly failed to ensure press standards. For example, the phone hacking scandal happened despite the existence of these codes.

Utilitarianism is also used to teach what’s called “consequential ethics” – a system famously encapsulated by the maxim of finding “the greatest good for the greatest number”. This is also problematic for journalists reporting issues that affect minorities or people outside the “imagined community” of their outlet’s news audience.

The virtue ethics of Aristotle is the third dominant approach to teaching ethical philosophy. As with the pursuit of “objectivity” and “balance”, this is about finding virtue through the “golden mean” – a “middle state” between two extremes. This can be interpreted as equal, or “balanced” reporting of the perspective of both the refugees and their persecutors.

Objectivity isn’t enough

When media educators are asked about teaching ethics they rely on the mantra of “truth, accuracy and objectivity”. This is despite research criticising the concept of objectivity as a “strategic ritual”, a term coined by sociologist Gaye Tuchman to describe how journalists use objectivity to describe what they do and to protect themselves from professional criticism.

There are very few journalists who defend their trade on the basis that it is objective, truthful or accurate. Journalists and editors used the “fourth estate” defence throughout the Leveson enquiry. In a good example of this, the editor of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre argued, that journalists:

…passionately believe that their papers give voice to the voiceless and expose the misdeeds of the rich, the powerful and the pompous.

This is instructive because justice is the only defence of journalism worthy of consideration. Many years of being committed to “truth, accuracy and objectivity” has created a journalistic paradigm which has failed the very people it is supposed to serve: people fleeing persecution and poverty overseas and people living in poverty in the UK. The pursuit of justice should be placed at the heart of journalism education and practice.