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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Media Ethics Begin With the Customer

Many journalists were shocked by Pavel Gusev's recent pronouncement at a public symposium. Gusev, the editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets, is reported to have said it was time for journalists to make a choice.

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"Together we need to decide if we can adopt a charter similar to the Hippocratic oath in the medical profession and begin teaching it in universities. It would include points such as: 'I promise not to lie, not take money to print lies, and not to be a mouthpiece for political interest groups.'"

The thing is that Moskovsky Komsomolets regularly commits the very sins which its editor would eradicate. It's hard to fathom Gusev as the leader of a movement to put a new face on Russian journalism.

Several factors currently hinder journalists from adopting a code of ethics that would allow them better to serve their audience.

The first factor is government censorship, primarily on television, as well as censorship practiced by corporations and business owners.

Then there is self-censorship in the mainstream media, which stems from the fear of falling out of favor with higher-ups or government officials. Take the recent TEFI television industry awards show aired on CTC television. Even though the chief news anchor for the RTVi satellite television network was given an award, mention of the network's owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, and top executive Igor Malashenko were edited out of the broadcast because of their long-running conflict with the Kremlin.

The third factor is the widespread practice of publishing paid advertisements for commercial or political clients which masquerade as legitimate journalism.

And finally, there is the complete neglect of basic journalistic ethics, such as not referring to suspects as criminals until they have been convicted and not publishing the names of juvenile victims of sexual assault.

All sides are guilty in this situation. Government leaders know just two types of media: those that are controlled, as in the Soviet era, and those that are happy to sell out, as in the Boris Yeltsin years. Now the authorities are coming up with a monstrous hybrid -- media that are both controllable and for sale.

Businesses are accustomed to thinking that "constructive" relations with the press involve exchanging a stack of cash for positive coverage of themselves or negative coverage of their competitors. The fact that reporters, editors and managers rarely consult the many codes of conduct adopted by organizations such as the Russian Union of Journalists or the National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters, can only be logically explained by a total indifference to ethics within media companies.

You can argue until the end of time about who corrupted whom in this situation: the press, or those holding the purse strings -- that is, the state, owners, investors and advertisers. Speaking more constructively, under Yeltsin it was inevitable that journalists, with only a rudimentary understanding of the market, would fight for every little slice of a limited economic pie. Today, however, a window of opportunity has opened for the mass media to adhere to professional norms of integrity, given the steadily growing economy, an expansive advertising market and political conditions that are at least stable.

But the key to creating a professional and responsible media is in the hands of its customers. That they don't yet see any benefit in this is another matter. If they figure this out, all the talk about codes of ethics and charters will acquire real meaning.

Alexei Pankin is a freelance journalist in Moscow.