17 June 1993
on the ethics of journalism
(Rapporteur: Mr NUÑEZ,
Information and communication are decisive factors nowadays in any social, economic and cultural development, and doubtless the most distinctive feature of the new era in which the world is living. The concept of communication proper has a fundamentally social dimension.
Democracy cannot exist without information and communication; this is evident in the simple fact that any democracy, in order to flourish, must provide for the participation of its citizens in public affairs, and this in not possible unless the citizens and the institutions are able to receive the information they need and express themselves publicly.
On the grounds that the existing ethical codes for journalism have insufficient international scope and their practical effectiveness therefore remains very limited, the Assembly proposes to adopt a resolution on the ethics of journalism which considers the right to information as a fundamental human right and revues the function of journalism and its ethical activity.
Amongst other measures the Assembly suggests setting up, within the Organisation, a European mechanism for information verification in the form of a European media ombudsman, with sufficient international representativeness and a mode of operation and functions similar to the corresponding national self-regulatory bodies or mechanisms.
I. Draft resolution
The Assembly affirms the following ethical principles for journalism and believes that they should be applied by the profession throughout Europe.
News and opinions
1. In addition to the legal rights and obligations set forth in the relevant legal norms, the media have an ethical responsibility towards citizens and society which must be underlined at the present time, when information and communication play a very important role in the formation of citizens' personal attitudes and the development of society and democratic life.
2. The journalist's profession comprises rights and obligations, freedoms and responsibilities.
3. The basic principle of any ethical consideration of journalism is that a clear distinction must be drawn between news and opinions, making it impossible to confuse them. News is information about facts and data, while opinions convey thoughts, ideas, beliefs or value judgments on the part of media companies, publishers or journalists.
4. News broadcasting should be based on truthfulness, ensured by the appropriate means of verification and proof, and impartiality in presentation, description and narration. Rumour must not be confused with news. News headlines and summaries must reflect as closely as possible the substance of the facts and data presented.
5. Expression of opinions may entail thoughts or comments on general ideas or remarks on news relating to actual events. Although opinions are necessarily subjective and therefore cannot and should not be made subject to the criterion of truthfulness, we must ensure that opinions are expressed honestly and ethically.
6. Opinions taking the form of comments on events or actions relating to individuals or institutions should not attempt to deny or conceal the reality of the facts or data.
The right to information as a fundamental human right
Publishers, proprietors and journalists
7. The media's work is one of "mediation", providing an information service, and the rights which they own in connection with freedom of information depends on its addressees, that is the citizens.
8. Information is a fundamental right which has been highlighted by the case law of the European Commission and Court of Human Rights relating to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and recognised under Article 9 of the European Convention on Transfrontier Television, as well as in all democratic constitutions. The owner of the right is the citizen, who also has the related right to demand that the information supplied by journalists is conveyed truthfully, in the case of news, and honestly, in the case of opinions, without outside interference by either the public authorities or the private sector.
9. The public authorities must not consider that they own information. The representativeness of such authorities provides the legal basis for efforts to guarantee and extend pluralism in the media and to ensure that the necessary conditions are created for exercising freedom of expression and the right to information and precluding censorship. Moreover, the Committee of Ministers is aware of this fact, as demonstrated by its Declaration on the Freedom of Expression and Information adopted on 29 April 1982.
10. When dealing with journalism it must be borne in mind that it relies on the media, which are part of a corporate structure within which a distinction must be made between publishers, proprietors and journalists. To that end, in addition to safeguarding the freedom of the media, freedom within the media must also be protected and internal pressures guarded against.
11. News organisations must consider themselves as special socio-economic agencies whose entrepreneurial objectives have to be limited by the conditions for providing access to a fundamental right.
12. News organisations must show transparency in matters of media ownership and management, enabling citizens to ascertain clearly the identity of proprietors and the extent of their economic interest in the media.
13. Inside the news organisation, publishers and journalists must co-exist, bearing in mind that the legitimate respect for publishers' and owners' ideological orientations is limited by the absolute requirements on truthful news reporting and ethical opinions. This is essential if we are to respect the citizens' fundamental right to information.
14. These requirements are such that we must reinforce the safeguards of the journalist's freedom of expression, for they must in the last instance operate as the ultimate sources of information. In this connection we must legally expand and clarify the nature of the conscience clause and professional secrecy vis-à-vis confidential sources, harmonising national provisions on this matter so that they can be implemented in the wider context of democratic Europe.
15. Neither publishers and proprietors nor journalists should consider that they own the news. News organisations must treat information not as a commodity but as a fundamental right of the citizen. To that end, the media should exploit neither the quality nor the substance of the news or opinions for purposes of boosting readership or audience figures in order to increase advertising revenue.
16. If we are to ensure that information is treated ethically, its target audience must be considered as individuals and not as a mass.
The function of journalism and its ethical activity
17. Information and communication as conveyed by journalism through the media, with powerful support from the new technologies, has decisive importance for the development of the individual and society. It is indispensable for democratic life, since if democracy is to develop fully it must guarantee citizen participation in public affairs. Suffice it to say that such participation would be impossible if the citizens were not in receipt of the information on public affairs which they need and which must be provided by the media.
18. The importance of information, especially radio and television news, for culture and education was highlighted in Assembly Recommendation 1067. Its effects on public opinion are obvious.
19. It would be wrong to infer from the importance of this role that the media actually represent public opinion or that they should replace the specific functions of the public authorities or institutions of an educational or cultural character such as schools.
