Journalism and the public interest

<a href="" target="_new">Image by Rafael Anderson Gonzales Mendoza</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0</a>
Image by Rafael Anderson Gonzales Mendoza released via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The public interest means anything that is relevant to the lives and well-being of all of us, to society and our communities. It concerns the “common good”, meaning matters that affect our health, livelihoods, quality of life, security, and our governance.

The public interest does not mean what the public might find interesting. Broadly speaking, the difference here is between what is relevant to members of the public, as opposed to what might merely entertain, fascinate or titillate some of them.

News journalism is reporting matters of societal relevance. Not gossip and titbits about well-known figures, or about personal events and circumstances of others that do not affect broader society, but which merely pander to voyeurism. A journalist with a brief to report news should therefore apply a public interest test before deciding whether to cover a story.

In most cases it is clear what is and what is not in the public interest. But in some cases, such as stories concerning the private lives and actions of public figures in positions of power, the distinction is not clear.

The public interest is in having a safe, healthy and functional society. In a democracy, journalism plays a central role in that. It gives people the information they need to take part in the democratic process. If journalists are good at their job, they hold governments and other institutions to account.

All serious journalism, then, contains a public service ethic. To fulfil this public service role, journalists must build and retain the trust of their audiences by behaving in an ethical and professional manner.

A journalist must have compelling reasons to deviate from standard good practice: if it is the only way to bring an important subject to the public’s attention.

For example, journalists should be honest about who and what they are; they should always give their names, and say for which news organisation they work.
However, there are times when a journalist might have to go undercover and hide their true identity and the real reason for their actions. Such cases could include the investigation of crime or political wrongdoing.

This is an act of deception, which is generally to be avoided, but if it brings justice and an end to criminal activity, it may be justified in the wider public interest.

Journalists should not intrude into people’s private lives – but there might be a case for doing so if the person being investigated is a public figure whose private behaviour is at odds with what they advocate in public life, especially when their position can influence legislation.

In this case, media intrusion – normally an objectionable practice – could expose hypocrisy and dishonesty. However, such intrusion must be clearly shown and clearly seen to be in the wider public interest.

Things become more difficult when the story in question may actually involve a journalist breaking the law, or encouraging someone else to do so. Here you need to have a serious discussion with colleagues about the circumstances, the public interest benefit in covering the story, the risks involved and the likely consequences.

Some countries build “the public interest” into their legal systems. So if you want to publish a difficult or controversial item because it is “in the public interest”, you should check whether the legal framework gives you the protection you need in each and every case.

In some countries, those in power might actively oppose journalists revealing information which, although in the public interest, might threaten their control of society. In such cases the public interest test takes on another meaning. How those in power define the public interest might be more about control than freedom of information. Here, extra care is required.

Some public interest justifications

If the decision is taken to publish, it is likely to be because the story would do one of these things:

  • Correct a significant wrong.
  • Bring to light information affecting public well-being and safety.
  • Improve the public’s understanding of, and participation in, the debate about an important issue relevant to our society.
  • Lead to greater accountability and transparency in public life.

None of this is easy. Journalists grapple with these issues every day. Many factors at play have not even been considered here, but if you get the public interest test right, you will be fulfilling the highest purpose of journalism.

Related training module

Public interest – scenario