Defining Freedom of the Press: A Cross national examination of press ethics and regulation in ten European countries

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Journalism Studies


Inquiries into the ethics of the UK press, prompted by a series of scandals associated with newspapers, have hitherto been far too parochial: too focussed on the UK itself, they have missed opportunities to learn from parallel developments and concerns overseas. This project, in contrast will develop knowledge and understanding of how press councils in comparable jurisdictions from around Europe approach the difficult questions in media ethics of balancing freedom and responsibility. Significantly, it will also examine news work itself and explore the extent to which ethical codes impact on the daily working practices of journalists, news workers and those directly affected by the activities of the press. The isolationism that has characterised the debates about press ethics has hitherto hindered the possibility of benchmarking and learning from other societies in which problems of ethics and regulation have been addressed by legislators, journalists and the general public. By examining the top European nations in the World Press Freedom rankings, this project will develop a set of evidence based recommendations to the UK regulator (IMPRESS) that can be used to provide a benchmark for the UK press code of ethics. This project will directly help IMPRESS and other organisations review and update future iterations of their codes and related guidance. It will help establish norms of journalism ethics in these areas. Moreover, by examining how the press councils in these countries intersect with the law (e.g., do they have statutory status or recognition; are their judgments recognised by the courts; how do their codes overlap with the law?), we will gain a much richer understanding of how press regulation operates in practice, rather than in theory. This would then offer the possibility of learning from best practice as to what can work and what can be viable in addressing issues around press self-regulation. By holding them accountable to more comprehensive standards, this research will allow regulators to support publishers in achieving a new status and profile, which will allow them to both pursue the classical liberal rationale for journalism as 'watchdog' or 'fourth estate' - and challenge the hegemony of the corporate press. This could have far-reaching social impact given the technological and societal changes that that the news landscape faces not only in producing viable and sustainable codes of conduct but also helping to strengthen this new sector of the news media and protect groups that have hitherto been subject to press abuses.

Planned Impact

There are a number of beneficiaries of the research and impact will be generated at various levels:

Individual journalists (citizen and traditional), regulators and the UK journalism industry: the key findings of the research will be disseminated amongst industry players including the Press Association and the Guardian newspaper.
How might they benefit? Journalists will have cause to reflect on the broader scope of press ethics and regulation given the international environment and range of new challenges and opportunities within the new media ecology. Activities aiding change: Stakeholder workshops; capacity building workshops; project website; final written report.

Regulatory bodies and organisations who have developed their own ethical codes of practice, including IMPRESS, IPSO and the National Union of Journalists
How might they benefit? Regulators and organisations with their own set of ethical guidelines will be able to adapt and refine their ethical codes of practice which will be underpinned by substantive research. Activities aiding change: Stakeholder workshops; capacity building workshops; project website; written report, end of project conference.

Organisations (participants and stakeholders) such as the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom; Index on Censorship; Article19; the Ethical Journalism Network; Association of Journalism Education; Society of Editors. Outside the UK the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and individual press regulators across Europe. How might they benefit? A wider appreciation and understanding of the principle and practice of freedom of the press will be garnered from interviews and stakeholder workshops. This will then be incorporated into their own specific programmes and press ethics principles. Activities aiding change: Stakeholder workshops; capacity building workshops; project website; MOOC, written report, end of project conference and published research.

Minority groups and organisations who have regularly been subject to significant discrimination and abuse by sections of the press. Organisations such as Faith Matters, Tell Mama, TransMediaWatch and the Travellers movement. The formulation of the clear parameters of press ethics may stifle negative representations of discriminated against groups and enable and empower such groups to clearly identify and challenge such breaches of press ethics. Activities aiding change: Project website and dissemination activities including capacity building workshops, written report, end of project conference, MOOC and exhibition.

General Public. How might they benefit? Our project envisages that a clearer understanding of the parameters of freedom of the press and press ethics will empower and enable citizens to better understand and utilize press freedom for social benefit. Activities aiding change: Project website, Public exhibition, MOOC.


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Description This initial stage of the project has established the core data-sets. This initial engagement with the core data-sets will play a pivotal role in the development of the interview phase of the project which is currently in the planning phase.
Key findings here include evidence of a vague and malleable notion of the concept of 'public interest' within most of the countries' codes and an ill-defined or implied set of broad obligations to serving democracy. The virtues of self-regulation feature strongly in the codes and a number of the codes are specifically geared towards systems of self-regulation. Furthermore, our initial examination of the codes has signalled a significant positioning of the 'journalist' and 'journalistic practices' as a marker of professional authority over the domain of news-work. Moreover, 'journalism ethics' as present in these codes, seems to indicate a broad orientation to 'ethical conduct' rather than a prescriptive set of rules externally imposed. These initial findings tally with earlier research, however, one of this project's key contributions is the interdisciplinary engagement to questions of ethical behaviour of journalists, journalistic identity and practice and, more broadly, the scope of journalism ethics beyond traditional news-work.
In addition to the above the project has produced the following:

Working project database of key literatures relating to the project and connected to journalism codes of ethics in the UK, Europe and overseas

Convened an external advisory board of experts in the field of press ethics and regulation

Published the first working paper outlining the purpose, scope and approach of the project

Developed a project website detailing main aims of the project and providing information on the project team, advisory board and outputs

Developed the primary data-set of the European codes of press ethics

Undertaken an initial corpus-aided examination of the data-set to explore prominent textual patterns and a critical, qualitative analysis of the data-set in order to assess useful avenues for further analysis

Undertaken an initial thematic analysis of the primary data-set to gauge the philosophical parameters and ethical dimensions of the press ethics codes

Identified key stakeholders and participants for the second stage of the research project which involves interviews with 35 participants overseas

Introduced the project to the academic community via conferences presentations at the Political Studies Association Media and Politics Specialist Group Conference at the University of Nottingham, an International Symposium on Media Freedom, University of Lund, Sweden and a Journalism Studies Seminar at the University of Karlstad, Sweden.

Defined and developed a key methodological approach to undertaking interviews which draws on the interdisciplinary strengths of the research team and reflects their disciplinary priorities
The project has also opened up an area of research that looks at the importance of online news forms, which we will explore by interviewing participants from key digital entrants in Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland. These news forms, in particular, introduce interesting considerations and challenges in the realm of press ethics and regulation, because they are sometimes located outside of the remit of "traditional" news forms.
Exploitation Route This project has the potential to impact five overlapping groups, all of whom are either working within the journalism industry or are affected by it. The first group are individual journalists, traditional or citizen journalists who will benefit from a clear and definitive set of ethical parameters provided by the research, upon which to conduct their journalistic practice.
The second group to benefit will be the various regulatory and ethical bodies, mainly within the UK, who will receive specific recommendations based upon substantive research findings.
The third group of stakeholders and participants include those organisations which campaign for greater media accountability and who have journalism ethics as their primary defining characteristic.
The fourth group include third-sector organisations representing minority organisations who might have historically felt unfairly treated by sections of the press. These organisations will provide a gateway to wide ranging sets of beneficiaries which will gain a better appreciation and understanding of press freedom and the journalism ethics that best ensure a free and ethical press for all.
Finally, the research will impact on the wider public as the debate about quality journalism and a journalism that better serves all members of the public has long been required.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice