Skip to content

Should Journalism be Amoral?

George Orwell was not a peace journalist; he was a proper journalist!


Jean Seaton, professor of media history at the university of Westminster and official historian for the BBC, hurled the comment from her seat in the audience onto the stage, interrupting the current speaker, Richard Keeble, professor at the University of Lincoln’s school of journalism. Keeble’s passing claim on George Orwell in last Saturday’s OxPeace conference on “Media in Conflict and Peace building” (recordings of the talks will shortly be available on OUCS iTunes) visibly (and audibly) upset Seaton, who was present also as a speaker.

Why did Seaton treat the title of “peace journalist” as an insult?

In the brief Q & A that followed, Seaton explained that Orwell was a proper journalist because he constantly tried to undermine his own assumptions when investigating a story, to be as objective as possible, to pursue and depict the truth, no matter what that truth; what he was not doing was journalism pre-devoted to a particular ideology like peace. To Seaton, this was the role of proper journalism, to report objectively for (as she articulated in her talk earlier that day) journalism should be an “amoral” process.

By “amoral,” I do not think that Seaton meant that journalism should have no moral code – indeed as another panelists responded later in the conference, she clearly supported a morality in which journalism should care about the objective truth – but that moral considerations should not apply to the practice of journalism. Journalism viewed as a tool for promoting peace (a preconceived moral goal), therefore, would be improper journalism. If the objective truth happens to promote peace building, great, but if it promotes further violence, so be it as long it is the objective truth.

This debate about what journalism should and should not be – a moral debate – ran beneath the conference like the plumbing beneath New York: not given enough attention but vitally important. So perhaps we can continue the discussion here: Can journalism be amoral?

The ideal of the impartial, objective journalist in search of the Truth with a capital T, particularly an analogy of journalism as a “clear lens” surfaced and resurfaced. The emerging research in linguistics, psychology and neuroscience on the impact of framing, priming, and unconscious bias on how we perceive the world and how we communicate seriously calls into question whether a “clear lens” can ever be attained. But for the sake of argument, let us grant that this same research could allow journalists to notice and account for these effects to act as lenses without distortion; then can journalism be amoral?

Any photographer will tell you that even with a clear lens what is important is where you point that lens. Time, attention, and money are limited resources, and decisions on how to expend those resources are often moral ones. In medical ethics, this is well known: which procedures to fund in socialized healthcare programs like the NHS. In journalism too, not all stories, for practical reasons, can be covered. Which to cover and how many resources to spend on them (source verifying, plane tickets, journal space etc) are moral decisions from which the profession cannot and should not escape. Examples of stories that should be told but are not told are numerous. Arijit Sen of the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford drew light to the conflict in Nagaland in northeastern India in which 1000 people die yearly and have been doing so for the past 60 years, but reporting on this conflict is nonexistent compared to Kashmir.

The issue of money exerting control over the stories told came up briefly in the context of the financial hit that some news stations in the USA took when trying to report more critically on the (at that time) new war in Iraq. What the people wanted to hear was not a critique of their government’s decision and the horrors of war, but a one-sided story that justified it and made them feel secure. Interestingly however, some journalists at the conference argued that the responsibility lies with the readers to demand the critical stories, to demand the ethically important news. If this were to happen, then it sure would make it practically easier for the media to cover ethically important stories in a critical and balance way, but I cannot see how the existence or non-existence of a market for these stories makes one wit of difference about whether the media should cover them. analogously, coffee growers and shoe-factory workers should be paid a living wage and work in safe conditions regardless about whether there is a market for fair trade coffee or sweat-shop-free shoes. The existence of a market sure makes it easier for coffee and shoe companies to act morally, but its absence does not mean that the moral duty ceases to exist.

It is certainly true, however, that journalism is a business and without making money, NO news will be covered. So in order to maximize the number of stories told that should be told, a company can’t tell only stories that will not make money. The question, then, is how strong is this responsibility when weighed against money? Does the press have the responsibility to make only enough money to stay afloat?

So in light of the normative choices of resource allocation and the difficulties of creating a “clear lens,” it seems unlikely that journalism can objectively claim to be “amoral.” And if this is the case, isn’t an emphasis on the impartial objectivity of journalism as anything other than and ideal misleading and, potentially, damaging? A young man I shared coffee with at the conference made the reasonable suggestion that it would be a great step if journalism would cast off the false guise of the ideal be clearer about where it is coming from; then people could interpret the stories with the proper weight.

But if the ideal remains an ideal, and the media is necessarily biased in some way, wouldn’t a bias towards peace building and conflict resolution be a decent bias to choose?

Share on

9 Comment on this post

  1. First I would distinguish between the two questions: "Can journalism be amoral" and "Should journalism be amoral". The answer to the first question will certainly be, "no, not entirely", but we can still take the view that journalists should strive to be as amoral as possible in the course of their professional activities, in the sense that you describe: i.e. they should be motivated as far as possible by an unbiased pursuit of the objective truth.

    On the issue of where to point the lens, one discipline that would increase objectivity would be for journalists always to start each article, reportage or whatever with a brief explanation of why they chose that particular subject, and what methodology they use. But this already starts to look like a reductio ad absurdum. Surely the pursuit of objective truth is what *scientists* are supposed to do.

