Book Review: Journalism Ethics by Roger Patching & Martin Hirst

This is a tumultuous time for those concerned with journalism ethics. Reporters, editors, and publishers face enormous challenges as they grapple with social media, failing economic models, new rules of privacy, and even disagreement over the very definition of a journalist. There’s already an international debate over a new code of ethics, with lots of argument over what it should look like. Meanwhile readers and viewers remain skeptical. A new survey by the Pew Research Center shows only 21 percent of Americans give a high rating to newspaper reporters for honesty and ethics.

blank newspaper board in belfast city centreAmid this hubbub comes Journalism Ethics: Arguments and Cases for the Twenty-First Century by Roger Patching and Martin Hirst, who together have almost a century of experience in journalism and journalism education. This is the third edition of their book, but it’s been seven years since the last one and this is an extensive revision. It’s a textbook—one I would use if I were still teaching journalism ethics—but it belongs in every newsroom as well. There’s much for professionals in here, especially those of us who began our careers using typewriters.

As the title suggests, the authors recognize that most ethical dilemmas involve competing principles and leave a lot of room for discussion and disagreement. They make no effort to write a new code of ethics or issue hard-and-fast edicts, a fact that will displease many journalism students who look to ethics courses for a set of rules that will tell them what to do. Patching and Hirst steadfastly refuse that approach. Instead they meticulously examine the key issues and explore the arguments on either side, providing a useful framework for decision-making while stressing that each case must be evaluated on its own.

The first three chapters explore the theoretical and historical references that underpin ethical thinking, including the writings of Aristotle, Kant, and Mills. The first chapter contains one of the clearest, most concise descriptions of the primary ethical systems you’ll find anywhere and it provides a useful foundation for everything that follows.

Additional chapters look closely at specific issues¬—deception, anonymous sources, checkbook journalism, fairness and balance, accuracy, to name a few. The chapters include discussion of the dilemmas posed, an identification of the fault lines and the arguments that surround them, and case studies with discussion questions.

The authors, who live and teach in Australia, have gone to great length to give the book an international flavor, using cases that range from a trial by media in New South Wales to checkbook journalism in Britain. In my view, that’s all to the good for American students, who will get a somewhat different and hence thought-provoking take on many problems. (There are still plenty of American cases, including the outing of Valerie Plame and the use of hidden cameras against NPR.)

The final chapter is one of the most important. Titled “Ethical decision-making in the newsroom,” it summarizes all of the steps that can guide a conscientious journalist through almost any ethical dilemma.

This is a strong text, one that would have made me a better teacher if I’d had it at the right time. It won’t satisfy those who think rules and codes and clear-cut answers are necessary, but it will help those looking for guidance in making the right decision in any particular instance.

Journalism Ethics: Arguments and Cases for the Twenty-First Century, Roger Patching and Martin Hirst, Routledge, London and New York, 300 pp.

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One thought on “Book Review: Journalism Ethics by Roger Patching & Martin Hirst

  1. The problem I worry about most is selling papers by distorting or spinning facts in a way that inflames anger. The phrase “no news is good news” is great for the reader but puts a paper out of business. So there is pressure to make a story push buttons just to stay in business. Was it one of the Hearst publishers who started a war by such a story? Anyway, I’m not a journalist and I have no idea how you address this problem. In other businesses, false or misleading claims can be controlled by laws against fraud.

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