“Whether you are considered a journalist or not does not depend on your education or your workplace – it is about the activity you do”, explains Vibeke Borberg. The Danish lawyer specialised in information law, media law and press ethics and provided insights into media ethics for participants of the workshop “Ethics in pixels and ink: Ethical considerations in Journalism and Media” hosted by the Journalism Team of UNYA Aalborg. The “journalistic” activity – that is publishing content of public interest. “Whoever is doing that, can be considered a journalist”.

Why is it important to have ethical considerations before publishing any content with cultural, societal or political implications? Does it make a difference if published in traditional mass media or social media? What is the legal framework?

The participants who gathered on a Saturday at the International House in Aalborg were interested in such questions as they are part of the UNYA Journalism or Social Media Team themselves, use their private media to raise awareness or are generally interested in ethical and political questions in the context of media.

Thomas Pallesen, journalist and professor at the Danish School of Media and Journalism further gave insights into the history of press ethics and freedom of speech to fully understand why they matter and are important, especially after the cruelties of the 20th century #neveragain. Those events are the reason why freedom of speech in the context of media being “public watchdogs” are protected but also why they have to follow certain (ethical) principles. 

Doing the right thing – ethical standards in media

“Thou shall do no harm” – that is the basic principle of publishing any content, summarizes Pallesen. Respecting privacy and protecting sources, reporting factually, providing context and aiming for balanced information – these are a few of the ethical standards applying to anyone who is publishing journalistic content. Thus, while sharing is not always caring, it is important to critically reflect on any content before pressing the “share” button. Or as Thomas Pallesen put it: “Sharing is easier than repairing!”

While ethical guidelines and privileges traditionally apply only to journalists, ethics in media extend beyond traditional journalism to encompass social media and digital platforms. With the widespread use of social media as a news source, ethical considerations become even more critical. Responsible social media use involves verifying information before sharing, distinguishing between fact and opinion, and being mindful of the potential impact of content – e.g., pictures of war and conflict – on audiences.

After the input, with hot coffee in their mugs and cookies or fruits in their hands, participants gathered and discussed the new insights gained. While there are legal frameworks such as rulings or laws of the European Court for Human Rights, the matter of ethical standards is quite blurry: “Everything is just such a fine line and needs to be assessed in the specific case and context”, comments on newcomer journalist from Aalborg.

Managing the fine line

In the second part of the day, after hearing from experts, it was on the participants to speak up, share their opinions and apply the learned ethical guidelines.

Asked to agree or disagree with statements such as “I have faced an ethical dilemma regarding whether I should post something or not before”, it became clear that while many participants may not consider themselves journalists (yet), they are aware of the magnitude of ethical decision making and the responsibilities behind publishing content.

After reflecting on such questions, the room became silent. The participants walked through a “gallery” of examples of social media content and articles and were asked to assess whether those align with ethical standards or not – easier said than done! “It is so hard to put my personal belief system behind and focus on those general ethical standards”, says one participant. “Context matters so much, it is very hard to just see a post and evaluate it without knowing the whole story behind the picture and who took it”, comments another.

Throughout that activity it becomes clear: There are certain guidelines – doing no harm, providing facts and context, protecting victims – but it is a very individual assessment and differs a lot from case to case and context to context.

“Whether you are considered a journalist or not does not depend on your education or your workplace – it is about the activity you do” – remembering Vibeke Borberg once again, at the end of the workshop everyone was asked to step into the shoes of journalists and produce content.

While some decided to choose social media as their mean of communication, others gathered to work on an article and put into practice what was learned and debated.

While everyone realised how nuanced the issue of media ethics is, some answers were found on a Saturday in Aalborg: Do the right thing! But how? By remembering the ethical standards that guide us in media – and life -, whether sharing on social media or publishing in traditional outlets!