    Ultimately I think discussion of this issue needs to be grounded on a consideration of why we think we need journalists in the first place, i.e. what positive role do we see them playing in society. Once again this ultimately depends on our values. Personally I don't value knowledge for its own sake, I rather see it as a means to live happier and more fulfilling lives. Clearly journalists play an important role in providing us useful information, but they also play often a very negative role by hurling useless or toxic information/disinformation at us. Information can be toxic because it is not true; it can also be toxic because it simply wasn't what you needed to hear at that particular moment.

    So no, I don't think journslists should be striving to be immoral. I think a bias towards peace building and conflict resolution is not only a decent but an excellent bias to choose, provided it is balanced with a healthy respect for the truth and unwillingness to lie and deceive. (And if you find that doesn't pay well enough, then get another job. The market only favours gutter journalism to the extent that there are journalists willing to engage in it.) But such a bias is only one aspect of a more general and much-needed bias in favour of useful information, as opposed to true-but-toxic information.

    1. Peter – thank you for your comments. I think a lot of the discussion does ultimately depend on “what positive role we see [journalism] playing in society”, as you mention.
      Your view of knowledge (including the information brought by journalism) as a means of living happier and fulfilling lives is an interesting one, although if we accept this purpose, I see a potential conflict between conflict resolution/peace building and what you call “true but toxic information”. Imagine if Bob, the hypothetical editor of a newspaper in London, struck down the idea of running articles on Darfur because he believed this information would upset his readers and thereby decrease their happiness. Bob’s behavior here rightly seems morally questionable.
      In all sorts of conflicts, there will be information that people will not want to hear (people outside the conflict or people on one side who do not want to hear about the negative actions of their own side). But sometimes they should hear it and they should be upset. If we expand the calculus to include not only the happiness of the people who read the articles but all those people who experience in real time the horrors of conflict and war, then we can remember that a part of the “toxic-but-true” information, by making people outside upset at the state of affairs, stimulates them to take action to improve the quality of lives of those about whom articles were written. How effective the different kinds of journalism are in effecting this betterment of lives is an important empirical question.
      This, of course, is not to say that there is no such thing as toxic but true information as you define it, but perhaps we should redefine it from something “that a person did not need to hear at that time” to true information that hinders people (in the broadly considered sense) from leading happy and fulfilling lives.

      As for your comment that “The market only favours gutter journalism to the extent that there are journalists willing to engage in it.” Spot on. The responsibility for quality journalism on important topics lies with the producers of the stories as much as with the consumers.

  2. If there was an edit function I would have changed the last word of the first sentence of the last para to "amoral". As it is you will have to decide for yourselves whether you think this was a Freudian slip. 🙂

  3. "Official historian for the BBC" — Shoot her now.

    "Amoral" — Shoot her for not knowing the difference between immoral and amoral. Stupid moo.

    Ok, kids.

    Can we please grow up here a little?

    George Orwell was a "proper" journalist because he went and LIVED his stories: "Down and Out in Paris & London".. wait.. he did those jobs. "Homage to Catalonia" oh, wait.. yep.. fighting and reporting on a war. Newsflash, you stupid "historian", he fought in a damn war, on the side of the anarchists / leftists BECAUSE HE SHARED THEIR ETHICS YOU STUPID, STUPID, OFFENSIVE MOO. Anyone claiming George Orwell did NOT have a political bias is a fcuking shill who needs stringing up and placing next to the dictators he fought against.

    "It is certainly true, however, that journalism is a business and without making money, NO news will be covered. "


    Ok, now I know this blog is filled with vapid no-brains who cannot think. Hmmmmmmmm. Want some exceptions to that rule? Who got pulitzers? Who have huge followings on the net [try any number of places such as (world wide), and x10,000,000 other sites]. Need a list? Newsflash – REAL journalism is no longer a business. That's the problem with it – truth / real stories get buried, not paid for. Instead, news about "X factor" gets paid for.

    "The existence of a market sure makes it easier for coffee and shoe companies to act morally, but its absence does not mean that the moral duty ceases to exist."

    Um. Right. The irony is strong in this one. Shall we discuss Nike / labour values, coffee / labour values and so on? The market has nothing to do with morality in economic terms – OUTSIDE morality from consumers can effect models of production, but it has nothing to do with the ECONOMICS of the model.

    Grow up. You all need some serious schooling in real world economics and thinking – because at the moment, you're embarrassing TPTB. Srsly. Oxford. WE GET THE NEW MODEL. We represent it. We enact it. And you're FCUKING IT UP.

    Go the back of the class all of you – the new model is here, and you're about as subtle as a brick, and we expect more.


    But this level of "thought" about the subject is frankly embarrassing.

