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Media ethics and journalistic integrity

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A predictable take on crime by 9 News Perth (screenshot via YouTube).

The decline of journalistic standards has appreciably contributed to the political malaise we find ourselves in. 

I recently wrote in favour of establishing ethical principles for our elected representatives to adhere to. Journalists and the media already have a code of conduct — a reminder of its importance in helping to make our politicians behave ethically may be needed.

One of the few programs I watch every week is ABC's Media Watch. I like the sharp format and host Paul Barry's acerbic wit. It represents a lone voice in a media landscape dominated by the entertainment giants on one side and the more fragmented plethora of news and commentary on the other.

I never bother with the "news" as presented by the commercial channels, but occasionally relax with clips from my favourite comedy channel, Sky News. Their "satire" is second to none, made even better because most of it appears to be unscripted. It's all very impressive. 

Media Watch serves an important purpose. It calls out the mainstream media for being loose with the truth, exaggerating stories while ignoring others, its lack of fact-checking and undeclared bias.

Nobody, including the ABC itself, is shielded from the Media Watch culpability torch.

But what Media Watch doesn't do – and not enough political commentators do – is reflect on the role the media plays in the malaise that is our current political climate.

The "comedians" at Sky have a running gag about lefties — getting a bit old in the tooth, that one. And on the other side of the divide, everybody loves to hate Rupert Murdoch, closely followed by the other giants of the mainstream media. This now includes Fairfax, once a great media company which has now been infamously subsumed within the Nine Entertainment Corporation.

And scattered across that wide chasm of diverse opinions are the commentators, Twitterati and other social media warriors, bots and trolls. All of us passing comment on the daily shenanigans of public life and most of all on our politicians and their particular approach to the public debate.

Over the last few years, our Parliament has become more of a hotbed of unbridled bias, intolerance and partisanship than ever before.

And the media – particularly the mainstream media – lap it up with daily relish, salivate over the prospects of yet another stoush and another sound-bite to place in a headline.

The inevitable result of the relentless spotlight on the debate itself rather than what is being debated is that the focus is all on the protagonists. It is all about the personalities. Canny politicians play on it and the media thrive on it.

So when Prime Minister Scott Morrison angrily shouts at his counterpart across the aisle that the fight is now getting "intimate", the Press Gallery loves it. 

It is tweeted and blazed onto the top of their home-pages within minutes.

The media will claim they merely report what they hear and see. And they'd be right. If one forgets, in a functioning democracy the press is "the fourth pillar".

To quote French political schemer in chief, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand: "Without freedom of the press, there can be no representative government."

The media have a role not merely to report on what it sees. It also has a responsibility to call out the impact, to question unethical behaviour, to demand answers and to hold politicians accountable for their actions — not just in rhetoric but also in deed.

But mainstream media is lazy. To report on politicians brawling is easy. To hold them to account for promises made is much harder.

Good journalism is asking hard questions and not taking evasion for an answer. Good commentary is deliberating not just on the politics of an issue but to focus on the ideas, policies and possible solutions.

Good journalism (and commentary) is doing the research, asking questions, declaring bias if one exists, not to pretend it doesn't — lo-and-behold, even admitting when one is wrong!

Good journalism is reporting on what you see and what you observe, without fear or favour.

Good journalism is being prepared to hold the powerful to account, to question the status quo, to seek truth when withheld, concealed or twisted.

Lazy journalism is to report on personalities and street-fights. Good journalism is to contribute to the understanding of issues and why the fighting started.

Lazy journalism and commentary solely focused on the messengers instead of the message enables our politicians to behave the way they do.

The MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics states:

'Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists search, disclose, record, question, entertain, comment and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be responsible and accountable.'

All of us who write should reflect on that and the 12 ethical rules outlined in the MEAA ethics poster.

The MEAA and Media Watch stand at the forefront of good journalism. But we, the people, must demand better not just from our politicians, but for the media to heed their own code of conduct.

Strong support for independent media like this publication is one way of doing it, too!

Kim Wingerei is a former businessman turned writer and commentator. You can follow him on Twitter @kwingerei.

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