Kunczik, M., and Astrid Zipfel (2001). Publizistik, 198.

Story behind the Passage

Yes, this week I seem to be bothering my dear readers with books in German. But this is not from any book. It is from the “Bible” of communication studies. My professor, M. Kunczik, based his lecture on it in a very old-fashioned manner. But old-fashioned does not always mean bad. He had a lot to say about everything that is written in the book and the book itself was the perfect preparation for exams and student papers. In short: Whenever I think of media studies, I think of his introductory lecture and this very book. Today, in turn, I am thinking of media studies because these are days when the news are showing us dramatic coverage about people losing their lives and homes — basically losing their subsistence, as the news people and politicians like to call it.

Of course, in a global world, you can find these kinds of news on a daily level. There is always some catastrophe happening somewhere in the world. But it touches you even more if this is happening in your neighborhood more of less. I am of course talking about the flood that is not only keeping Germany in crisis mode but also various neighboring countries, e.g., the Netherlands and France. I even got a message last night from my U.S. family asking me if I am safe. If even people at the other end of the world are watching news about this, it indeed is a global media issue. But just as much as we need the news to stay informed about the world and our planet, we also need to ponder the way in which these images reach us. And this is what I want to briefly do today because a lot of things have changed since my early years as a student in university and my first encounter with media ethics.

My Learnings

“Den besonderen Rechten, die Journalisten zur angemessenen Erfüllung ihrer Aufgaben beispielsweise in Deutschland zugestanden werden … stehen auch rechtlich geregelte Schranken (z.B. Persönlichkeitsschutzrecht) und Pflichten gegenüber.“ / “Opposite to the special rights granted to journalists in Germany to enable them to fulfil their tasks, one also finds legal boundaries (e.g., personality rights) and obligations.” Whatever you write about ethics in any context, you will always be “wrong” in some way. It is a delicate issue and I am not going into the nuanced meanings and interpretations of all the key terms you even find in this short paragraph. I just want to reflect on my personal observation from this morning which led me to think that it might make sense to find new or modified codices for reporting from disaster zones.

I was watching a reporter who was in one of the towns that was severely hit by the flood. She had two local inhabitants there standing next to the river (which is now actually identifiable as such again). This is the usual set-up you always find in these cases, right. You see the site, you see some utensils which highlight the point (in this case clothes which had been foundin the water), and then the reporter asks the people about their experiences. Here are the usual questions which were also asked this morning:

“How did you experience the night of the flood?”

“How does it feel to have lost everything?”

“What is your opinion concerning the local government and the warning systems — who made mistakes?”

You can answer most of these questions yourself. And that is the thing. Why ask these questions and “abuse” people if there is no real information benefit? The only effect is that you raise empathy for people who hve survived and who will be traumatized for the rest of their lives by displaying them in a way. Does it take this? Yes, I understand this is authentic and truthful information because it comes directly from the people. You are giving them a voice and this is, after all, is what I always fiercefully speak up for, right? Giving people a voice and maybe a face.

But somehow, this is too much after all.

I am not questioning this practice and the ethics behind it because this is a German example merely. I wonder myself why it is that I am getting more and more sensitive about this ethics issue. Maybe it is because our media landscape has changed and everyone can now put his/her face in the camera and post something — something ‘authentic.’ To make this very clear, I am not against journalists going to the sites. I am not opposed to them talking to the victims, if they adhere to their code of conduct while doing this. This code, of course, applies all the time — not only when the cameras are on. And most of the work happens behind the cameras. Still, does it really take the exposition of these people in front of the camera? Would it not be enough to collect these voices there and then report first-hand about them by giving examples from a third-person perspective?

Obviously, my answer already reveals how I think about it. I do believe that those who can change the quality of journalism are journalists themselves. I know that this sounds quite illusory, given the fact that these journalists are employed by big media houses and experience a lot of pressure on the way they do things. And, yes, when I say journalists can bring change to what counts as “ethical” reporting, this is inherently related to what the people watching and reading “like” or “dislike.” But ethics is not about liking things. Ethics is about reflecting on what you see and feel and questioning these very responses.

Hence, it is up to all of us to think twice about our “needs” when it comes to learning about the world and its worst nightmares come true. Again, I do not have clear-cut answers myself. Just like any human being, I am touched by the images and the more shocking these reports are, the more they can move you, no doubt. This can trigger action in a good way. Still, if there is this protection reflex, this longing to just smack the reporter in the face for asking these self-evident questions, a border has been crossed. Maybe the positive function of this border is to raise our awareness of the fact that ethics exists and that it is becoming more important than ever in a society where the media are the ultimate “extension of men,” to quote Marshall McLuhan.

Reflection Questions

1) How do you feel about media ethics in your country?

2) Do you think that ethics should be a mandatory subject in university education? Why/not?

3) If you were a journalist — how would you make sure that you do not transgress your own ethical boundaries?

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