Disappearing Ethics
in the Serbian Press

December 17, 2012 • Ethics and Quality • by

Despite frequent reactions and warnings by professional associations, hardly a day passes without at least one violation of the Serbian Journalistic Code of Ethics by each of the daily newspapers in Serbia. According to recent research, the Code of Ethics is being violated by the press on a daily basis with the most frequent violations including an individual’s right to privacy, assumption of innocence and hidden advertising. The research, which covered daily newspapers Politika,Danas, Blic, Vecernje Novosti, Kurirand Alo, between 10 and 16 October 2011, shows that these six newspapers committed 109 violations of the Journalistic Code of Ethics pertaining to a total of seven ethical norms. The most frequently violated rule of the Journalistic Code of Serbia is the right to privacy of individuals who are the subject of media reports, which was violated 39 times (35.8 percent of all ethical violations). The second least adhered to rule is the assumption of innocence, which was violated in 36 articles during the analyzed period, making up a third of all ethical violations committed by daily newspapers in Serbia. Hidden advertising came in third, occurring on 23 occasions and comprising 21.1 percent of all violations while discrimination made up 3.7 percent, and incitement of fear and disturbing content each constituted 2.75 percent of all violations. Abuse of interviewees’ emotions occurred in less than one percent of violations of the code of ethics.

The disregard of an individual’s right to privacy is evident in the daily press in Serbia in several different forms, but it is most commonly found in the crime section of the daily press, primarily regarding individuals suspected of certain criminal offenses. Although the code forbids the revelation of the suspect’s identity (both directly and indirectly), during the seven days across which the research was conducted, Serbian daily newspapers published 26 articles with the full names of suspects, together with additional private information as well as their photographs. Interestingly, 13 violations of this ethical norm were committed indirectly, the names of the individuals were withheld, but information about their age, place of residence, workplace, place of birth and their relatives was published, making them recognizable to the public. Although journalists sometimes make an effort to honor this rule by not writing explicit information that would reveal someone’s identity, there have been cases where photographs of the suspect where published nonetheless. The second most frequently violated provision of the code is the right to the assumption of innocence which, according to journalistic ethical standards, means that no one should be pronounced guilty before the delivery of a judicial verdict. This violation is problematic because it may turn out that suspects who were accused by the media are actually innocent, which is rarely mentioned by the media, meaning that these individuals continue to carry the burden of being connected with the crime in question for the rest of their lives. Each of the analyzed newspapers violated this provision. Of the 36 cases in which this violation occurred, no less than 34 were committed in the headlines, but not in the articles themselves. Despite being labeled as guilty, these individuals were later described in the body of the articles as a “suspect”, “arrested on suspicion”, or “taken into custody”. The ethical rule is being honored in the articles themselves, but is violated in their headlines, probably to make the story more attractive and interesting at first glance.

In order to protect readers from hidden advertising, the Serbian Journalistic Code of Ethics stipulates that promotional and paid articles should be clearly and visually separated from journalistic articles and labeled as such. Although representatives of the analyzed newspapers claim that promotional content is being published with a different format, typeset and borders, 23 so-called ‘PR articles’ were published during the analyzed period. Hidden advertising appeared in several different journalistic forms including longer or shorter news, journalistic report, interview profiles, or a question/answer interview. What is disturbing is the fact that of the109 violations of the Serbian Journalistic Code of Ethics committed by the six daily newspapers, 40 occurred in headlines, which leave a stronger impression on readers than the articles, and are sometimes the readers’ only source of information and orientation. As previously mentioned, in 34 of the cases, headlines violated the right to the assumption of innocence, treating individuals as convicted criminals before a judicial verdict. Apart from this, there were three headlines whose tone and sensationalism could provoke unjustified fear among readers, they read; “The Ozone Will Kill Us” (Alo), “Mental Illness Is Rampant in Serbia” (Kurir), and “The Apocalypse Has Begun” (Kurir). Two headlines published by Kurir and Alo exhibited ethnic discrimination by stating the nationality of certain individuals despite its irrelevance to the events described in the articles: “It Was a Croat Who Stole Paintings” (Alo) and “Mesic’s Grandfather Is a Roma, Idriz” (Kurir). The daily newspaper Alo published the headline “A Woman Cuts Child from Pregnant Women’s Stomach”, which has been described as disturbing content in violation of the Code of Ethics, especially considering the sensitivity of the subject matter.

The largest number of violations of the Serbian Journalistic Code of Conduct during the week was committed by Kurir – 36 in total, which is a third of all violations committed by the newspapers analyzed in the research. The second position is held by the newspaper Blic with 30 violations, followed by Novosti and Alo with 16 cases of inappropriate content each. The research confirms that tabloid newspapers pay less attention to the Code of Ethics, as evidenced by the examples of Kurir and semi-tabloid Blic, whereas the fewest ethical violations were committed by Politika (five) and Danas (six), which are considered to be serious newspapers. The research also allows us to notice the difference in the editorial policies of these newspapers. Apart from the greater number of violations of the Code of Ethics across the board, the content of tabloid newspapers, Kurir and Alo, violated certain provisions of the Code of Ethics that were not violated by other newspapers, at least during the analyzed period. These provisions forbid journalists from causing public fear and publishing disturbing content and photographs. Certain articles published by these two daily newspapers, as well as the semi-tabloid Blic, demonstrated ethnic discrimination by unnecessarily revealing the nationality of individuals mentioned in press reports. Abuse of emotions during interviewing was reported in only one article published by the newspaper Alo. Apart from the generally fewer number of violations, the so-called ‘serious’ press (Politika and Danas), as well as the newspaper Vecernje Novosti, which exhibits some characteristics of a semi-tabloid, commit the same types of code violations pertaining to privacy rights, the assumption of innocence and hidden advertising. We should bear in mind that the week in which analysis was conducted was quite a “calm”, average week in the media, with no major affairs or significant events being reported. Had it been different, it is certain that violations of the code would have been more numerous, and perhaps even more drastic.

This research is a part of author’s master thesis. The article was transleted from the original Serbian “Izbledela etika domaće štampe” by Milica Jevtic.

 

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