20. This would amount to transforming the media and journalism into authorities or counter-authorities ("mediocracy"), even though they would not be representative of the citizens or subject to the same democratic controls as the public authorities, and would not possess the specialist knowledge of the corresponding cultural or educational institutions.
21. Therefore journalism should not alter truthful, impartial information or honest opinions, or exploit them for media purposes, in an attempt to create or shape public opinion, since its legitimacy rests on effective respect for the citizen's fundamental right to information as part of respect for democratic values. To that end, legitimate investigative journalism is limited by the veracity and honesty of information and opinions and is incompatible with journalistic campaigns conducted on the basis of previously adopted positions and special interests.
22. In journalism, information and opinions must respect the presumption of innocence in particular in cases which are still sub judice and must refrain from making judgments.
23. The right of individuals to privacy must be respected. Persons holding office in public life are entitled to protection for their privacy except in those cases where their private life may have an effect on their public life. The fact that a person holds a public post does not deprive him of the right to respect for his privacy.
24. The attempt to strike a balance between the right to respect for private life, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the freedom of expression set forth in Article 10, is well documented in the recent case law of the European Commission and Court of Human Rights.
25. In the journalist's profession the end does not justify the means, therefore information must be obtained by legal and ethical means.
26. At the request of the persons concerned, the news media must correct, automatically and speedily, and with all relevant information provided, any news item or opinion conveyed by them which is false or erroneous. National legislation should provide for appropriate sanctions and, where applicable, compensation.
27. In order to harmonise the application and exercise of this right in the member states of the Council of Europe, we must implement Resolution (74) 26 on "the right of reply — position of the individual in relation to the press", adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 2 July 1974, and also the relevant provisions of the Convention on Transfrontier Television.
28. In order to ensure high-quality work and independence on the part of journalists, they must be guaranteed decent pay and proper working conditions and facilities.
29. In the relations which the journalist must maintain in the course of his duties with the public authorities or the various economic sectors, care should be taken to avoid any kind of connivance liable to affect the independence and impartiality of journalism.
30. In journalism, controversial or sensational items must not be confused with subjects on which it is important to provide information. The journalist must not exploit his duties for the principal purpose of acquiring prestige or personal influence.
31. In view of the complexity of the process of providing information, which is increasingly based on the use of new technologies, speed and conciseness, journalists must be required to have appropriate professional training.
Rules governing editorial staff
32. Within the newspaper business, publishers, proprietors and journalists must live side by side. To that end, rules must be drawn up for editorial staff in order to regulate professional relations between the journalists and the publishers and proprietors within the media, separately from the normal requirements of labour relations. Such rules might provide for the setting up of editorial boards.
Situations of conflict and cases of special protection
33. In society, situations of tension and conflict sometimes arise under the pressure of factors such as terrorism, discrimination against minorities, xenophobia or war. In such circumstances the media have a moral obligation to defend democratic values: respect for human dignity, solving problems by peaceful, tolerant means, and consequently to oppose violence and the language of hatred and confrontation and to reject all discrimination based on culture, sex or religion.
34. No-one should remain neutral vis-à-vis the defence of democratic values. To that end the media must play a major role in preventing tension and must encourage mutual understanding, tolerance and trust between the various communities in regions where conflict prevails, as the Secretary General of the Council of Europe has set out to do with her confidence-building measures in the former Yugoslavia.
35. Having regard to the very specific influence of the media, notably television, on the attitudes of children and young people, care must be taken not to broadcast programmes, messages or images glorifying violence, exploiting sex and consumerism or using deliberately unsuitable language.
Ethics and self-regulation in journalism
36. Having regard to the requisite conditions and basic principles enumerated above, the media must:
undertake to submit to firm ethical principles guaranteeing freedom of expression and the fundamental right of citizens to receive truthful information and honest opinions.
37. In order to supervise the implementation of these principles, self-regulatory bodies or mechanisms must be set up comprising publishers, journalists, media-users, associations, experts from the academic world and judges; they will be responsible for issuing resolutions on respect for ethical precepts in journalism, with prior commitment on the part of the media to publish the relevant resolutions. This will help the citizen, who has the right to information, to pass either positive or negative judgment on the journalist's work and credibility.
38. The self-regulatory bodies or mechanisms, the media users' associations and the relevant university departments could publish each year the research done a posteriori on the truthfulness of the information broadcast by the media, comparing the news with the actual facts. This would serve as a barometer of credibility which citizens could use as a guide to the ethical standard achieved by each medium or each section of the media, or even each individual journalist. The relevant corrective mechanisms might simultaneously help improve the manner in which the profession of media journalism is pursued.
II. Draft recommendation
1. The Assembly recalls its work in the field of the media, and in particular its Resolution 428 (1970) on mass communication media and human rights and its Recommendation 963 (1983) on cultural and educational means of reducing violence.
2. Further to the criticism of the role played by the media during the Gulf war, the Committee on Culture and Education organised a Parliamentary Hearing on the Ethics of Journalism in Helsinki on 26 June 1991, at which a number of concerns were expressed.
3. Since 1970 the Parliamentary Assembly, and also other institutions such as the European Parliament (Resolution of 16 September 1992 on media concentration and diversity of opinions), have been pressing for the elaboration of ethical codes for journalism. However, existing texts dealing with the matter have insufficient international scope and their practical effectiveness therefore remains very limited.
