Johan Retief (2002). Media Ethics: An Introduction to Responsible Journalism. (Capetown, S.A. & Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press). x + 261 pp. ISBN 0-19-578137-6. $14.95 (paper). Institutional & professional codes of ethics, bibliography, index.
Those interested in the media systems of other nations will find this book of great value, as will those in the Republic of South Africa who wish to study, teach or practice in the mass media. It is, in many respects, a conventional undergraduate college text in the field of media ethics. But it is well written, and it focuses on the application of ethics to the practice of journalism. And, for the reader not familiar with South Africa, it affords that great luxury of seeing how someone else has tackled the problems facing journalistic media around the world.
South Africa is a major, pluralistic (racially and linguistically), nation-one that belongs economically to the first world rather than the third, unlike most of Africa. However, its media system is mostly British in origin, one that has evolved separately for decades. As the author points out, this separation doesn't make the media problems of South Africa different from those in the U.S. or U.K. They "are often accused of being biased, of a low standard, and irresponsible." It is said that "they are only interested in sensation and do not care how news is gathered or what harm they do." But the focal point of complaints and perhaps solutions-in two quasi-public organizations, the Press Ombudsman and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA)-is very different from the more haphazard attempts to deal with such matters elsewhere.
Retief starts with nearly 50 pages of "Foundations." The first chapter is a concise discussion of ethics-how they evolved and how they are applied to journalistic media. He then goes on to describe and discuss the relationship between the law and codes of ethics-which are intertwined in South Africa more than in most western countries. Most of the book deals with focused discussions of ethical issues: accuracy, truth and deception, fairness, objectivity, confidentiality, conflict of interest, invasion of privacy, trauma, stereotyping, and social responsibility.
Each of these nine chapters has five extensive case studies, labeled as to content in the table of contents. Each case study presents the facts of a pertinent case (including any decisions made by the law courts, the Press Ombudsman or the BCCSA), as well as a labeled analysis that tries to show that there may well be more than one approach to each situation.
The final chapter is an addendum, containing institutional codes of ethics (The Press Ombudsman of South Africa, The South African Union of Journalists, The South African National Editors' Forum, The Freedom of Expression Institute, and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa), as well as the professional codes of ethics of four newspapers and the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
This volume provides the reader with the opportunity to see how another country deals with the same problems that plague American (and other) media. The deductions and implications provided as a result are of high potential usefulness. After all, there are many ways to skin a cat-which may or may not have been the purpose of the safety razor (Occam's?) blade pictured on the cover.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp. 51-52.