Ethics is a serious business; even in the media. To undermine its seriousness by using a pun headline to draw people in would surely be unethical, wouldn’t it?
Since a discussion about the ethics of a column about ethics would possibly take navel-gazing to a whole other level, that particular question can be left for Aristotle, as he turns desperately in his grave.
In fact, though, the name of this column does have significance. For important and difficult as ethical conundrums may be, they do have a habit of being covered in a bubble-wrap of pomposity and po-facedness that distorts the debate: often, paradoxically, by over-simplifying the issues. That is not the intention of this weekly slot.
Nor, I hope, will excessive self-flagellation be evident here. Contrition, where appropriate, and maybe the occasional bit of soul-searching. But full-on, self-administered beatings serve no real purpose given that mistakes tend to arise, at worst, from the inherent difficulty in unravelling multiple shades of grey.
They are, nevertheless, an ever-present feature of all newsrooms. A story can be made or lost on the basis of a call about the moral rights and wrongs of publication. More commonly, precise content will be shaped by decisions about what details are appropriate to include. The nature of the beast means that judgements are made in compressed time-frames. And once a page has gone to press, there is little that can be done to stop it reaching the streets, which is why the print media still carries a unique level of responsibility.
As the person who deals with readers’ complaints for The Independent and its sister titles, I am keenly aware of the kind of issues that raise objections. Responses to some of the points that arise from reader feedback will make their way into this column.
There will also be room here for reflections on some of the wider ethical issues that perennially cause debate across the media industry. And since my nerdish interest in this subject stems from having previously worked for a decade at the Press Complaints Commission, you can expect some pretty exciting regulation chat.
Ethics do not exist in a vacuum. As social mores change, so does an understanding of what an ethical approach actually constitutes. But equally, if the principal concern of such an approach is human well-being, it is important that the media does not become entangled in the so-called “race to the bottom”. Stopping occasionally to consider what that means in practice is a part of the process.
Too much information?
The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose was reported and commented on in considerable detail. Any death has the potential to be of interest. The premature demise of a Hollywood actor in circumstances that tap into all sorts of stereotypes about the rock’n’roll lifestyle of the famous is particularly noteworthy.
Few, I suspect, would be overly concerned at the revelation that a heroin overdose was the most likely cause of death. But some might have wondered about the need to note that Hoffman had apparently been found with a hypodermic needle still in his arm. Was it really necessary to include this detail?
Well no, not strictly, but every news story contains information that could be regarded as extraneous. That does not mean that its inclusion is wrong. Indeed, in this case, the point was important: not only because it corroborated the suggestion of a drugs overdose, but also because it emphasised the sad and lonely nature of the tragedy.
Will Gore is deputy managing editor of The Independent.
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