4. European citizens from the different Council of Europe member states increasingly share the same media facilities within a common European information area.
5. The Assembly consequently recommends that the Committee of Ministers:
i. ask governments of member states to see that legislation guarantees effectively the organisation of the public media in such a way as to ensure neutrality of information, plurality of opinions and gender balance;
ii. study, in co-operation with the competent non-governmental organisations such as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the prospects for setting up, within the Council of Europe, a European mechanism for information verification, taking the form of a European Media Ombudsman, with sufficient international representativeness where possible drawn from, and having a mode of operation and function similar to, the corresponding national self-regulatory bodies or mechanisms;
iii. foster the setting up of citizens' media associations and encourage schools to provide media education;
iv. adopt a declaration on the ethics of journalism along the lines of Assembly Resolution ... and promote the implementation of these basic principles in the member states of the Council of Europe.
III. Explanatory memorandum
by Mr NUÑEZ
1. Information and democracy
Information and communication are decisive factors nowadays in any social, economic and cultural development, and doubtless the most distinctive feature of the new era in which the world is living. The concept of communication proper has a fundamentally social dimension. We do most of the things we do in the idea that they will subsequently be communicated to others. Information and communication are, by definition, at the root of all social action affecting the community, the public. Etymologically, to communicate means "to make common". It can safely be said that nowadays no social debate goes on without communication and information, so these are concepts that concern us all.
Leaving aside the influence of information and communication in specific sectors of the economy, science and so on, I shall concentrate on analysing the repercussions of information and communication through the media on the lives of citizens and democratic society.
It is widely accepted that democracy cannot exist without information and communication; this is evident in the simple fact that any democracy, in order to flourish, must provide for the participation of its citizens in public affairs, and this in not possible unless the citizens and the institutions are able to express themselves publicly and receive the proper information.
Information is an absolute prerequisite for full participation in democracy, rather than simple representation. In this respect information and communication through the media widen the radius of politics, liberating it from the exclusive control of the politicians.
2. The different steps of the information process
On the basis that information and communication are dynamic rather than static, any informative action means a process involving a transmitter and a receiver. Bearing in mind that nowadays, and even more so in the future, by far the greatest flow of information we receive comes to us through the mass media, now strengthened by the new information technologies and hertzian, cable and satellite channels, the information process becomes increasingly complicated as a result of the complex production, dissemination and mediation processes inherent in the very nature of the mass media. The extraordinary flow of information and communication obliges the media to select and summarise, that is to say, to adjust the information to suit their own nature, which means that the end user receives the information only after a series of complex phases of production, transmission and dissemination has taken place in the different media, be it the press, radio or television, a process in which publishers, proprietors and journalists have their say. The important thing is not to lose sight of what really counts, the content of the information or communication. The challenge is to guarantee truth and impartiality in transmitting the news, and honesty and probity in the emission of opinions, that is to say, to make sure that the message, not the medium, is the most important thing, that information and communication are not the result of manipulation and mediation; in a word, that the message is not the medium. Were there confusion between the two, the purpose of the media would be adulterated, and the result would be illegitimate or misleading information or opinions.
3. The close relationship between information and ethics
Considering how the content of information is conveyed through the media, guaranteeing the accuracy, impartiality and ethics of the information transmitted requires the media to fulfil certain moral commitments incumbent on them. As Alain Etchegoyen explains, unlike the information communicated in a conversation between people, where speaker and listener, or transmitter and receiver constantly take turns and, in the truest sense of the term, "make common" their points of view and their information after arguing their case, information communication in the media is reduced to a monologue, the receiver having no opportunity to participate in the process by answering back or putting a different point of view. This is why the media are not the ideal setting for serene, in-depth debates, round table discussions on the radio or television serving only as an occasional means of displaying or disseminating contradicting opinions. It was for similar reasons, according to Plato, that Socrates refused to write, because to his mind writing precluded "maieutics" (enlightening, creative dialogue) and led instead to the rhetorical temptation to persuade instead of convincing.
Etymologically, to convince means to win round to one's point of view, which in turn requires the participation of a second party over whom one can achieve victory through debate, the exchanging of rational arguments. To persuade, on the other hand, is a more forceful, one-way process that does not rely on dialogue (from the Greek "to talk one with another"). In dialogue the receiver is an active party, unlike in persuasion, in which he can have a purely passive role. The monologue characteristic of persuasion is the danger that threatens the information and communication we receive through the media, especially the visual media, advertising and television, where the role of the viewer can be almost completely passive.
All the media, publishers and journalists, are therefore faced with a vital moral choice: either they employ all their "art" and "craft" to persuade viewers and listeners to tune in faithfully to their particular station or channel, or to read their newspaper, or on the contrary, they choose to convince, through accurate and impartial information and ethical opinions.
So the act of communication, the "communicational deed" to use the language of Habermas, raises moral as well as technical questions. Choosing between information as a means or as an end in itself, that is to say, as a public service or a merchandise, boils down to choosing between man as a means and as an end, bearing in mind, as Kant points out, that to consider man as a means is to rule out any morals from the deed or the intention. Morals therefore lie at the very root of information and communication and inversely information and communication lie at the very heart of morals. The morals of a society, that is to say, its ability to look at itself in a moral light, depend to a large extent on the manner in which information is received. If the rhetoric of persuasion interferes at every stage of, and with every key to the communication process, the individual or social conscience can lose sight of its own ethical references. If we genuinely believe that we are in the age of communication, it should come as no surprise that the very ethics of social life depend largely on how the media treat information and communication. It is impossible to consider morals without referring to information and communication. Nowadays the moral question arises not only in terms of the treatment given to information on now familiar themes such as violence and sex, or other themes of particular public impact (even though they require special reflection), but also in relation to the very nature of information communication through the media.
