Applying the public interest test to journalism

Deciding whether news is in 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

Journalists should always apply the public interest test before deciding whether to cover a story. For most issues it’s fairly clear what is and what is not in the public interest; however, for some issues it’s more complicated, particularly where privacy and power are concerned.

Why public interest matters

The first task is to separate what is in the public interest from those things members of the public are interested in; they are not necessarily the same – although they could be.

The fact that the public may be interested in something often has nothing to do with whether investigating and covering that issue is in the public interest.

The public interest is in having a safe, healthy and fully-functioning 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.

This is what real journalists do. They scrutinise the executive, shine a light in dark places, and dig where others don’t – and all in the public interest.

The public interest is more than what the public is interested in

Deciding what is in the public interest

So there is a public service ethic at the heart of all serious journalism. To fulfil this public service role, journalists must build and retain the trust of their audiences by behaving in an ethical and professional manner.

This site has a section covering editorial ethics for journalists. It contains training modules which deal with many of the issues involved in ensuring journalism is in the public interest. However, sometimes, there are reasons to vary from standard good practice in order to bring an important subject to the public’s attention. This is where you apply the public interest test.

For example, journalists should normally be honest about who and what they are; they should always give their names and say which news organisation they work for. A journalist needs to be straight themselves if they want straight answers from others.

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.

The private lives of public figures

Journalists should not normally intrude into the private lives of people – but there might be a case for doing so if the person being investigated is a public figure who is behaving differently in private from what he or she is advocating in public.

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. You must be able to justify your actions to yourself, your colleagues and, perhaps later, to your audience.

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” it is highly advisable to know whether the legal framework will give you any protection, or not.

Of course, in other countries, those in power might actively oppose journalists revealing information which is in the public interest because it 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’s 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 a big issue of the day.
  • Lead to greater accountability and transparency in public life.

None of this is easy. Journalists grapple with these issues every day. And there are many other factors at play that are not even touched on in this brief training module, but if you get the public interest test right, you will be fulfilling the highest purpose of journalism.

See our training modules on editorial ethics.