In the milieu of democratic governance, the media plays a pivotal role in providing an inclusive and critical platform for public dialogue, demanding accountability from duty bearers and instigating policy-making that benefits a greater number of people. These responsibilities must, however, be delivered in the context of a set of ethical principles and professional standards as indicated in the Global Charter of Ethics for Journalists.
Journalism and media practise is guided by a set of principles, standards, and values, across the various platforms. The objective has been to promote adherence to professional competence and responsible use of information. While there may exist hundreds of media/journalistic codes of conduct used internationally, key media ethical norms have always included decency, objectivity, accuracy, fairness, balance, respect for privacy, and protection of minors.
The 1992 Constitution guarantees free and independent practice of journalism, and an unrestrained media environment. The roles and freedoms assigned the media require them to adhere to high standards of ethics and professionalism in the delivery of their mandate.
In 1993, at the onset of the 4th Republic, the media landscape was dominated by state-owned media until it was liberalised in 1996. Today, the media landscape is dominated by privately-owned media organisations with over 550 radio stations and about 150 TV stations, according to the National Communication Authority. The country also has about 50 active newspapers, numerous news websites, and 48% of citizens who have access to the internet. This represents a marked improvement from what existed at the beginning of the 4th republic.
However, the growth in the media landscape has come with concerns of lowering professionalism and disregard for ethics. The falling standards in professionalism have resulted in waning public trust and confidence in the media and press freedom, with some section of the population calling for government control, according to findings of the 2019 Afrobarometer report.
This has prompted the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) to monitor the media in identifying and highlighting incidents of ethical infractions in the media and draw attention to such breaches as a way of fostering adherence to ethical principles.
In 2014, the MFWA monitored 40 media organisations comprising 25 radio stations, 10 newspapers, and 5 new websites. The monitoring observed that radio stations and news websites record most of the ethical violations with decency being the most abused ethical principle in the media landscape.
In 2020, a similar ethics monitoring exercise was commenced involving the daily monitoring of the content of 26 selected media organisations comprising 10 Akan language broadcasting radio stations, 10 newspapers, and six news websites. The monitoring which commenced in June 2020 with support from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Ghana also includes the publication of periodic reports capturing ethical violations and naming the media organisations that committed such infractions.
The content monitored included news, features, columns, opinions /letters to the Editor, editorials, headlines, and pictures/illustrations in the newspapers and news Websites. On radio, the project monitored news bulletins, talk shows and panel discussions, call-in segments/audience opinions, and documentaries.
From June – December 2020, a total of 13,391 programmes were monitored. Out of the 13,391 programmes, 1,762 ethical violations were recorded. The monitoring reports over the period show the top five most violated ethical principles in the Ghanaian media as:
The principle of Decency enjoins the media to publish or broadcast language, expressions, or pictures that are free from obscenities, expletives, and vulgarity. One would have thought that given the critical role the media plays in engendering popular participation and the impact it has on the country’s democracy, peace, and stability, the principle of decency would be the most valued.
On the contrary, Decency is the most abused ethical principle in the media. Out of the 1,762 violations recorded for the period, 883, which is more than 50% of the violations, were infractions related to the use of indecent language, expressions, or pictures in the media.
The frequency of the violation of Decency was highest on radio, which is also the most dominant source of information. Nearly 90% of the incidence of indecency recorded during the period of monitoring were cited on radio stations. This was followed by news websites and newspapers.
This is particularly worrying because the indecent use of language in the media has contributed to several political crises and destabilisation of democracies in Africa including the Kenyan 2017 crisis and the Rwandan genocide.
In journalism, news is often differentiated from information on the grounds that the former is verified and confirmed to be true or accurate. Verification is one of the most hailed virtues of journalism, without which the practice loses its significance.
However, publication of factual inaccuracies, unverified claims, and unsubstantiated allegations is becoming a bane in the media. Accuracy is the second most abused principle of the media. Out of the 1,762 violations recorded in the period of monitoring, 407 (23%) were infractions of the principle of Accuracy.
Over 90% of the inaccurate publications were mostly recorded on radio stations, mainly on talk shows and panel discussions that aired at prime time. What’s far more worrying is that on radio, a good count of the violations of the Accuracy principle was also recorded on news bulletins, where news stories are assumed to have been carefully selected and verified for facts and accuracy.