4. Information strategies, advertising and image requirements
It is essential to address the issue of the ethics of journalism in the context of the media, within which proprietors, editors and journalists co-exist. Ethical behaviour is therefore a requirement not only for journalists but also for editors and proprietors. It is also necessary to consider the business interests underlying the media. For this reason, information and communication through the media are by no means insignificant or innocent channels of transmission; in private business as in public society they are the fulcra of the different production and consumption markets, with the economic consequences this entails.
At present 40% of worldwide investment in capital goods is spent on products related to information technology and the communication industries.
In mediating between social phenomena and the people, the media not only transmit information that broadens and enriches the citizen's knowledge, but in the very manner in which they present the information they are also making a statement or expressing a particular opinion: "the media mediate". The problem is that any deviation from the truth in the information process cannot be corrected in most cases by the citizen, precisely because his knowledge of reality comes to him exclusively through the media. Hence the great moral responsibility that weighs on the media.
It cannot be denied that the fact that the media operate along business lines means that they are always anxious to attract as many "receivers", or as large an audience as possible, for amongst other things this increases their revenues from advertising, a major source of income. This quantitative aspect is reflected in the very name mass media. There is a danger, however, that the notion of audience, viewer, reader, etc. will become confused with the notion of "client". This duality is already present in the language used in the media, which refer to audience or clients, audience ratings or consumption, depending on the circumstances. And the number of readers, listeners or viewers are frequently expressed in terms of market shares. It is no coincidence that audience metering firms are represented in advertising agencies. This is where information and communication are in jeopardy of succumbing to a flood of biased images transmitted in a manner reminiscent of the Far West, where whoever is most aggressive and shoots first wins the battle. Newspapers vie for the most sensational headlines and television becomes a spectacle showing ever harder-hitting pictures designed to produce an immediate emotional impact on the viewer. Information and communication become pure image, and the danger lies precisely in confusing images with reality, or reducing reality to images, just as in the myth of Plato's cave, where the prisoners thought that there was no reality other than the shadows cast outside.
Nowadays, through the media, information technology puts us in the presence of immediate images that appeal to our sensitivity or our emotions. Under the glittering spell of the image we are in danger of confusing truth and validity with what is pleasant or attractive. In this context information and communication can be reduced to a battery of images, the Greek for image being "eidolon", that is to say, idol, a concept diametrically opposed to "logos".
Accustomed as we are to the language of newspaper headlines and to pictures, language and words are losing their force where they are not accompanied by visual images in one form or another. Whereas in ancient Rome the right to have one's image carved or sculpted and displayed in public was granted only to those who did something for the good of society, nowadays, when we are obsessed with images, anybody can choose the image they wish to project in accordance with their interests and their economic possibilities. Changing one's physical or social image for a new look has become common currency. The image has become more important than the essence. In such a context we cannot afford to ignore the ethical requirements of information, account being taken of commercial support.
5. The new culture of opinion and image and its ethical requirements
Communication and information are changing the meaning of the traditional Greek distinction between episteme and doxa, between knowledge arrived at through deep reflection, and mere opinion, on the essential path to possession of the truth. Although schools and the teaching they dispense are undeniable and irreplaceable, knowledge nowadays is no longer acquired and improved solely through the traditional channels of learning, by reasoning and deduction, but also through the facts and opinions communicated by the media. Because of their influence the very notion of truth as something known to be exact is gradually losing ground to the idea of opinion. According to Plato, opinion is what enables us to judge appearances, and as Ferrater Mora points out, in giving meaning to appearances opinion is our natural means of access to the world of the future, and can therefore not be simply cast aside. But this does not mean that we must go as far as to define the truth as agreement between what we think and the information and opinions reflected in the media, for as Baudrillard says, the terms are then inverted, and what should be communication as a means of exchange for society becomes not the means but the end itself, because society and its citizens are completely under the influence of the media.
In order for the media to be able to fulfil their new and important role in our modern, democratic society, it is essential that we understand the complex machinery of this new culture based on information, communication and the image, so that personal opinions and subjectivity are not simply hung up on the handy hook of newspaper headlines, radio, television or advertising slogans while we relax into the easy pleasure of passiveness, so that citizens do not become slaves to the media with their own implicit consent. Without the development and propagation of this new culture, society may indeed become the global village predicted by MacLuhan, made up of tribal societies reminiscent of the days before Gutenberg and Marconi. The media must therefore obey certain ethical principles, for as Aristotle said, criticism is also a practical form of knowledge.
6. The special nature of the news organisation
In discussing the ethics of journalism we must analyse the special nature of the news organisation, which is a very complex subject.
As a business, the news organisation sets out to make a profit from its activity. Nevertheless, it must not be governed solely by the laws of the market, as information is not a commodity but a fundamental right belonging to the individual. Consequently, the managers of news organisations must not turn themselves into news merchants.
The managers of news organisations cannot disregard the social and public implications of information. For this reason, the news organisation is not only an economic institution but also a social institution, which must not be solely concerned with increasing its audience figures or readership and, hence, its advertising revenue. Otherwise, the news organisation would merely be serving the advertiser by treating citizens as objects, rather than subjects, of information.
