Journalism ethics: An unbiased, watchful eye

The Reuters news agency is backing a new journalism institute at Oxford University. Editor-in-chief Geert Linnebank explains why
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The Independent Online

Even in an era of mass access to the internet and the meteoric rise of "citizen journalism", the power of the traditional media to shape opinion is a fact of modern life. It is acknowledged, discussed, criticised and sometimes lamented, but very rarely forensically examined. Journalists, once content to be informed bystanders, increasingly now take their place in the ranks of leading public figures, setting news agendas and political tone while arbitrating on issues of trust and truth using the media's own yardsticks.

At Reuters we have never embraced celebrity journalism. Perhaps because of that, and because of our role as a primary and unbiased source of global news, we are not afraid to ask the question raised in the Latin phrase "quis custodiet ipsos custodes" - who will guard the guardians?

I believe it is natural at Reuters for us to ask this question. We ourselves are governed in our daily news coverage by Reuters Trust Principles, our equivalent to a constitution, which guarantees independence from pressures by government, shareholders, institutions or other interest groups. We know that one of the best ways to ensure independence is to scrutinise ourselves and to accept the scrutiny of others. The recently announced plans to create the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University flow naturally from this belief. In an initiative funded with £1.75m over five years by the Reuters Foundation, our charitable arm, the aim is to establish a research centre of excellence in the study of journalism in all its forms. The Institute will be an integral part of Oxford University's Department of Politics and International Relations and will be based at Green College, bringing journalism formally within the university's field of academic study for the first time.

For Reuters, putting our name to an institute is much more than a marketing exercise. We live out our values of impartiality and accuracy in the thousands of news stories, photos and video clips we produce every day, but we also aim to improve the standards of good journalism globally. As just one example, recently Reuters Foundation was instrumental in establishing Iraq's first independent news agency, Aswat Al-Iraq, instilling a new generation of journalists with the fundamental tenets of honest, responsible and insightful reporting.

"Oh no - not more Professors of Journalism", I can hear some people saying. It is true to say there is no shortage of university media courses, at least in the UK. However, while the power of media has increased, the parallel rise in "media studies" has not fulfilled the requirement for analysis, debate and insight. Media departments in universities are mostly concerned with training in the norms of journalism and public relations, or with high theory or long-term research. While they certainly serve a purpose and the work often is of excellent quality, their output is usually regarded with disdain by the industry.

The Reuters Institute at Oxford is not an attempt to jump on the media studies bandwagon. It will not offer undergraduate degree courses but instead focus on supporting high-quality research, analysis and comment about how the media operates, and provide an independent forum for exchanges between practitioners and analysts of journalism and - no less important - all those affected by it. Only by focusing on engaging practitioners from every area of the news media and associated professions will we break down the incomprehension and distrust which have defined the relationship between academia and journalism.

To help this process, plans for the institute have been drawn up by figures drawn from both worlds. Tim Gardam, formerly of Channel 4 and the BBC, now Principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, has chaired the steering committee, which includes John Lloyd, contributing editor of the Financial Times. Bringing the academic and media worlds together is only part of the solution to improving the relationship. Another challenge lies in establishing the usefulness of research. News executives pay little heed to theoretical research, often viewing it as ivory tower navel-gazing with little relevance to the practicalities of a newsroom. For the Reuters Institute to succeed, its work must be rooted in the actual practice of journalism, rather than in the study of mass communications or political science.

The emphasis will be on engaging practitioners through publications, seminars, lectures and debates. But academics throwing open their doors is not enough; practitioners need to comprehend the value of research. The decline of public engagement in the US has been directly attributed to the decline in the attention to news, be it in print or broadcast, and while media organisations are both a culprit and victim of this decline, they are struggling with the consequences while ignoring the reasons.

The issue, then, is not to glamorise research in the hope of capturing attention, but to engage the media industry through covering both short and long-term trends and translate them into practical insight useful to their everyday operations and future success. We will aim to encourage and direct dialogue rather than produce dust-gathering research with little practical relevance. The institute will seek to become a recognised and impartial authority on all aspects of journalism; to attain the highest standards in academic research, but also to respond quickly to current debates; and to chart the technological, economic and market changes which influence news media today.

Reuters links to journalism insight or the academic world are not new. Since its creation in 1982, Reuters Foundation has trained more than 4,000 journalists from 170 countries in practical topics ranging from reporting business news to covering HIV/Aids. In addition, the Reuters Foundation Journalism Fellowship Programme, established at Oxford University for more than 20 years, has developed a reputation for attracting first-class journalists from across the world to engage in serious research. It has been one of the longest-standing international journalism institutions outside the US.

In truth the new institute will not be, or even aspire to be, a "guardian". But I believe that the unbiased, analytical light the institute will shed on the media's activities, good and bad, will prove to be an invaluable guide to all of us caught up in the daily rough and tumble of life in the modern media.

Geert Linnebank is Reuters editor-in-chief and chairman of Reuters Foundation