The violation of the Accuracy principle was more pronounced on partisan or politically aligned radio stations. Show hosts and news anchors on these partisan radio stations showed little or less interest in subjecting their guests or interviewees to strict proof of claims made. In fact, in some cases, the show hosts were the perpetrators of false claims and unverified information.
- Offending Good Taste and Public Sensibilities
Journalism is not practised in a vacuum but in the context of society. In Ghana, journalism must be practised taking into consideration the cultural and moral sensibilities of the society.
The principle of Good Taste and Public Sensibilities enjoins the media to publish content that does not provoke public displeasure, elicit public disgust, or the feeling of outrage.
Nonetheless, over the period of the monitoring, 246 (14%) incidents offending the principle of Good Taste and Public Sensibilities were recorded, the third most abused principle. Six out of 10 of these violations were recorded on news websites.
Specifically, the comment sections of some news websites have been left unregulated by editors and have become an avenue for online news audience to continue to posting disgusting comments, lies, and as well as maligning the subjects of news. These offensive comments once posted by the audience are immediately published on the news websites.
- Prejudice and Stereotyping
The ninth article of the Global Charter of the Ethics for Journalists states:
“Journalists shall ensure that the dissemination of information or opinion does not contribute to hatred or prejudice and shall do their utmost to avoid facilitating the spread of discrimination on grounds such as geographical, social or ethnic origin, race, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, disability, political and other opinions.”
On the contrary, prejudicing and stereotyping remain one of the main ethical sins of Ghanaian media, the fourth most violated. A total of 95 incidents of prejudice and stereotyping were recorded within the period of monitoring. These stereotypes and prejudices bordered on gender, ethnicity, social and political discriminations.
News websites (65%) and radio (35%) accounted for the incidence of prejudicing and stereotyping, recorded mostly on talk shows for radio and comments sections on the websites.
- Mixing Facts with Opinion
An infraction recorded mainly on radio stations, mixing facts and opinions is noted to be among the top ethical violations of the Ghanaian media. During the period of monitoring, 48 of such incidents were recorded.
The ethical violation of mixing facts and opinion was mostly recorded on news bulletins and talk shows where news anchors and show hosts were noted to be spinning facts and adding subjective commentaries while presenting news stories.
The monitoring also observed the penchant of news anchors to intersperse the material facts of news stories with unnecessary jokes and embellishments, sometimes leading to the dousing of the severity of new stories.
In an era where the spread of misinformation and disinformation (Fake News) is denting the credibility of the news industry and threatening its sustainability, professional and ethical journalism is a vital piece in the armoury of defending facts and truth. Media ethics must therefore be upheld always.
In view of the waning ethical and professional and professional standards of the media, the following are recommended for show hosts, presenters, editors, and media owners.
a) Hosts/Presenters and Editors
- Editors of the various media organisations are encouraged to develop practical editorial policies and standards where it is absent or ensure strict adherence to them where such policies exist.
- Editors must institute zero-tolerance to certain unethical statements, particularly prejudicial and stereotypical comments that border on ethnicity as such comments can inflame tensions and incite people to violence.
- Editors of news websites are also encouraged to review readers’ comments that are shared on their web pages before they are published.
- Editors of radio news bulletins and talk shows are also encouraged to ensure as much as possible thorough screening of the comments that their audience share with them through social media before they are aired.
- It is also advised that presenters of news bulletins and hosts of the political talk shows hold their guests and panelists to the highest standards of professionalism in their commentaries while they also abide by same.
b) Media Owners
- Media owners may have their own political affiliations and leanings. They are however encouraged to subject their organisations to the general ethical principles and guidelines that bind the media.
- Owners must also ensure that they build the capacities of their journalists and presenters on the best practices in media professionalism and ethics. Associations
- Concerted efforts are needed from media associations such as Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) and Ghana Independent Broadcasters Associations (GIBA) to ensure that their members abide by the ethical principles that are supposed to guide their work. In cases where disciplinary and punitive measures must be instituted, these bodies must ensure that it is exercised to serve as a deterrent to other members.
c) Regulatory Body
• The efforts of the National Media Commission (NMC), the constitutionally mandated body that regulates the content of the media in Ghana, is also much needed to quell the disregard for ethical principles by the media. The NMC must continuously monitor and invite media owners, hosts, and journalists to dialogue and build consensus on upholding professional standards.