A purely mercantile view of the news organisation would fundamentally condition the work of the directors and editors, and might even culminate in a situation in which news organisations were set up without there being any need for journalists.
Consequently, when speaking of the ethics of journalism, we must consider the ethics of the news organisation as a whole, that is all its component parts: proprietors, editors and journalists. For this reason, there should also be special legal rules governing news organisations.
7. Information as a fundamental right
The starting-point for any consideration of journalism from the ethical and legal angles should be the fact that information is a fundamental right. It is recognised as such in the constitutions of European democracies and in the international instruments of both the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
Referring to information in the broad sense, we may say that the fundamental right to freedom of information should always be viewed in terms of its two indissociable aspects: the right to impart information and the right to receive information. The first aspect, related historically to freedom of conscience, demands respect for the free expression of proprietors, editors and journalists, while the second, related to the right to knowledge, guarantees the public truthful and impartial information and an honest or ethical opinion. All too often, out of self-interest, these aspects are separated or one of them is forgotten.
The three powers that traditionally characterise any democratic state, and especially the legislature, constitute the public authorities empowered not only to establish the framework and guarantees of the freedom of expression of editors and journalists, but also to safeguard the rights of citizens to receive truthful, impartial and honest information, because the citizen's right to information is a key element in his individual and social development, in the same way as the right to education or the right to knowledge in the broad sense, of which information should be regarded as an extension, (although the two concepts are not interchangeable). In this connection, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe defines broadcasting (radio and television) as a public service which may be provided by public or private bodies.1
a. Information is not a commodity
It may be inferred from this idea of information as a fundamental right that it should not be regarded or treated as a commodity. This is the key factor determining the kind of treatment which information is given.
The new needs created by the industrial and urban state, with the crowding together of large social groups, call for external areas of communication. A "mass society" requires collective media and channels of communication respecting and guaranteeing freedom of information, which is a fundamental individual right, in the dual sense of imparting and receiving information. If information is not regarded as a fundamental right, it will be difficult to find any alternative to the conception of it as a private service. In short, it would end up being treated as a commodity subject solely to the laws of the market, dictated by the private interests of proprietors, editors and journalists.
b. Information is the property neither of the media nor of the public authorities
The idea of information as a fundamental right rules out any use of it by the media, proprietors, editors and journalists as their property. For the same reason the public authorities must not regard information as their property either, because they are justified, as political representatives, in taking action to guarantee the fundamental rights relating to information, but not in appropriating those rights for themselves, the ownership of the right to information being vested in the citizen. The public authorities should confine themselves to guaranteeing the effectiveness of that right, which will be achieved through the public or private media in accordance with the democratically established legal and administrative framework.
c. The citizen as owner of the right to information
Freedom of information is a fundamental right which all citizens enjoy equally and which protects them from undue interference. Consequently, guarantees regarding the provision of information, for which the public authorities are responsible, should not be confused with ownership, because the citizens in a democracy, unlike the members of the Greek polis, are always people who live communally in society on the basis of irrevocable principles of equality and freedom, such as were upheld by Montesquieu and John Locke. For this reason, political representativeness cannot take away the ownership of the fundamental rights belonging to citizens. The distinctive feature of fundamental rights is precisely that they turn each individual into an irreplaceable agent of social life, and his role cannot be delegated to public or private entities, watered down or replaced by them. Nobody needs to buy the protection or the favour of others at the price of forfeiting his rights. Given the fundamental right which is vested in them, the only thing which interests citizens and the only demand they can make is that access to truthful and diversified information and to impartial and honest opinions should be guaranteed through the media. To this extent, it is a matter of indifference whether the media are publicly or privately owned.
d. The aims of the media
Applying the Latin dictum: "The wise man distinguishes, the common man confuses", we should try to distinguish various aspects relating to the aims of the media and their ethical implications.
The public or private media should not regard information as an end in itself, but as a means of contributing to the development of the individual and of society as a whole. For this reason, just as the main purpose of the media is not to educate the public, although they do have a powerful influence in this respect, or to try and set themselves up as quasi-judicial decision-making bodies delivering unofficial judgments, neither is it their aim to foreshadow or create public opinion, but to offer varied information and opinions on topics of public interest, knowledge of which will have a significant effect on the education, training and culture of citizens and, at the same time, serve as a basis for the formation of opinions of their own about people and institutions. In short, the aim of the media should not be to replace the public authorities or provide public services assigned to other institutions.
Consequently, the media do not represent public opinion. They are merely one of the means, albeit an extremely important one, whereby citizens form their own opinions and express them. To this extent, the distinction between opinion published in the media and public opinion is very apt. The latter will apply where citizens, individually or collectively, express their opinion by a majority in a generalised and verifiable manner. Only the voice of the people has the legitimacy, and is truly representative, of public opinion. The saying vox populi vox Dei should not be applied to the media. Confusion between these terms is the source of most errors regarding the role of the media and tends to alter the nature of that role, thus creating serious imbalances in the operation of democracy.
