Ethics at Crisis Point

As I glanced up at Sky News and saw reports of a gunshot being heard in Westminster, I had my doubts.

Working in a newsroom, you quickly learn that not every story is accurate. Conflicting reports on Twitter (which is notorious for spreading falsehoods) solidified my hope that this wasn’t a terrorist attack.

I was wrong. As the minutes went by the news got worse and I started to receive messages from worried friends and family who knew our offices are near Westminster.

As the gravity of what has happened sinks in, our emotions will change. The shock and anger is already starting to give way to reflection and analysis. Security services and politicians aren’t the only ones who will now reassess their practices. Journalists should too.

Technology has had a profound effect on our industry. We used to carry a pen, notebook, dictaphone and camera. Now we often only need a smartphone.

But journalists aren’t the only people with smartphones. And when there’s bodies in the streets, editors don’t get to decide whether or not graphic images should be disseminated. Often the public gets there before us and makes the decision on our behalf as they upload their photos online. They’ve never sat through a lesson on media ethics in their life. If they had, they might have thought twice before pressing ‘send’ on their horrific photos.

The BBC may have strict guidelines on broadcasting violent images, but there’s no watershed principle on Twitter. There’s no editors, fact checkers or lawyers to check what’s being publishing by Joe (who) blogs.

But before media types get on their high-horses and rail against those immoral citizen journalist types, we need to look closer to home and admit that many of us media professionals crossed lines yesterday with some of the images we published and distributed.

Some of the mainstream and Christian media shared bloody, close up images of injured people being treated on the street. These photos, which clearly identified victims, were spread long before families could have been notified. They were picked up by Reuters, The Sun and others.


Were they right to do so? Were they allowing themselves to be dragged down to a lower ethical level? Or were they merely fulfilling their duty to accurately report the truth?

These are genuine questions and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I do believe that journalists should take time to think deeply about these issues. I remember sitting through hours of lectures about media ethics when studying for my journalism undergrad. Other, far better journalists than I have had the same conversations outside of the classroom and over newsdesks. It doesn’t matter where a journalist learns and thinks about this, it only matters that we do.

We’ve got to ask ourselves – do we care as much about ethics as we should? If we’re honest, we sometimes have other considerations in mind. We want to be first to the news. Or we want to generate masses of clicks. But we must not allow these (good) desires to supersede our moral responsibility.

The desire to be first tripped up Channel 4 News yesterday evening when they broadcast the supposed name of the attacker. They got it wrong. This isn’t just embarrassing for Channel 4, it’s embarrassing for anyone who works in news media. Twitter makes these sorts of mistakes all the time. But we expect better from the professionals, and rightly so.

There’s sometimes a tension between carrying the label ‘Christian’ alongside the label ‘journalist’. One of my pet peeves is Christian journalists who continually soft-ball their interviewees. If you work in news, part of your job is to ask hard, difficult and uncomfortable questions. The fact that as a Christian you care about truth should drive you to ask these questions. Christian or not, your job as a journalist isn’t to be liked. It’s to get to the truth.

But when it comes to broadcasting, sharing and publishing images, I wonder if the opposite error is being made. Are we downplaying our moral obligation – as Christians, as truth tellers and as human beings – to love and respect our neighbour?

It’s said that a picture tells a thousand words. It’s certainly true that images tell a story. But not every story that comes our way needs to be told.

Sam Hailes is deputy editor of Premier Christianity magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @samhailes

  • Not trying to gatecrash your post, but did a radio interview on this yesterday too:

  • Duncan Williams

    The first consideration of any real-time reporting of a terrorist incident such as this one, is ensuring that people are kept safe as possible. Reading Twitter feeds of last week, it was clear that many were able to immediately warn other people to stay clear and alert them of unfolding danger. Commendable and ethical use of social media by the public, uncensored and long may it remain so.