Ed's letter: The ethics of journalism
Journalists give themselves a bad name, sometimes that is. We are always viewed with suspicion when interviewing someone, and building that trust and transparency takes time and effort.
The problem for journalists is the thrill of a scoop, yet landing that scoop is not an excuse for bad and irresponsible journalism.
In the past 12 months, WikiLeaks and News of the World's impact on journalism has made me ponder about the profession.
The New York Times has a company policy (of 139 sections) on the ethics of journalism. The guiding principle behind it, is to produce content of the highest quality and integrity, which is the basis for its reputation and the means to fulfill public trust.
"The reputation of our company rests upon that perception, and so do the professional reputations of its staff members. Thus, the company, its separate business units and members of its newsrooms and editorial pages, share an interest in avoiding conflicts of interest or any appearance of conflict," the website states.
Bill Keller, the editor of The New York Times, sums it up well: "Long before WikiLeaks was born, the internet transformed the landscape of journalism, creating a wide-open and global market with easier access to audiences and sources, a quicker metabolism, a new infrastructure for sharing and vetting information and a diminished respect for notions of privacy and secrecy."
In my black book of journalism (and sometimes I think I am a tad too kind), sourcing is one of the pillars of ethical journalism. Journalists must check with a primary source and secondary source when verifying rumours and write down the times they spoke to the sources, who the sources were and the phone numbers they reached them at. These notes must be kept for three years.
Checking figures for accuracy is pivotal, even more so if you are a business reporter.
And last, but not least, checking quotes of the interviewee is also important to make sure what was said wasn't taken out of context.
In the words of Lionel Barber, editor of The Financial Times: "Journalism now needs to fulfil with renewed vigour an old task: that of aggregating and verifying sources. It must put the imprimatur of a trusted news organisation on those sources, assess them for reliability, quality and context, and then pass them on to the readers."
In his mind, none of the above can substitute for deep and original reporting - the very core of quality journalism - but it should serve as one of the ordering principles for journalism in the internet age.
"However, and it is a big however, the task of aggregating and verifying multiple sources and data depends fundamentally on trust. Trust that the facts are accurate. Trust that appropriate weight has been given to context. And trust in the journalistic profession is a scarce commodity," Barber said, when he gave a speech on "The business of journalism: a view from the frontline" earlier this year.
Ethics is a branch of philosophy that examines the question of what is right and wrong. Atticus Finch, the fictional character in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, is a difficult act to follow, but isn't it worth using him as a role model?
Deepa Balji Jegarajah