Comprehensive Essay on the Ethics of Journalism


A journalist normally writes the way he thinks, he generally thinks according to his psychological orientation. A journalist, of course, may have a mixture of orientations, but one will usually domi­nate.

The problem comes when we attempt to classify orientations, but it can be done. And, although there are innumerable ways to set up such classification systems, the tendency is for all such systems to gravitate into two journalistic orientational types: (I) the “scientific” journalist and (2) the “artistic” journalist. This dichotomy may not satisfy everybody, of course, but over the years it has been observed that these are the main two orientations. It is not a matter of “either-or”; rather it is matter of dominant orientation, of a parti­cular journalist being predominantly scientifically oriented or being predominantly artistically oriented.

John C. Merrill classifies dualistic orientations in journalism as given below:


(i) “Involved” and “Aloof”

(ii) Dionysian and Apollonian

(iii) Poetic and Prosaic

(iv) Personalists and Factualists


(v) Existentialists and Rationalists

He further names the basic allegiances to which the journalists are usually subjected to as (i) The Personalists; (ii) The Institutionalists; (iii) The Ideologists; and (iv) The Neutralists.

Rationality and Commitment:

According to John C. Merrill, the journalist should recognise the imperative of freedom and incorporate into his journalistic philosophy, rationality and commitment. He should sort of become a kind of journalistic scientist-artist and merge the perspectives of objective reason and existential subjectivity.


He should be a person, who thinks and feels, is rational and sensitive, concerned with both facts and feeling, dedicated to the objective world “out there” and to his subjective world “in here”. He is in essence, the rational synthesiser able to intentionally develop a journalistic philosophy which merges the strains of freedom, rationality and duty. The free journalist who tempers his journalism with reason, sensitivity and commitment is a responsible journalist.

Thus, three terms form the philosophical framework of a journalist-freedom, rationality and commitment.

As regards freedom, Albert Cames has said: “When the press is free it may be good and bad-but certainly without freedom it can never be anything but bad…For the press, as for man, freedom is an opportunity to become better; servitude is the certainty of becoming worse”

The whole idea of ethics depends on freedom to make choices.


Rationality is the second cornerstone, according to the emotions and the senses and status. Hazel Barnes says about rationality thus: “An ethics must introduce rationality as one of its criteria even though it may at the same time insist that its goal is happiness or satisfaction or some other state which is closer to emotion than to reason. Fidelity to the truth of man and the Universe is essential… Rationality involves more than intellectual honesty. It requires as one of its corollary values a respect for consistency.”

The third cornerstone is commitment or duty. In this connec­tion Kant holds the view that each man must rationally come up with his own standards and values and obey them. The ethics, to Kant, is as personal as it is to the existentialist. It is one’s duty to obey the laws of logic, reason and to have very high personal stan­dard of conduct-not to be rationalised away by thoughts of con­sequences.

The authentic journalist-the truly moral one-would not how­ever act to please somebody or to gain some advantage or to secure some reward. If he does so, his journalism would fall to the level of expediency. The journalist should say a thing, because he is convinced that it is right. He should not look around for reasons to justify his action and remain unimpressed with the consequences.

The objectivitist-humanist strain:


While dealing with the impor­tance of reasoning, Ayn Rand says. “The new intellectual is a person who lives up to the exact meaning of his title: a man who is guided by his intellect-not a zombie guided by feelings, instincts, urges, wishes, whims or revelations. He is an integrated man, that is, a thinker who is a m; n of action”. She sees a strong connection between reason and freedom. She writes, “Reason requires freedom, self-confidence and self-esteem.

It requires the right to think and to act on the guidance of one’s thinking-the right to live by one’s own independent judgment. Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom.

In the daily routine of their work, it is very easy for journalists to perform their tasks and make their decisions with due mental focusing. It sometimes may become easier to simply turn loose and float on the smooth waters of instinct and intuition. Since mental focusing is difficult and serious thinking about alternatives requires hard work, many journalists are threatened by their irrational and emotional tendencies.

The worst that can happen to a journalist is to give up his authenticity. He then becomes nothing more than a puppet, a robot which moves under forces or persons who dictate. Reason is essentially the key force in authentic journalism and should operate in conjunc­tion with personal freedom. It should provide a motivating power source for the development of a meaningful self-satisfying journalistic philosophy.

The journalist works under the persistent pressures which often cause him to the ‘social good’ and to institutional expediency. Being a member of a group and accepting institutional responsibility tend to suppress conscience and true existential consciousness.

It is not easy for the institutional and professional journalist to retain his authenti­city. Robert Stein says : ‘The journalists are going to have to rely on their own values more rather than less, not only in interpreting the news but in deciding what it is”. Stein is appealing to the journalist to express his real authenticity to a greater degree and indicating how easy it is for the journalist to be swallowed up by his group. He puts it this way:

“As publishers, broadcasters, editors and reporters work under the constant demands of deadlines and competition, their private values tend to be pushed further and further into the background until, in some cases, particularly at the executive level, they disappear completely.

For years I have been fascinated by what happens to individuals (including myself) when they gather around a corporate table. Institutional responsibility seems to act simultaneously as a narcotic that suppresses conscience and a stimulant that brings out every bit of low cunning that can be used to profit the organisation.”

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