The media should not, therefore, adapt or manipulate information with the aim of creating public opinion because their legitimacy lies in providing a public service in order to give effect to the fundamental right to information and communication. If the aim of informing and communicating were turned into that of educating, judging and creating public opinion, the media would become the most powerful force in the state, taking over functions which belong to other social institutions, such as schools or the judiciary, and ultimately taking away the ownership of rights which belong to the people themselves. Proprietors, editors and journalists would thus become a "mediocracy" lacking in any notion of public service, leading to imbalances in the entire structure of democratic society, which is based on the inalienable rights of individuals and on the legitimacy of the three basic powers of the state and their separation as a guarantee against misuse of power.
8. The prerequisites of information as a fundamental right
The freedom of information of the media is not unlimited. We must therefore talk about both rights and duties, both freedom and responsibility. According to Resolution 428 (1970) of the Parliamentary Assembly, "it is the duty of the press and other mass media to discharge their functions with a sense of responsibility towards the community and towards the individual citizens", and Article 10.2 of the European Convention on Human Rights also states that "the exercise of these (fundamental) freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society ...".
As a matter of principle, any discussion of information from the legal and ethical standpoint should distinguish clearly between opinions and information.2 The former refers to the expression of thoughts, beliefs and value judgments, and the latter conveys facts which may be considered newsworthy or which may be of public significance (judgment of 8 July 1976 of the European Court of Human Rights).
Truthfulness and freedom of information
Independently of the specific limits mentioned in the various European constitutions in dealing with freedom of information, the fundamental requirement with regard to the imparting of facts is that of truthfulness. The Council of Europe, however, is more specific, referring to the requirement of accuracy.3
Truthfulness presupposes that freedom of information should pursue the sole aim of disseminating the truth and no longer be based solely on the freedom of expression of editors and journalists, but also on the right of citizens to have access to as much information as possible, providing better opportunities of finding out the truth.
In order to define the concept of truthfulness, we must begin by ruling out any identification of truthfulness either with absolute truth or with a purely subjective kind of truth. The first approach would mean sanctifying the truth as something wholly and objectively measurable and would require the information to be absolutely consistent with the full reality. Given the impossibility of attaining such a degree of truth, this requirement would presuppose the existence of "pontiffs" who would pronounce and verify the truth at all times. Such a situation could lead to the imposition of censorship on news and information. However, it is not the function of the media to present information as a declaratory statement of proven and unchallengeable facts. Summa veritas, summa injuria. Erroneous information is sometimes unavoidable and is acceptable if it is given in good faith. This is the case in the media, where news items have to be selected rapidly to meet tight deadlines.
The second approach would lead, this time, to absolute relativism which, on the assumption that it was impossible to know the whole truth, would in practice mean renouncing the truthfulness of information, making its existence a purely theoretical question and, ultimately, reducing information to opinion and the requirement of truthfulness to a pious hope.
Ultimately, the truthfulness of information will consist in giving the version of the facts as they appear after appropriate investigation and verification based on reliable data, an attempt being made to ensure that the version given corresponds to the reality of the events as they occurred and to present them in an impartial manner. The two essential prerequisites of truthfulness are therefore prior verification and impartial presentation of information. In this way, given the inevitable subjectivity, an attempt will be made to achieve the greatest possible objectivity, on the understanding that truthful information rules out all misinformation.
9. Special measures to guarantee freedom and truthfulness in journalism
In democracies, the truthfulness of information in journalism is protected in the first instance through the establishment of the appropriate legal guarantees and penalties in respect of the rights and duties applicable to information providers.
a. Interference by the public authorities
The main pressures on the providers of information, editors and journalists, can come both from the public authorities and from private economic interests. In the former case, the main threat has come from the existence of news censorship. Its abolition has been the most important victory in the process of securing freedom of expression, the rights of information providers and also the truthfulness of information, in the face of the state and the public authorities. Today, censorship has disappeared from the legislation of European democracies. Resolution 428 (1970) of the Parliamentary Assembly states that "there shall be no direct or indirect censorship of the press, or of the contents of radio and television programmes, or of news or information conveyed by other media such as newsreels shown in cinemas.4 As a rule, the work of editors and journalists, like any other social activity, is now subject only to post facto legal scrutiny — a legitimate form of control deriving from the rules laid down by democratic institutions.
To ensure truthful reporting in media controlled by the state and the public authorities, European countries have laws governing the organisation of such media, providing for parliamentary supervision of them where necessary, guaranteeing access to them by significant social and political groups and respecting the pluralism of society and its linguistic diversity.
The elimination of interference by the public authorities is therefore guaranteed in democratic societies with the disappearance of news censorship and the consequent legal certainty arising from the fact that the media, in their work of providing information, are subject only to the legal penalties previously laid down in legal provisions.
b. Professional secrecy
In the democratic countries of Europe, concrete legal measures have also been taken, mainly by establishing professional secrecy and the conscience clause, in order to strengthen guarantees of freedom of expression while ensuring that journalists' information is truthful, as journalists are the final communication link in the media chain.
Professional secrecy (confidentiality of sources) protects all journalists without exception, vis-à-vis both the authorities and media proprietors, from the obligation to reveal the sources of news obtained for professional purposes. In a recent resolution the European Parliament called on the Commission of the European Communities to draw up a proposal for a Directive "[entitling] all journalists to maintain professional secrecy and to protect the identity of confidential sources".5
The justification for, and legitimacy of, professional secrecy do not lie in its protection of the trust between journalists and the sources which enable information to be obtained, although that trust-based relationship is an effect of the protection of professional secrecy and must be safeguarded as such. Whereas in other professions — medicine, law, etc. — the guarantee of professional secrecy is rooted exclusively in the relationship of trust between the professionals and their clients, in the case of journalists' professional secrecy it is above all the sources of information that are protected because, if they were not, news of general interest would be less likely to reach the citizens. "A source revealed is a source no more". Investigative journalism is one aspect of the profession which must be protected because it enhances the possibilities of imparting information. The raison d'être of professional secrecy is not to guarantee individual rights for journalists and their informers, but to guarantee members of the public their fundamental right to information. Journalists' work is mainly one of mediation and the rights they are granted relate to the recipients of information, that is the citizens. There should therefore be limits on the exercise of that right by journalists.
