Journalistic ethics were never far from centre stage the week of September 24, when 12 participants from southern Nigeria came to London for a course at the Thomson Reuters headquarters in Canary Wharf.
My brief on this course, which I taught with copy critic Andrew Dobbie, was to deliver a Writing and Reporting News workshop to the group, which had travelled from the town of Warri in Nigeria's oil-rich Delta State. The assignment came with a single custom guideline: "they want to make sure you cover ethics!"
This is no huge surprise. Organisations including Reporters Without Borders have flagged Nigeria for corruption and abuses against journalists. It is, to be clear, a more difficult place than most to do the job by the book.
On day one, we sounded out the participants, whose course was funded by the regional government of Delta State, for what they wanted to learn. A great many wants emerged; key among them were the desires to learn more about international journalism and ethics standards, to discover how new technologies are influencing news reporting and to gain a better understanding of "what makes a news service like Thomson Reuters tick."
We went right into addressing that last point with a tour of the Thomson Reuters newsroom led by Sarah Edmonds, who is Thomson Reuters' managing editor for northern Europe as well as the company's global head of pictures. A presentation on the news organisation by Editorial Training Director Belinda Goldsmith followed, addressing key questions the participants had about Reuters as a news business, as well as the way it covers regions like Africa.
Later in the week, we interspersed the training sessions with talks and question and answer sessions from diverse presenters such as Reuters Television's Rob Lang and Sonia Legg, Thomson Reuters Foundation multimedia's Amelia Wong, and AlertNet's Tim Large. These, as well as a short session on using Twitter to develop deeper contacts and follow a story, added clarity to how media like television and the Internet are evolving and shaping the future of news coverage.
Then, after we'd covered the reporting basics such as story structure and news judgement, came the long-awaited session on ethics. The discussion between trainers and attendees covered how many pressures journalists face in countries like Nigeria. From inadequate funding of newspapers to widespread pressure from advertisers and "propositions" by sources, companies and officials to influence coverage.
After a fruitful discussion, we concluded those difficulties don't mean ethics, as encapsulated for example, in the <a href="http://www.trust.org/learn-more-about-us/trust-principles/">Thomson Reuters Trust Principles</a>, should be any different in Nigeria. Indeed while circumstances may vary from country to country, the ethical principles a journalist must measure themselves against are exactly the same. Journalists anywhere in the world must make sure they stay the reliable agents of their readers and don't sacrifice their integrity by bowing to other interests.
As Andrew Dobbie put it during the discussion, journalism is a career choice of conscience, and its principles are global and not limited to a particular country or region. The energy desk's James Jukwey also made an appearance to talk to the group and answer questions. As a Nigerian who started his reporting career there, he was able to listen and relate to the participants' challenges. He also had plenty of tips to share on surmounting these hurdles to achieve and maintain the standards of integrity needed, for example, to work for an international news service like Thomson Reuters.
We also discussed how journalists are facing increased competition for readers' eyeballs from Internet-based outlets such as blogs and social media. This makes adherence to strict ethics and integrity all the more important to retaining readers, and in turn ensuring the long-term survival of many publications.
By the end of the week the participants felt we'd largely covered everything they wanted and we went east on the Friday morning to see the Olympic Village and Westfield shopping centre in Stratford before Andrew Dobbie spent the afternoon giving the participants the one-on-one feedback on their writing exercises that's such an integral part of such courses. As they headed back to Nigeria we hope the course, with its ethics shot in the arm plus insights on new technologies, has helped them to be better equipped to report effectively on their stories. We look forward to hopefully reading them