What Does Independence Mean, Anyway?

The self-promotional nature of new forms of journalism, combined with pressure to raise revenue (personally and within media outlets) means that the whole principle of editorial independence, with its careful rules on conflicts of interest, are compromised and whittled away. When people need to make money, they will find, quite easily, rationalizations for ignoring what used to be accepted ethical guidelines.

Take, for instance, reporters who report for broadcasters and “on their own” have a ¬†social media following. They get into the business of paid endorsements from corporations. What does “on their own” mean? Can we separate a reporter’s practice so neatly? See this example.

But there is much more. There is “brand journalism” where corporations pay journalists to write for their web sites, or journalists who write for political web sites funded by partisan groups. The US-based Society of Professional Journalists, for example, has received complaints of bloggers and others who ask for gifts and other benefits in return for a favourable review or article about a person, company or product.

None of this is new, of course. The development of the principle of independence in journalism in the early 1900s’s was grounded in an acute awareness of the potential abuses of journalism for one’s own gain. That is one reason why the traditional codes of ethics took hard lines on accepting any gifts and on having relationships with outside groups. For some time, a new generation of journalists have complained about such “hard lines” and couldn’t seem to understand the problem. Now we slide into a situation where it is hard to say that anything is a violation against independence, despite what the codes of ethics say.

I agree we need to re-define independence for a digital media world. Independence is the crucial battleground today for maintaining ethical, responsible journalism. How will it be re-defined? How far can we bend or alter the rules, without undermining the idea of independence? In the meantime, a lot of questionable practice, driven by personal and corporate objectives, will fly under the flag of good practice.

Principles die slowly from a thousand small cuts.