The Fight for Truth and Justice

07/29/2011 05:43 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2011

If Superman lived today, would he still choose to be a journalist?

It would be a tough decision. For a profession that is supposed to be about the fight for truth and justice, it has taken an almighty battering in recent weeks.

The revelations around The News of the World's criminal activities would have been like Kryptonite to the Man of Steel. This is not what Clark Kent, or thousands of his fellow journalists around the world, signed up for.

The closing down of the paper would hardly have appeased our shrewd superhero friend. After all, when super-villain Lex Luthor came under fire by the Daily Planet, he took over the paper and subsequently shut it down. Superman knew all about the difficulties involved with media ownership.

Perhaps Rupert Murdoch is no Lex Luthor, but the hacking scandal, and more recent events, raise serious questions about media ethics. For example: where are they?

Mr. Murdoch's flagship paper was closed down for unethical and illegal behaviour. As the tragic events unfolded in Norway, his new British flag-bearer, the Sun carried an unforgivable front-page headline:

"'Al Qaeda' Massacre -- Norway's 9/11:"

The headline was positioned next to a person with a bloody face being shepherded to safety. For the more discerning reader, the photo is not too dissimilar to an iconic image taken in the aftermath of 7/7. The message was clear, but the facts were not.

We all now know that an individual, Anders Behring Breivik, and not al Qaeda, has since claimed responsibility for the 76 deaths. Have we learned nothing from Hackgate?

The Wall Street Journal, another Murdoch-owned publication, posted an editorial that clumsily connected the Oslo killings with the controversy over a Danish cartoon of the prophet Muhammad:

"When cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad appeared in a Danish newspaper in the fall of 2005 and sparked a full-blown jihadist campaign against Denmark, then-Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen responded with a telling remark. 'We Danes feel like we have been placed in a scene in the wrong movie."' After reading this as part of an editorial about the Norway tragedy, I know exactly what Mr. Rasmussen means. Wrong movie indeed.

Of course, there are many within the mainstream media that gave voice to impassioned and unhelpful speculation from so-called experts who claimed the hand of al Qaeda was clear to see. But in the midst of one of the greatest scandals to ever hit the media, Mr. Murdoch's empire warrants extra scrutiny. Now that the 'renegade reporter' line in the News of the World seems to have fallen down, and more phone hacking accusations sweep across the media, it is only a matter of time before the editorial and governance decisions of other NewsCorps media are under the spotlight.

Can you imagine if Lois Lane published a misleading, misinformed, sensationalist headline like "'Al Qaeda' massacre -- Norway's 9/11"? She would be sacked straight away. So why is the Sun any different? Sensational headlines fuel the 'us and them' mentality, and risk igniting incendiary campaigns like the burning of the Koran.

The major Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen once said, "The worst enemy of truth and freedom in our society is the compound majority."

Ibsen was referring to those who act foolishly by blindly following their elected leaders. The media, which should be fighting for truth, justice and freedom, is an enemy unto itself. By blindly giving voice to so-called experts, including some of its columnists, the media further damages the effect of the compound majority.

In a world in which over 5 billion people have a mobile phone, nearly all of us are media owners and have a responsibility to think before jumping on the bandwagon of the day. But how are we to reject some of the pseudo-truths within the blogging world, if our professional journalists don't hold themselves to higher editorial standards?

So where is hope amidst this fiendish world of deception? Alas, it doesn't come with a cape or blue tights. It comes in the form of accountability. Free speech and the first amendment are essential, but we also need to be held accountable if our views fall short of the ethics and balance we expect of others. Speculation has no room in the newsroom. Fact.

We live in hope that the Murdoch and other mainstream media raise editorial standards, and become part of the solution, rather than the problem. Clearly distinguishing between news and commentary and providing audiences with tools of discernment need to be minimum standards of performance for the modern media. But there is also a question of proportionality.

At the height of the hacking scandal, we just about learned that the UN had announced a famine in Somalia. Around 3.7 million people -- around a third of the population -- are on the brink of starvation. Millions more in Ethiopia, Kenya and other African countries have been hit by soaring food prices and the worst drought to hit the region in 60 years.

This is a moment for superhero journalists to show their true colours. This is a moment for journalists to stop serving the compact majority, and start leading towards saving lives. Too long have many in the media hidden behind sound-bites about 'public interest' and 'reflecting demand,' instead of focusing their lenses where it is needed the most. When our children are dying, moral courage is required.

A broader debate is needed around media values: from regulation, censorship and ownership, to freedom of speech and spin. Only when media owners and editorial decision-makers start leading us into the fight for truth and justice will we become part of a profession that Superman would be proud of.