How far should you go to cover a story? Interview with ethicist Caio Túlio Costa

In the midst of the bribery and phone-hacking scandal involving CEO Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., media analysts continue to debate the ethical challenges of reporting. Are their limits to what a journalist should do in the search for a scoop?

According to Caio Túlio Costa, who has a doctorate in political science from the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and currently teaches journalism ethics at the Faculdade Cásper Líbero, journalism has a “provisional morality” that can adjusted at any moment and for any need that the media industry has. Phone hacking and bribery are extreme examples of this moral framework.

Costa worked 21 years at Grupo Folha, the owner of Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, and was the founding director of UOL, Latin America’s first major internet portal. In an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, he spoke about the News Corp. scandal and said that digital media was not causing major changes to how journalism should be ethically practiced.

Could you explain the concept of “provisional morality” that you discuss in your most recent book?

The idea behind this concept is showing consumers of journalistic information that, depending on the situation and on the facts, there are different ways to approach, analyze, divulge, and evaluate news items. These variations reflect, from an ethical point of view, what could be more or less principled procedures for publishing news. Journalists could, using "public interest" as a justification, for example, disguise themselves and lie in order to gather information. They may not think that it is right to lie during their daily lives, but they could believe it is acceptable in that moment in order to obtain a specific fact. This is what I call provisional morality.

Then can anything be justified if it is serving the public interest?

No, definitely not. But I am not a dictator or a line judge on what is or is not justifiable, I don’t think that is my role. This concept is not intended to define how journalism should be, but to show how it is being practiced.

What is your opinion about the News Corp. scandal?

This is a striking example of provisional morality, that is even more remarkable, because, from what we’ve seen on the news, all boundaries were crossed. We are not only talking about public figures, we are talking about citizens whose phones have been tapped, we are talking about journalistic work that is hindering police investigations and causing brutal anguish to the victims’ families.

Are you afraid that these events will prompt more legal and judicial control over the press?

Yes, thanks to the enormous irresponsibility of the Murdoch clan. A consolation is that without freedom of expression and the press, the British daily the Guardian would not have been able to reconstruct this story and make it known to the public. In two weeks, News Corp.’s stocks have plummeted, a newspaper was closed, a parliamentary investigation was opened, arrests were made, a journalist died, the responsible parties are under police investigation, and the entire word is following the case online, without restrictions. We must work to make press freedom endure.

Is it possible to establish clear ethical boundaries without curtailing journalistic work?

Yes, without a doubt. The BBC, for example, practices some of the most accurate journalism. There they don’t use hidden cameras nor do they go after illegal recordings.

What changes with provisional morality when applying the concept to digital media?

When I am discussing provisional morality, I am thinking of a professionals who are technically trained to practice journalism. They have a defense for ethical misconduct if it is in service of what they understand to be journalism’s role in serving the public interest. When one works with digital media, the morality of the technician mixes with the morality of a citizen. In this sense, there is a certain “vulgarization” of provisional morality. For good journalism, all that applies previously continues to remain relevant, there are no major changes.

Several media outlets have launched guidelines for the use of social media by journalists and some have even barred them from using these spaces. What do you think of this practice?

This phenomenon is simply another attempt to control workers’ opinions. We need to ensure that people can express themselves. However, a journalist, like any other employee, needs to follow codes of conduct that make the organization’s boundaries clear. It doesn’t do to be naïve and believe that journalists are unable to adapt to a business’ rules. Now, these limits also need to be guided by ethical standards, they cannot seek to curtail speech.

In terms of journalism ethics, have they changed as a result of the data releases by WikiLeaks?

Leaks always feed journalism – the internet only amplifies this effect, as we have seen with WikiLeaks. What has changed is that now we have competitors in the new digital media era. We are no longer the owners of information and the only ones who handle leaks. The challenges are competitive, as the internet has taken away the media’s absolute power. The principle question is no longer ethical, but in terms of competition. We, journalists, are not doing anything very different from what we have already become used to doing.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.