    1. Scooby Doo – The purpose of this blog is to start the beginnings of a discussion on a worthwhile topic in order to stimulate further debate. I am happy to see by your spirited response that this post was successful in that aim, though more reasoned argument and less mud-slinging would move the discussion along more effectively. Let’s face it, its hard to slog through mud.
      As it is, I will try as best I can to find your arguments beneath the mud and respond to them in turn.
      I don’t think Seaton thought that Orwell had “no political bias,” but that he tried to step out and above that political bias as much as possible when writing his journalistic pieces. The moral question is how far should the journalist go to try to step outside? Or should they just embrace the party line, which in your words would be the side of the anarchist/leftist I take it?
      As I indicated in the blog, I agree that the problem with journalism-as-business is that in your words “truth / real stories get buried, not paid for. Instead, news about "X factor" gets paid for.” You are very right that alternative media, blogs, text message lists whose founders and contributors have relinquished the dream of making a living with the news have popped up and are doing extraordinary work. The blog post in this section, however, was trying to address the journalism-as-business issue and the question that was raised during the oxpeace conference whether practical money-matters make a difference in the moral groundwork. As I indicated in the blog, “I cannot see how the existence or non-existence of a market for [ethically important] stories makes one wit of difference about whether the media should cover them.”
      But as with Nike and the Coffee business (the irony was obviously intended), businesses can and should take moral responsibility for their actions without falsely believing that to do so means going into non-profit status. Businesses can make money ethically. I hope that the same is true for journalism so that those in the field reporting on important issues can devote their lives to that pursuit without having to worry about putting bread on the table.
      I do not think that by eliminating money from the picture, however, that the moral issues go away. Couched behind the money-matters is the matter of limited resource allocation in the broad sence. I tried to be clear that money is just an example, an example I used because it came up in the conference. Equally as limited a resource is TIME and ENERGY. If, as you indicate, Scooby Doo, Orwell was a real journalist because he “LIVED his stories”, and the proper allocation of time and energy is at this level, then the question of which stories to live (as you can only live once) is more important than ever.

  4. And finally.

    Given the shallow nature of this blog, I'm afraid I will be putting it forward to the wider world as an example of how divorced Oxford University [Practical Ethics] has become.


    #1 Vapid content
    #2 Inability to reference actual Ethical issues
    #3 Crawling and rather dramatically pathetic subservience to issues of Capital [yes – we know it matters; it isn't your place to crawl to them]
    #4 Lack of intellectual rigor in posts

    All in all… It makes the skin crawl at the quality of education at the place these days.

    1. Scooby Doo – I cannot help but to find the humor in this comment. When Emile Zola wrote J’accuse to draw attention to the institutionalized anti-Semitism and injustice of the Dreyfus affair, it was powerful because he put his name on the document, and thus his neck and academic career on the line. I think we are all best off if we talk as ourselves in these online forums, taking accountability for what we write, and leave Scooby with the rest of the “gang” in the Mystery Machine.

  5. I agree with everything Peter Wicks says in his reply, but felt a little uncomfortable with the final formulation in favour of: "a more general and much-needed bias in favour of useful information, as opposed to true-but-toxic information." The question is "who decides/how to decide which information is toxic"? I understand, Peter, that you were not suggesting this could or should be enforced, and are presenting it more as a guiding principle for the consciences of individual journalists. But such judgments are murky, and the principle as articulated can be used to justify extremes of information restriction and selection. This includes the suppression of the same peace-building and conflict-resolving journalists your principle is intending to support, but who are all too often seen as "supporting an enemy". I am uncomfortable about providing moral cover to such arguments.

    I'd say journalists should be protected by a license to be critical, but also be expected to strive to be objective and try to distinguish the critique from the objective reporting.

    No one knows what Orwell would say. On the one hand he said he had come to see every word he wrote to have been in opposition to totalitarianism and in favour of democratic socialism. On the other hand he may have seen the truth as something which is objective and just happens to point towards democratic socialism and that truth just happens to be the thing totalitarianism can't abide. In either case, I agree with Peter that we can only try to be objective without being able to satisfy everyone else or knowing for certain ourselves that we really are.

    I think Jean Seaton's objection to the term "peace journalist" seems to be an objection to the connotation that he was writing consciously to promote a cause, when his actual conscious intent was to write the truth even when it is seen by others as harming the cause they believe him to be pursuing. In this light, perhaps, his perception of his own cause may have developed as he perceived new truths and tried to keep his cause identified with the pursuit of truth. Jean Seaton's preference may be to see him as a "truth journalist", and to see his work for peace as an outcome of that commitment to truth.

    1. Once again excellent points Arif. I certainly agree that it is primarily the responsibility of the journalists themselves to distinguish "useful information" from "true-but-toxic" information, and to focus on the former. And we shouldn't ignore the responsibility of the consumer of course: we have considerable (although not total) freedom to decide what information we allow ourselves to be exposed to.

      Your interpretation of Jean Seaton's objection to the term "peace journalist" reminds me of my own occasional objections to the (thankfully rare) articles that appear from time to time on this blog that seem to confuse advocacy with moral philosophy. Interestingly I think I have less of a problem with journalists engaging in advocacy, as long as it is transparent and does not rely on deception and distortion. I wonder if Orwell really believed that "truth" pointed towards democratic socialism. Was he that much of a moral realist? It seems more likely that he combined a healthy respect for the truth with a determination to use it in the service of a moral goal he believed in. And that, for me, is good journalism.

Comments are closed.