Comparative ethics

Something’s happening as a consequence of Wednesday’s missive from La Vanguardia’s ombudsman, Josep Maria Casasús re my original Rafael Ramos post, but I’m not sure exactly what: either they really are going after him, or they’re going to try to discredit me; given that they don’t seem to have done anything in three months, I suspect the latter.

For now, here’s something that I’m sure you will find fascinating: a translation of the local journalists’ code of professional ethics (less amplificatory appendices), which Mr Casasús tells me is used by La Vanguardia as its house code:

  1. Observe at all times a clear distinction between fact and opinion or interpretation, avoiding all deliberate distortion or confusion of both as well as the diffusion of conjecture and rumour as fact.
  2. Disseminate only well grounded information, avoiding in any case claims or pieces of information that are imprecise and without sufficient foundation that can injure or diminish people’s dignity and cause unjustifiable disrepute or damage to institutions and public and private organisations, as well as the use of insulting expressions or descriptions.
  3. Rectify, with diligence and with treatment adequate to the circumstances, information – and the opinions derived from it – that has been demonstrated to be false and that, as such, is detrimental to the legitimate interests or rights of the people and/or bodies affected, without evading, where necessary, apologising, independently of what the laws provide in this respect.
  4. Use honourable methods to obtain information or images, without resorting to illicit means.
  5. Respect off the record [information] when this [principle has] been specifically invoked, in accordance with the usual usage of this norm in a free society.
  6. Recognise the right of [physical] and/or legal persons not to provide information or to respond to questions, without prejudice to the duty of journalists to fulfill the right of citizens to information. This right protects in particular strict confidentiality regarding a person’s sickness or health as the core of his/her privacy, notwithstanding the curiosity that may exist (even after death) in the case of public figures. With respect to matters related to public administration, the fundamental right to information must always prevail over any restriction that unjustifiably harms the principle of the transparency of information which [government] is obliged to uphold.
  7. Never accept payments or rewards from third parties for promoting, explaining, influencing or having published information or opinions. In any case, you should not exercise journalism simultaneously with other professional activities that are incompatible with journalistic ethics, such as advertising, public relations and image consultancy, either within the ambit of public institutions or bodies or in private organizations.
  8. Never use for your own benefit privileged information obtained confidentially as a journalist in the exercise of your news-related function.
  9. Respect the right of people to their privacy and image, particularly in situations of vulnerability and illness and cases or events that generate situations of sorrow or pain, avoiding gratuitous interference and unnecessary speculation concerning their feelings and circumstances, particularly when requested to do so by those affected.
  10. Observe scrupulously the principle of the presumption of innocence in news and opinions relating to court cases or trials in progress.
  11. Treat with special attention all information that affects minors, avoiding disseminating their identity when they appear as victims (except where homicide is presumed), witnesses or defendants in criminal cases, above all in areas of particular social significance, as is the case with sexual offences. Also avoid identifying against their will those close to, or innocent relatives of, defendants or convicted persons during trials.
  12. Act with special responsibility and rigour in the case of information or opinions with contents that can provoke discrimination on the basic of sex, race, beliefs, social and cultural extraction and illness, as well as incitement to violence, avoiding expressions or witnesses degrading or harmful to the personal condition of the individuals and their physical and moral integrity.

What interests me most about this – apart from its obvious applicability to the case of the hapless Mr Ramos – is the gulf that separates it and related documents here in Spain from what has become the norm in the US and the UK. Here there is a much less developed notion of the public interest and mechanisms for its defence are in a much more primitive state. For example, I have yet to come across an Anglo code that does not specify strict parameters with regard to rectification. Here there is not even mention of the notion that speed is of the essence in correcting errors. Some illustrations:

  • Journalists. You may find it instructive to compare the above (or that of its nation-wide equivalent, the Federation of Spanish Press Associations (FAPE)) with the codes used by the British National Union of Journalists and the US Society of Professional Journalists. (What none of them mention is a requirement – relevant to the Ramos case – that journalists be able to communicate effectively in their chosen language. Given that news organisations are tending towards trust-based journalism (ie pieces are assumed to be OK until a complaint comes in) in multilingual environments, this seems like an important omission.)
  • Trade associations. The statutes (PDF) of the Association of Editors of Spanish Dailies (AEDE) are even more startling. The AEDE, of which La Vanguardia’s owner, the Godó Group, is a member, seems to spend much of its time formulating Byzantine formulae concerning pay and conditions (and getting drunk on the job) while ignoring completely the notion that a news industry that wants to maintain its good name and market position in the face of increasing competition must serve and be accountable to its readership. Contrast the closest I’ve found to a British equivalent, where all notion of pre-Thatcherite collective bargaining has disappeared, to be replaced by code that mirrors the NUJ’s.
  • Individual titles. Partly as a consequence of living in significantly more litigious cultures, British and American papers have tended to develop their own individual codes in addition to industry-wide ones. The Guardian’s was the best I found on that strange island, but my extremely brief trawl didn’t reveal any Spanish examples.

Of course, as Jeffrey L Seglin points out, it’s not enough just to have a code of ethics: the British Press Complaints Commission, for example, has often proved a toothless lion. However, Spain seems to be where the UK was in the 70s in terms of press accountability.

A related issue that you’re going to bump into with increasing frequency is the regulation of beasts from the heath like bloggers. I think that you’ll see more voluntary adherence to codes like the SPJ’s and the NUJ’s, along with peer pressure on offenders. Given that Googling Rafael Ramos regularly brings up my site before La Vanguardia’s, I’d also like to think that the web will provide a means of persuading the more atavistic members of the Spanish industry to change their ways.

I’m translating to and from Catalan in order to learn it, and I’m also trying to cram this nonsense in between economically productive activities; suggestions, corrections (and donations) are most welcome and will be duly credited. If you’ve got any money left, buy The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel:

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