The Netherlands – (E7) Code of ethics at the national level (structure)

Score in short:

Most media conform to the Guidelines of the Press Council and the Code of the Association of Editors-in-chief and/or observe a behavioral code of their own. Ethical decisions are usually made ad hoc in discussions among journalists and editorial staff. The advent of Internet journalism is seen as one of the most important causes of the weakening of journalistic standards and values.

Score in detail:

The Guidelines (Leidraad) of the Raad voor de Journalistiek (‘Press Council’) list general rules to further objectivity in journalistic usage. The Press Council resorts to these guidelines when dealing with complaints. A second code is that written by the Genootschap van Hoofdredacteuren (‘Association of editors-in-chief’). The code is a more specific manual than the Guidelines; it lists a number of concepts that constitute the basis of an open and democratic society. The members of the Association are bound to honor these rules. our university interviewees all find that the importance of the Code has diminished in recent years and point to the lack of determination on the part of the Press Council as the main cause of this decline. Moreover, complaints lodged with the Press Council do not result in any direct redress in the form of fines or other penalties; for those complainants must take legal action. one more problem is that De Telegraaf and the opinion magazine Elsevier no longer recognize the authority of the Council. Piet Bakker quite rightly points to the danger that news media thus call down upon themselves: in the absence of self-regulation, politicians may feel called upon to intervene.

In brief, most media observe a behavioral code of their own. Generally speaking, they stick to the Guidelines of the Press Council and the Code of the Association of editors-in-chief, but it is also true that some of the news media interviewed here never signed these documents. Although news media such as NoS and RTL have specific rules for what they will and will not put on the screen, and although NRC Handelsblad/nrc.next and de Volkskrant have a detailed style manual, decisions of an ethical nature are usually made ad hoc in discussions among journalists and editorial staff. Besides, most journalists interviewed are convinced that they have an implicit understanding of and feeling for standards and values and that there is therefore no need for a stringent and explicit code. Among the rules that news media do impose upon themselves, we find subjects such as the approach the journalist takes (showing reticence in naming family names and nationality, explicitly introducing oneself as a journalist, letting both sides be heard) and his/his integrity. Some media have taken initiatives to render their own code more up-to-date, for instance De Gelderlander by adapting the standards of the paper to practices on the Internet. In this context, it is worth citing a remark made by a journalist of nu.nl, who claims that as an Internet journalist he does not necessarily feel freer in applying journalistic standards and values. Just like the staff of the traditional news media, the editors of nu.nl are anxious that the visitor of the website might turn away if ethical standards are lowered. That is actually what happened when De Telegraaf reported on the air crash in Tripoli (May 2010) and made contact by phone with the only survivor, the nine-year-old Ruben: an action was launched on Twitter by outraged readers and one thousand readers canceled their subscriptions. Piet Bakker is therefore convinced that, as far as ethical standards are concerned, news media are best restrained, not by a code, but rather by news consumers expressing themselves on Internet forums and in readers’ panels.

Huub Wijfjes and several of the interviewed journalists draw attention to what might well be the most important cause of the weakening of journalistic standards and values: the advent of Internet journalism. In this context, a journalist working for Sp!ts refers to the unequal ways in which news consumers judge responsibility for content and accuracy in comparing traditional media with indiscriminate news blogs written by citizens acting as journalists. If they wish to offer their readers something unique, news sites and free newspapers need to trifle a bit with ethical principles, for example by publishing privacy-sensitive material that is often already available on the Internet. If these news sites and free newspapers obstinately hold on to codes, they do lasting damage to their commercial position vis-à-vis the Internet.