What is Newspaper and What Ethical Responsibilities Does It Have?

This is a topic that has been top of my mind as of late, and with the upcoming election, a topic that should be top of yours as this is still the primary source of news for many people, even if they get it in digital form.

Traditionally, a newspaper has been the primary vehicle of the free press, an establishment that was only first realized in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1539 and a reality that even England — despite its attractiveness for, and ability to produce, great thinkers — did not see until about a century and a half later. In fact, if it was not for the Areopagitica of John Milton, which is among history’s most influential and impassioned philosophical defences of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression (Source: Wikipedia), who knows if we would have freedom of the press today? (Milton was obviously among the great thinkers who inspired Hamilton, Madison, and the other delegates who drafted the US constitution which created the country which has produced some of the mightiest advocates for the free press in recent times.) In addition, one of Milton’s central premises was that the individual is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad so the press should not have to be licensed or censored.

So given that the newspaper is the primary vehicle of the free press, which is supposed to be the primary means by which free speech is spread in modern times, what ethical responsibilities does it have. Much ado is always made about the ethical responsibilities of the journalist, but what about the ethical responsibility of the publication? For example, what good does it do if the journalist dig deeps, finds something, comes up with a correlation that the publisher doesn’t like, and the story gets buried? What good does it do if a (printing) error is made and it is not corrected in a timely manner? What good does it do to only report one side of the story. (Especially when every story has essentially three sides in the mind’s eye — yours, mine, and the truth, which is meticulously sought by any good journalist.)

If you look at some of the commonly accepted principles of journalism, they typically say that a journalist must be:

  • obligated to the truth,
  • in allegiance with the citizens and their public interest,
  • possessive of a discipline of verification,
  • independent from the organizations, corporations, and people they cover,
  • open to feedback and criticism, and
  • of good conscious.

Based on this, one would think it would be safe to say that a newspaper — which is the outlet through which journalists report on the news, issues, and concerns of the day — must be:

  • obligated to the truth,
  • in allegiance with the community they serve and the public interests within,
  • possessive of a discipline of verification,
  • of detached independence from the organizations, corporations, and people they cover – completely separating advertising from news coverage, and
  • open to feedback and criticism.

But is that enough? Since a newspaper is a collective of journalists and the primary vehicle through which free speech is promoted and the public interests of the community addressed, it seems only logical that it be held to an even higher ethical standard. It seems fair to say that a newspaper should also:

  • hold itself accountable for all that it publishes, and if errors or omissions are made, quickly issue a retraction or correction in such a way that the retraction or correction is likely to be seen by everyone who was misinformed,
  • make an effort to report on both sides of a battle where there is a dispute or conflict,
  • make an effort to voice dissenting opinions, even if the opinion is limited to one reader; As John Stuart Mill wrote in his book On Liberty, If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and one, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind,
  • make an effort to be balanced both in terms of the types of news reported, and the views associated with each topic, story, or debate, and
  • serve as an independent monitor of of power. James Madison got it right when he said that all power in human hands is liable to be abused, and that’s why we need a free press to monitor it. Chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted to the press for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.

Furthermore, in today’s digital age, one could also that if the newspaper has an online edition, or is published digitally, that it also has a responsibility:

  • to provide a digital community forum for its readers to interact with it and each other,
  • to not criticize, or censor, the views and statements of its readers (unless such views or statements are made in a way that are libelious, hateful, or otherwise in opposition to municipal, state, or federal law, and only if such views are required by such law to be blocked),
  • and to address the concerns brought forth by the readers if those concerns demonstrate that a misprint was made, that the reporting was not factual, or that one or more sides to the issue, story, or debate was missed.

After all, if a newspaper is the vehicle of the free press, and the rationale of the free press is to serve the people, then the newspaper should at least react to all of the people it claims to serve. And it should remember, in the words of Andrew Vachss, a free press doesn’t mean it’s not a tame press.

What do you think?

In full disclaimer, just as the doctor has never claimed to be an analyst, he’s never claimed to be a journalist either. He is a blogger. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Want to discuss? Join The Federalists on LinkedIn. The open group has been created specifically to discuss the philosophical underpinnings of the governance of nations, their ramifications on the national and international economics and global trade, and the rights and responsibilities they suggest.