The first limit is truthfulness of information. Professional secrecy does have its limits and must be relinquished when there is a need to protect fundamental rights which are endangered, such as human lives or freedom in the case of matters pertaining to official state secrets, or the content of legal reports until embargoes have been lifted.
With these qualifications, professional secrecy means that journalists are not obliged to reveal to any authority or court the identity of their sources or other facts or circumstances that could lead to their identification, exempting them from criminal liability for disobeying the law. By extension, they are also protected from any legal inspection or confiscation in respect of their sources.
Professional secrecy also extends to media proprietors and editors. However, any civil or criminal liability stemming from a journalist's actions will only apply to them in cases of joint liability, that is when they expressly declare themselves liable for the stance taken by a journalist exercising professional secrecy.
10. Interference by the private sector — the conscience clause
With censorship a thing of the past and the guarantee of professional secrecy established, the greatest dangers to freedom and truthfulness of information no longer lie in interference by the authorities.
Emphasis should now be laid on preserving the truthfulness of information from private sector interference. The media are run by large economic concerns whose influence on the news is continually growing, thanks to the powers of new information technologies, and which have a potential for becoming genuine social powers (the power of the mass media). We must therefore first and foremost guarantee the truthfulness of information inside the news media or publishing company itself.
In the framework of a free and pluralist market economy as required by democracy, the freedom to set up media companies is not the only one: those companies should also be free to take a specific ideological stance. Professionals who voluntarily offer their services as journalists must respect their employers' editorial line. In the case, however, of companies set up to meet the fundamental right to information, they must from the outset refuse to treat information as merchandise; news media companies should be under a legal and ethical obligation not to interfere directly or indirectly with the veracity of the news as conveyed by journalists, who are at the end of the line of the information transmission process. In fact, it is a matter of reconciling the right to ownership of a company with journalists' rights ultimately to preserve the truthfulness of information.
It is also a matter of striking the right balance between respecting a company's freedom to take an ideological stance and leaving journalists free from interference, ensuring the truthfulness and ethical probity of their information and opinions. This calls for a set of requirements to be guaranteed in news media companies.
It is for this reason that, in democratic countries, journalists are covered by the conscience clause. In Europe this legally embraces a whole range of cases, from a change of ideological stance by a news company to a simple change of ownership: journalists are entitled to resign and be compensated. The conscience clause may also be interpreted more extensively and apply to journalists in cases where editors make alterations to news items they have produced.
Journalists' freedom of expression is afforded special protection under the conscience clause, not so much for reasons of personal ownership but because journalists render a public service, enabling truthful information to be transmitted to the public, who are its rightful holders.
The basic aspects of the conscience clause and professional secrecy should be harmonised in the different countries' systems of national legislation, in view of the common European information area, shared by the media and the citizen, and given the guarantee it would entail for the legal security of those employed in the media professions.
The conscience clause should of course also apply in the public media, but with special provision for their particular features, as mentioned earlier, in terms of organisation, impartiality and pluralism.
11. The ethics of conveying opinions
In journalism, as well as the freedom of information stricto sensu, freedom of opinion must also be safeguarded; this means protecting the freedom to express thoughts, ideas, beliefs and value judgments. In democratic countries, freedom of expression is secured without any intrinsic limits, apart from limits concerning the respect of others' rights in cases of slander or libel.
Whereas truthfulness is a requisite in the case of information proper, the same cannot hold for the expression of opinions as their truthfulness cannot be checked — by definition opinions are subjective and varied and cannot be proved or disproved, and in democracies the right to express opinions and ideas, even if they are wrong, is protected. In democratic states we must rule out any requirement to prove the truthfulness of ideas, beliefs or value judgments, on the very basis of ideological pluralism. This is explicitly recognised by the European Court of Human Rights.
The expression of opinions can be taken to mean thoughts or comments on general ideas or it may refer to facts relating to specific personal experiences or activities, opinions which may be expressed as being those of the journalists or editors, in the case of leading articles, or simply expressed by non-journalists. It is in the latter case that journalistic ethics require a distinction to be made between facts and opinions, so that information users are not confused. However, although truthfulness may definitely not be required in the case of opinions, honesty must be a requisite — that is opinions should invariably be transmitted on the basis of ethical frameworks in the defence of democratic values.
12. Conflicts and cases requiring special protection
Tensions and conflicts may occasionally arise in a society, owing to the pressure of factors such as terrorism, discrimination against minorities, xenophobia or war. In these circumstances, the media have a moral obligation to defend the values of democracy: respecting human dignity, solving problems by peaceful means and tolerance, consequently opposing violence and the language of hatred and confrontation, and rejecting all forms of racial, cultural sexual or religious discrimination. Nobody should take a neutral stance on the defence of democratic values. As a result, the media must be important agents in preventing tensions and must foster mutual understanding, tolerance and trust between different communities in regions where there are conflicts; this idea underlies the confidence-building measures proposed by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe in the case of the territories of the former Yugoslavia.
