Conference Director:

Dr. Kai Hafez
German Institute for Middle East Studies

Network Director:

Prof. Dr. Udo Steinbach

German Institute for Middle East Studies

The Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius Zeit Foundation

Dr. Markus Baumanns


The Ethics of Journalism

Comparison and Transformations in the Islamic-Western Context

An international conference under the auspices of the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Johannes Rau

Bellevue Palace, Berlin, 29.-30. 3. 2001


A Conference organized by
The German Institute for Middle East Studies, Hamburg
The Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius Zeit Foundation, Hamburg

Introduction | Programme | Pictures | Organization | Codes of Ethics


International mass communication is among the prime factors influencing world affairs and the relations between states, peoples and cultures in the "information age". The media are influenced by many forces, among them politics, the legal system, the market, and last but not least, by the motivation of the journalists. The ethics of the journalistic profession are responsible for a great part of the journalist's work, for her or his orientation towards or neglect of different themes or arguments in the process of newsmaking. Responsible journalism in an increasingly globalizing world therefore needs to be based on a common cross-cultural media ethics (Cooper 1989; Christians/Traber 1997).

Ethics is the basis for journalistic self-determination as much as it is the most effective defence against abuses in the rapidly developing media sector.

Under the auspices of the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Johannes Rau, the German Institute for Middle East Studies in cooperation with The Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius Zeit Foundation in Hamburg, Germany, are planning an international conference on the question of the "Ethics of Journalism in the Islamic-Western Context". The conference will combine academic and practical experience and shall be attended by outstanding and independent journalists, representatives of journalism federations as well as by experts on media ethics from Europe, Arab countries, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran and Malaysia.

The declaration of the first intercultural conference initiatied by the former Federal President Roman Herzog (April 1999) came to the conclusion that the media are among the prime forces influencing the relationship between the West and the Islamic world. The importance of the media for the Western-Islamic dialogue was also emphasized by Federal President Johannes Rau at the Davos forum in 2000.

Media ethics has an impact on international mass communication and therefore also on international relations and world peace. One of the major problems in international mass communication is that journalistic ethics is still to a large extent shaped by national characteristics rather than common approaches. Such differences are partly responsible for the malfunctioning of international news and the presentation of events in diametrical ways in different national media systems, even when identical sources are used. In the Islamic-Western context, unfair and unbalanced treatment of the West in the Islamic media or of the Middle East and the Islamic world in the Western media is notorious (Hafez 2000). No wonder, since neither Western nor Islamic journalistic codes of ethics reflect the intercultural and international implications of mass communication. Not even anti-rascism is included in all ethical codes although immigration has turned most Western countries into multicultural societies. While there is much criticism of "distorted" foreign reporting, especially in Islamic countries, which often consider Western journalists to be the vanguard of Western imperialism, there is hardly any positivist vision of good journalism. Such neglect is antagonistic in times of an ongoing technical and economic globalization of the media. The question should be debated, whether and how journalistic ethics in the West or in other countries could be internationalized in support of transnational perspectives of professional development.

Despite the existing problems of foreign reporting, many notions of good or bad journalism are actually interchangeable between the West and Islam. "Objectivity", "truthfulness", the "respect of privacy", and a dislike of "sensationalism" are common norms that are often violated in practical journalism but could, nevertheless, provide a basis for transcultural professionalism. In-depth debate is needed over the actual contents and meaning of abstract norms such as "freedom of expression", which can mean very different things in different political and cultural contexts. Certain governments have learned to use the terminology of freedom while restricting it owing to needs of every-day policies. Contrary to common wisdom, however, limits to the freedom of expression in the media are often not merely the result of censorship and autocratic information control but of journalistic self-censorship, which makes the question of journalistic ethics one of upmost importance. The political transformation in Eastern Europe has shown that journalists were often not among the avant-garde of democratization since democratic norms had not been enrooted in their professional upbringing.

There are many signs of a common ground between journalists of Islamic and Western countries. The following examples might serve as evidence for the thesis that once a debate on journalistic ethics has started, common factors rather than cultural "clashes" are to be expected:

  1. Objectivity, a norm that is central to Western journalism, is also of growing concern to journalistic federations, and the growing field of NGOs in Islamic countries and also to certain state authorites dedicated to democratic reform. "Objectivity", however, is a norm that can contain many different approaches. While the hard core is surely the idea of balancing facts and opinions and avoid one-sidedness, different priorities might be given to the importance of social actors and their statements.
  2. Sensationalism is a form of journalism that is equally resented in Western and Islamic countries. In contrast to the concept of pure entertainment journalism, which is particularly popular in the US, most European journalists and journalists in Islamic countries would certainly underscore the social responsibility of the media, whether they be private or state-owned.
  3. Sensitivity to religious values is not alien to Western journalism. In the UK as well as in Germany, for example, grave violations of religious feelings by the media are regularly monitored and criticized by professional self-regulating bodies like the German Presserat (as in the case of the "Kruzifix-Urteil"). It must be debated, however, how the call for freedom of expression on the one hand and religious integrity on the other hand can be harmonized.

To sum up, the conference on journalistic ethics shall

  • transform the critique of international news by formulating positive norms of global ethics, with special relevance to both the Islamic and the Western world (international level);
  • concentrate on the journalist as an actor with specific ethical and professional aims, thereby broadening our view of the journalist as a mere "object" of state and social control (in-country level).

The planned conference shall:

  • serve as a symbolic milestone for Western-Islamic dialogue, cooperation and cultural rapprochement
  • represent a forum for multicultural and multinational knowledge on journalistic ethics
  • create a corps of comments on journalistic ethics that would help to substantiate and understand the code of conduct
  • pool ideas for practical reform of international coverage
  • stimulate further academic and professional treatment of the issue.

Recommended reading

  • Christians, Clifford/Traber, Michael (ed.). 1997. Communication Ethics and Universal Values. Thousand Oaks et al.: Sage
  • Cooper, Thomas W. (ed.). 1989. Communication Ethics and Global Change. New York: Longman
  • Hafez, Kai (ed.). 2000. Islam and the West in the Mass Media. Fragmented Images in a Globalizing World. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton
  • Nordenstreng, Kaarle/Hifzi Topuz (Ed.). 1989. Journalist: Status, Rights and Rsponsibilities. Prague: International Organization of Journalists.
  • Nordenstreng, Kaarle/Griffin, Michael (ed.). 1999. International Media Monitoring. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton