A reflection on the balance between media freedom and an individual’s rights

Journalism aims to work as an independent and unbiased watchdog in society. Its role as the Fourth Estate is to facilitate and protect the public sphere, enable diversity and equality of opinion, and provide transparency of authority. But what about an individual’s right to privacy, a good reputation, a fair trial and the presumption of innocence before proven guilty? This balance between the fourth estate role and respect for a person’s rights is a constant dilemma for journalists.

One way journalists can self-regulate their work is through the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s (MEAA) Code of Ethics. The MEAA’s guidelines set a basis for journalists as to what constitutes fair, accurate and balanced reportage. But as the MEAA states in its Guidance Clause, these values “often need interpretation” and can at times “come into conflict”. Ultimately there are no sanctions for breaching ethical guidelines but there could certainly be legal ramifications. The line between the two is also not always black and white.

For example, this semester’s tutorial exercise on Senator Havelock Vetinari required consideration of all ethical and legal outcomes. Ethically, we had to try and ‘do no harm’ to those involved in the situation: in this scenario, namely his two teenage daughters and his sick wife. Reporting Senator Vetinari’s actions in the brothel could affect their lives and reputations, even though they are completely innocent and devoid of any blame in this situation. As a result, it was not fair to report on the brothel situation at all.

Legally, it also wouldn’t be sound to mention his night at the brothel for risk of defamation. According to the Australian Press Council (2007), defamation is when someone says or writes “something that damages or ruins another’s reputation”, or when a person is exposed to “hatred, contempt or ridicule” as a result of what someone has said or written. If we were to report Senator Vetinari’s drunk appearance while leaving the brothel, we could be implying the Senator is disloyal to his family or possibly that he is a drunk. As the journalist could not prove their story is accurate or fair, the Senator could sue for defaming his reputation.

There is also the possibility of a sub judice contempt of court case. Stephen Lamble in News as it happens: An Introduction to Journalism describes sub judice contempt as when someone “publishes anything that would interfere with the process of justice” or “anything that might be construed to indicate a charged person was innocent or guilty”. Senator Vetinari was pulled over by police after “swerving all over the road” and was arrested for drink driving offences. He was expected in court the following week so the media has to respect Senator Vetinari’s right to be viewed as innocent unless proven guilty. It would be contemptuous to report his identity, or any previous convictions, unless he either pleads guilty or if he is proven guilty in a court of law.

These considerations seem reasonable and easy enough but there have been cases where media organisations have not strived to achieve this balance. Lindy Chamberlain’s ‘trial by media’ in the 1980s and 1990s is a perfect example of this. Like with the Senator Vetinari example, it is every individual’s right to be presumed innocent before proven guilty. But when a dingo went off with Chamberlain’s nine-week old daughter Azaria in 1980, the media already pinned Lindy as her daughter’s murderer. They saw to demoralise her and as Julianne Schultz said in her book, Reviving the Fourth Estate: Democracy, Accountability and the Media, “the court of public opinion played an extrajudicial role”.

One example of an ethical mistake is the way the media highlighted the Chamberlain’s religion. The MEAA explicitly states “do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including… religious beliefs”. Although it was irrelevant to the case, the media continued to identify the Chamberlains as members of the Seventh Day Adventists Church. This religion was quite obscure during the ‘80s and the media played on the public’s lack of understanding of the religion. They implied it was a cult with sacrificial rituals involving children, even though this has no basis in truth.

Another aspect the media was critical of was Lindy Chamberlain’s lack of evident grief. Chamberlain didn’t cry in front of the camera but, instead of respecting the way she grieved, the media suggested it was because she didn’t care. The media also portrayed Chamberlain as being too ‘sexy’ and ‘cold’ in her appearance, constantly emphasising the way she was dressed and her bare shoulders. They showed her as being more interested in looking good rather than grieving over the traumatic death of her child.

While Lindy Chamberlain was found guilty of the murder of her daughter in 1982, she only served three years of her life-sentence before further evidence absolved the Chamberlains of any part in Azaria’s death. In 2012 a Coroner gave them vindication, stating on Azaria’s death certificate a dingo attack was the cause. While the correct result was ultimately achieved, this case demonstrates what can happen if journalists do not achieve a balance between their freedom of speech and an individual’s rights to a fair trial.

In the growing digital age of journalism, this balance could become even more difficult to achieve. Information is being communicated so much quicker now to the public through social media, in particular twitter. Journalists will have to evaluate what they’re reporting and the potential ramifications of their work in a shorter amount of time. Due to character restriction on sites such as Twitter, journalists will also have to be wary of the words they use as certain words might hold connotations that could appear to be defamatory or contemptuous.

Ultimately though, journalism’s role is the critical fourth estate. The possible repercussions should not deter journalists’ constant perusal for truth in the public sphere. It is just a matter of being considerate and reflective in all reportage.

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