Bearing in mind the special influence exerted by the media, especially television, and the vulnerability of children and young people, steps should be taken to avoid the broadcasting of programmes, messages or images which glorify violence, depict sexual acts or use unsuitable language.
13. Professional qualifications for journalists
One prerequisite for guaranteeing the quality of journalists' work and their independence is to guarantee them a decent wage and the right conditions, means and tools for the exercise of their profession; a professional qualification should also be required of them.
Given the special nature of the news reporting business, employers should make budgetary provision to guarantee journalists a fair wage and proper professional working conditions and means. This will ensure greater dedication and more independence, safely removed from direct or indirect pressures and interference from outside.
At the same time, given the complexity of the work of modern journalism (increasingly reliant on the use of new technologies), the speed at which information must be conveyed, and the need to choose from different news items (because of limited space, requiring simplification of information and opinions), professional qualifications will be required of journalists. The quality of information and opinions depends on standards of training and preparation. Journalism requires an event to be turned into news while working to very short deadlines, calling for a special cultural and scientific grounding that will enable journalists to understand news items, put them in their context and attempt to analyse and explain them. In the audiovisual media in particular, journalism must take place on the spot, forcing journalists to rely exclusively on their own skills and to take personal editorial decisions, whereas in the past they could rely on editorial back-up from head office.
Given these facts, we must review the traditional principles according to which journalists are simply people working in the news media. People wishing to become journalists must have a university education, with a general or specialised qualification.
14. Rules governing the profession of journalist
To guarantee the freedom of expression and opinion, and to resist outside and inside pressures and interference in the public or private media, we must insist on the removal of internal pressures within the media themselves; this can be reinforced by means of fresh measures, mentioned earlier.
In respect of the conscience clause and professional secrecy. Given the business backing for the media, it is therefore important for the necessary conditions to be created in media news companies to guarantee freedom of expression, truthfulness of information and honesty of opinions.
Concerning respect for freedom of expression in media companies, owners, editors and journalists must work together and pay due respect to the proprietor's ideological stance, which is limited by the prerequisites of truthful information and editorial ethics necessitated by the citizen's right to information.
Machinery ensuring this balance plus internal self-regulatory measures are needed in news media companies. Editorial rules must be worked out governing the professional relationship between journalists and proprietors/editors in the media, allowing independent working conditions inside given companies. Provision could also be made for setting up editorial boards; they would lay down the editorial functions of journalists and editors while setting clear obligations for classifying information and assessing the consequences of applying the conscience clause. Two things must be guaranteed: not only freedom of information of the media but also freedom of information within the media.
15. Ethical principles and self-regulation
If we are to impose ethical requirements on journalists, it is logical to demand the proper machinery to monitor their application. Some of the codes of practice worked out in the past within the media or by international journalists' organisations, have not been implemented for lack of proper monitoring machinery. Governmental control machinery cannot be envisaged as, by definition, codes of ethics rule out the imposition of sanctions by outside bodies or institutions. Instead we need to introduce machinery to ensure self-regulation or self-restraint. Some of the experiments in self-regulation — in the form of press councils or complaints committees — show that there is room for improvement.
Reporting committee: Committee on Culture and Education
Budgetary implications for the Assembly: None.
Reference to the committee: Recommendation 1147 (1991) and Doc. 6541, Reference No. 1765 of 3 February 1992
Draft recommendation: adopted unanimously by the committee on 8 June 1993.
Members of the committee: Mrs Fischer (Chairman), Mr de Puig (Alternate: Nuñez), Sir Russell Johnston (Vice-Chairmen), MM. Alegre, Arnalds, Bauer Bell, Berg, Berti, Bonnici, Bratinka, Cem (Alternate: Maruflu), Decagny, Deniau, Mrs Err, Mr Ferrari, Mrs Fleeetwood, MM. Galanos (Alternate: Hadjidemetriou), Gül, Mrs Guourova, Mrs Hawlicek, Baroness Hooper, MM. Kalos, Baroness Lockwood, MM. Lopez Henares, Malachowski, Mesoraca, Monfils (Alternate: Sarens), Muehlemann, Müller, Pahtas, Mrs Persson, Mr Pilarski, Mrs Robert, Mr Roseta, Mrs Ryynanen, MM. Schädler, Schmidt, Schreiner, Seeuws, Soell, Mlle Szelenyi, MM Tatarella (Alternate: Caccia P.), Tummers, Verbeek.
NB: The names of those who took part in the vote are in italics.
Secretaries to the committee: MM. Grayson and Ary.
1 1Assembly Recommendation 1147 (1991) on parliamentary responsibility for the democratic reform of broadcasting: "The information and education roles of broadcasting are those of a public service providing public goods. It should be recognised that under appropriate circumstances the function of public service broadcasting may be fulfilled by publicly or privately organised entities".
2 1This point is made in the European Parliament's report of 21 April 1989 on radio broadcasting and in Resolution 957 (1991) of the Parliamentary Assembly on local radio.
3 2Assembly Resolution 428 (1970) on mass communication media and human rights.
4 1Paragraph A.5. of resolution previously cited. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights reads as follows: "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent states from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises".
5 1European Parliament resolution on media concentration and diversity of opinions, 16 September 1992. Point 23 (b).