Both the media and public relations industry are notorious for having unscrupulous ethical standards, often accused of using loaded language and deceitful behaviour to create an advantageous media narrative. The role of the media should always be to provide an unbiased view of current events, presenting an image of the world today, and to facilitate social communication. However, in the present society, mainstream media sources are not the only platforms that adopt these functions. Social media has become a secondary channel for people to communicate and be exposed to news and information, lacking the usual structure of mainstream media sources.

The media has a set pattern for distributing content, guided by legal and ethical mandates. This is to obtain information, to filter it, to interpret it, and to circulate it. Editorial policies and code of practice requirements ensure that there is accountability for what is shown through mass media. Due to the nature of mass media being broadcast without knowing how young or sensitive an audience is, these code of practice conditions are in place to prevent harm. Basic policies include accuracy and impartiality according to objective journalism standards, the right to privacy, minimal harmful or offensive material, integrity, and responsibility. These ideals, and more ensure that consuming media enriches an audience.

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Of course, each organisation or corporation is bound by different ethical mandates. The above requirements are examples of the ideals that govern the editorial process of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which has highly regarded ethical statutes as public broadcasting services go. If ABC is considered to be ethically sound, then their unethical counterparts would be Buzzfeed journalism.

While Buzzfeed publishes online written content, as opposed to the public service broadcast television of the ABC, similar ethical standards should apply. Take, for instance, removing material for one reason or another. The ABC makes the request up a hierarchical structure, either deferring to the ABC legal team for legal requests, the original editor for incorrect content that needs to be revised, or simply further up the management chain until the request is fulfilled. The Buzzfeed editorial policies state that nothing should be removed for “reasons relating to the content, or because a subject or stakeholder has asked you to”. There ends Buzzfeed’s deletion and revision policy.

Due to the stark differences between these media sources regulations, any and all media should be consumed with a grain of salt. Most of Buzzfeed articles and their ‘clickbait’ cousins (HuffPo, DailyBeast) would have little impact in mass media if not for the platform that social media provides. The accessibility and ease with which users can share material on social media allow sources with the same low standards and clickbait headlines as Buzzfeed to thrive.

It is not only the low ethical standards of these publications that damage the credibility of the media industry but the lack of accountability that the public accepts. Somehow, in the same vein as the move to 24hr news, quantity has become more valuable than quality. Awarding a company money per site view has damaged the process of journalism, creating this continuous system of short, ambiguous articles with promising, salacious, and charged headlines that rack up page views. Because there is no public forum to complain about the state of the media as a whole, articles that aren’t successful in teasing people to clicking on websites simply fade away, and the successful ones burn brightly for sometimes only hours.  

The difference between ethical standards from different media sources should always be accounted for, especially when only reading the headlines that appear on social media. For information on how to find out whether a news article can be trusted, read our article on how to spot fake news

By Sam Wood

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