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Natascha Engel and John Steel

17 June 2022, 2:08 UTC Share

A code of ethics for citizen journalists

Traditional, legacy journalism operates in a framework of ethical standards. Whether these are the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, the NUJ’s code of conduct, IPSO’s editors’ code of practice or IMPRESS’s standards code, journalists and editors are obliged to adhere to ethical standards in their journalistic practice. The principle of ethical standards can be expanded into digital and citizen journalism to help build trust.

The Online Safety Bill is back in Parliament and in the news. It has thrown up some big questions around how we protect citizens without curbing freedom of speech and press freedom – fundamental pillars of a healthy democracy.

The online world is complex and its networks are wide. It allows us access to trusted news outlets, but it also opens the door to misinformation and ‘fake news’.

One way of dealing with this would be to have a clearer and more visible set of standards and ethical principles. These could act as a guide for journalists at the same time as allowing the public to understand better how journalism works in practice.

Most importantly, greater public awareness of how and why journalists make decisions, and the ethical standards on which they are based, could build much-needed public trust in journalism and the media as a whole.

This might also help people be more discerning about where they get their information from and how to challenge the ‘facts’ that are presented to them. It would certainly help readers and listeners navigate the vast maze of news.

This also extends to the citizen journalist – those individuals who capture on their smartphones moments of police brutality or members of the public taking the law into their own hands to pull a protestor off the roof of a tube train so they can get to work.

In times of social turmoil, these impromptu recordings with their raw, jerky, unfocussed images might be the only reports coming out of a situation and the only thing informing public opinion.

Yet, in the hierarchy of the media, citizen journalists occupy a lowly place precisely because they are not aware of the ethical standards and safeguards that are put in place for the professional journalist. So, if we want to raise the status of the citizen journalist, we need to raise their understanding.

There are citizen websites and outlets, from Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to full-blown news sites, offering a more systematic and considered approach to news: the taxpayers who follow the detail of council proceedings, climate activists who pressure corporations, or political citizens seeking out and publicising information favourable to their cause.

News gathering is going through a period of accelerated expansion which is why the idea of raising awareness of ethical standards codes is so important for journalists and anyone else who wants to gather and publish news.

Our research among journalists in five northern European countries has shown that ethics codes for journalists have three important effects.

Journalists who have been educated in ethics codes will often use it as a marker for their professional practice.

They feel protected by their adherence to standards codes in cases where there is pressure to withhold important information that powerful bodies want withheld.

It also gives the public ready access to redress against violations of the code, should a subscriber to it transgress.

What’s in it for the citizen journalist? Why would they surrender some of the freedom inherent in the digital world? They will benefit from that most important quality in a news reporter: credibility.

A code of ethics that emphasises the value of collecting evidence and presenting it ethically and fairly will be a more persuasive (and probably more interesting) article to read. A citizen reporter who adheres to a well-established code of standards will also be secure in the knowledge that their journalism will do no harm and be in the public interest.

Greater knowledge and understanding of ethical standards and the principles underlying these would not only help guide citizen journalists but may also rebuild public trust in the intuition of journalism itself.

Professor John Steel is Research Professor in Journalism at the University of Derby

Natascha Engel is CEO of Policy Connect, a cross-party think tank. She was previously an MP and Deputy Speaker in Parliament.

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