Journalism: Know your ethics!

By Natascha Fenz & Julia Kasser


*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration Series curated by Wagner Piassaroli Mantovaneli. 

Recently Claudia Neumann faced online hate speech for her work as one of the sports journalists sent by the German public broadcaster ZDF to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. This kind of news is – sadly – not a surprise lately as a growing number of journalists are confronted with harassment. Journalists have possibilities to make room for their incitements in the public discourse because of their professional status and the accompanying circumstances such as publicity and well-respected opinion which can be used for personal agendas also. But this article will address another facet in the context of hate speech and media. What about harassment or unethical reporting? One major example for unethical journalism happened at one of the most renowned newspapers worldwide. The New York Times had to deal with a severe breach of any journalistic code of conduct one may find.

The aspect of ethics in the journalistic field is fundamental for the public information sphere. Journalists have the great responsibility to spread necessary information for a democratic society. The International Federation of Journalists’ Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists sets guidelines for ethical journalistic behaviour on an international level. The Austrian Press Council provides a more precise Code of Ethics for the Austrian Press. The Austrian Press Council also acts as judging instance on proposed complaints of violations of the Code of Ethics by printed media or their online version. The problem about the power of the Austrian Press Council is that the media which did not declare to follow the Code of Ethics are free to choose whether they accept the punishments or not. Currently two big players in the Austrian print media market – Kronen Zeitung and Heute – have not declared to stick to the Code of Ethics.

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The Austrian Press Council has possibilities to judge media organisations for their articles which infringe the previously mentioned Code of Ethics. There are a lot of reasons why the Council can do that. One reason is violation of paragraph 7 “protection against discrimination and across-the-board decrial”, which regulates hate speech produced by media. Unfortunately, not everybody follows the Code of Ethics, so there can be cases where the Austrian Press Council decided that the media actually discriminates people through reporting but the punishments were not executed. The Austrian Press Council publishes its judgments with details on the violated paragraphs of the Code of Ethics and notes on the behaviour of the related media organisation concerning the process of judgment. Examples of such articles which were not executed are one from the online version of the Kronen Zeitung ( from January 10th 2018 and one from the printed edition of the Kronen Zeitung from October 4th 2016.

A big question is how to address the described problem and what we could do to promote change. As Harlem Désir said in the final conference of the 18-month campaign “Media Against Hate”, key to combat hate speech and disinformation spread through media is to organize high ethical standards and self-regulation in journalism (Media Against Hate, 2018). One example where the regulation of disinformation is already implemented very well is Norway. As the Norwegian system is almost 100 years old, it’s often seen as a good practical example for dealing with complaints against media. In Norway, there’s only one Code of ethics which applies to the whole media business and also the public is a strong voice in the process. The system is considered transparent, documented, free and efficient (Ethical Journalism Network, 2018). Establishing high ethical standards and implementing a strong self-regulatory system will be important in the fight against hate speech and disinformation. Nevertheless, initiatives against hate speech, like the #SpreadNoHate initiative from UNAOC, will always be an important part in order to raise society awareness when it comes to hate speech.

Besides the previously described Codes of ethics and initiatives against hate speech, the self-reflected citizen is always key when it is about eradicating hate speech and disinformation in the media. It is on media literate people, who have the intuition to grasp wrongfulness in the media in any kind of way, to critically eye the media whether they incite or harass (minority) groups and to place complaints with the concerning organisations like the Austrian Press Council. Another way to publicly expose violations of ethical standards in journalism irrespective of self-regulating institutions, are media watch blogs though their influence on media is rather weak (Spiller & Degen, 2012). Media watch blogs do to some extend fulfill the role of watch dogs not only of traditional media but also on hoaxes on social media.

It is important to keep in mind that not everything on the news is a hundred percent reliable and that this is the reason why media publish rectifications. If one makes a mistake, one puts it right. That is also the basic intention of the Austrian Press Council. Therefore, if information seems suspicious it lies in the hands of every single citizen to recheck just because if the news and media are the – controlling – 4th power in a democracy, maybe every citizen has to be the 5th power for oneself because, in the end, every citizen is going to the voting box alone and needs to decide which pieces of information they believe. The ultimate monitoring power shall lie with the citizen.

It should be further in the interest of every citizen that all citizens are able to be media literate citizens. The Austrian Press Council offers with its Code of Ethics at least a guideline for appropriate media behavior which media literate citizens can use to judge about media for themselves and point out violations to the council.



Media Against Hate (2018). Media Against Hate Conference calls for higher ethical standards and less regulation in journalism. Retrieved June 30th 2018, from

Ethical Journalism Network (2018). Ethics  – The media’s Unique Selling Proposition. Retrieved June 30th 2018, from

Spiller, R., Degen, M. (2012). Watchblogs – ein überschätztes Instrument der Medienkritik. Studies in Communication Sciences, 12 (1), 34-40. Retrieved June 30th 2018, from


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