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Research: Journalism students see ethics as an ideal difficult to put into practice

A new research study coordinated by the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), as part of the Media Council in the Digital Age project, analyses journalism students' representations and experiences with ethics during internships in Belgium, France and Spain.

Overall, the study showed that young journalists have little confidence in ethics and feel the pressure of the difficult working conditions, which makes it difficult to apply journalistic ethics properly. When facing ethical problems, they express a first professional experience that is "disillusioned and disenchanted" with ethics. In general, future journalists see ethics differently, depending on the editorial identity of the media that hosted their internship, its economic environment, its managerial organisation, the collective dynamics within the editorial offices, and their own career expectations.

The focus groups conducted by the researchers retrieved five main themes: representations about professional ethics, negotiations between practical application and theoretical learning, tensions when ethics conflicts with other issues, judgments of media and journalism based on their ethical principles, and the specific challenges posed by social media.

The research team organised 24 focus groups involving 103 journalism students  from universities in Belgium, France and Spain, who had followed at least a one-year journalism training and had completed one internship in a media company.

Representations of professional ethics

Even if recognised as necessary by all the participants, doubts arise when conceptualising "professional ethics" as a standard. French and Spanish students consider it "part of a legal framework". In contrast, French and Dutch-speaking Belgian students recognise that these rules are mainly embodied in the Code of the Council for Journalism. All the groups agree that "it is difficult to apprehend and understand professional ethics without field practice."

Negotiations arising from the practical application of theoretical learning

Ethics in the workfield is seen as the process of practicing negotiations among the "professional relations with sources, peers and public." Overall, interns are all aware of the difference between theory (courses, codes) and practice (actual implementation) and found the workflow of news production tasks hardly compatible with their beliefs and aspirations.

Tensions emerge when ethics conflicts with other issues

In real-life situations, tensions arise when the interns are confronted with their peers and sources and need to justify choices. Time pressure, difficulty to deal with promotional content, strong hierarchy in newsrooms, were mentioned as sources of potential tensions by interns when applying ethics. Many respondents highlighted their intern status and professional inexperience as a barrier to raise ethical concerns with superiors.

Judgements expressed when talking about ethics

All the students see ethics as a core asset in their professional practice and do not hesitate to express concerns over journalists who admit not having read the code of ethics. Both French and Dutch-speaking Belgian students judge their work environment under the lens of ethics, while French interns are keener to frame some choices under today's economic constraints. Spanish students seem to be more afraid of the consequences that influencers and the digital media bubble have on the ethical landscape than on their work environment.

Contemporary issues related to the current media environment

Social media security and safety interdependence are considered a threat to professional ethics for all respondents in the focus groups. Belgian students think that the current guidelines are often unsuitable for contemporary media. French students point out the contradiction between ethics and the reactivity to news required by the profession. Whereas Spanish interns agree that "ethical principles remain the same in the digital era" even if they should be adapted to the new business model.

The Institut de Journalisme de Bordeaux Aquitaine collaborated in the organisation and analysis of the focus groups in France, and VUB, UGent and KUL contributed to the study of Flemish journalism interns.

"Media Councils in the Digital Age" is funded by the European Commission (DG CONNECT) and led by a European consortium, which brings together several European press councils (Austria (OP), Germany (TDP), Belgium (RVDJ and CDJ), Finland (JSN), as well as two universities (ULB in Belgium and Ramon Llull-Blanquerna in Spain) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ).

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