The Importance of Being Ethical

2 December 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

He’s been the managing editor of Shares magazine and trained journalists in Afghanistan. These days, Mike Dobbie is now the director of campaigns and publications for the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

Mike discusses with Glen Clancy how strong ethical values can give aspiring journalists a competitive edge and imparts inside knowledge on some of the more pertinent questions surrounding the Afghanistan war.

What is the one value a journalism student should strive to uphold?

I’ve always believed that ethics is crucial to good journalism. So much about journalism is about earning trust … Journalists have a privileged status and perform a vital role in a functioning democracy. With power comes responsibility.

Ethical journalism can also promote quality journalism … by seeking balance, accuracy, fairness, honesty and respect … Ethics shouldn’t be superseded by urgency, particularly as audiences are more questioning these days and have a multitude of sources to choose from … Increasingly, we are seeing examples of audiences who will not tolerate lapses in journalistic behavior — they’ll simply go to another, more valued and more reliable news source.

Do you believe journalism in Australia can preserve the role of the fourth estate with the current high concentration of media ownership?

The code of ethics is actually a very empowering document — it entitles journalists to refuse to act if they are being asked to do something unethical. But there are other measures that can also be undertaken such as a charter of editorial independence to ensure both editors and editorial staff are free from editorial interference from media owners … Efforts by journalists to ensure independence  —who in such instances are really acting on behalf of their audience —should be welcomed.

A 2007 Roy Morgan poll revealed a large majority of Australians think the media is “often biased”. Do you believe biased reporting is a problem in the Australian media?

Allegations of media bias are not limited to Australia and happen everywhere. The application of ethical journalism acknowledges that journalists are, like anyone, filled with their own perceptions and the MEAA code of ethics aims to ensure that journalists strive for honest interpretation and reporting without the suppression of relevant facts of the imposition of a distorting emphasis.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when training journalists in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is a war zone … There are also “terrorist” incidents in the cities. Because of security issues (and lack of resources) I have been unable to go outside Kabul during my visits to Afghanistan (and I have never been “embedded” with the military). There were terrorist attacks in Kabul on numerous occasions when I was there. One of the translators I knew who worked for a media training organisation was killed in a grenade attack in Kabul, outside the German Hospital in December 2002.

Are journalists in Afghanistan able to report on the activities of Australian soldiers? If so, what are the soldiers doing?

[Australian journalists] are “embedded” with Australian military units under conditions imposed by the Department of Defence — you see their reports from the Australian military bases from time to time. You cannot independently follow Australian military units in Afghanistan and I would presume Afghan journalists do not accompany Australian military units for the same reason.

The media often blurs the line between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Are they two distinct identities?

The Taliban is a separate entity. Its origins stem from the resistance to the Soviet invasion … As a generalisation, groups from the Pashtun-dominated south-east of Afghanistan (centred around Kandahar) and the tribal areas of Pakistan generally favoured a more fundamental religious doctrine. Other groups, including the Panjshiri-dominated Northern Alliance (and groups centred around Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif), did not adopt such a fundamentalist Islamic approach.

Al-Qaeda is generally recognised as a foreign non-Afghan organisation, originally organised around Osama Bin Laden (a Saudi exile) with a similar fundamentalist doctrine to the Taliban. The Taliban ruling group under Mullah Omar forged a relationship with al-Qaeda when the Taliban occupied most of southern and eastern Afghanistan until late 2001.

What do you think is the Obama administration’s endgame in Afghanistan and will more troops achieve this goal?

I don’t have sufficient knowledge or experience of the Obama Administration or its foreign policy … but personally speaking, Afghanistan is an incredibly complex situation … We have seen the presidential elections tainted by massive vote-rigging. The country is experimenting with democracy again for the first time since the mid-1970s — when Afghans have the courage to go out and vote many do so for the first time ever … Having seen the West abandon them in the 1980s (immediately after the Soviet invasion) and again in the 1990s (during the years of civil war) the Afghans I speak to hope that the West does not abandon them again.

Glen Clancy is a documentary-maker studying journalism at La Trobe University.

You can find out more about the MEAA at their website.