Journalists have ethics? Read all about it!

Despite what you know or think you know about news people, most journalists aspire to be fair and honest.SPJ logo

Whether individual integrity rises above corporate roadblocks is another matter given the uneven landscape of newsrooms and corporate ownership today. A newly updated code of ethics is trying to help.

For now simply consider the high points of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics approved this month. It’s the first revision of the code in 18 years, runs three pages and distills to a preamble and four main topics:

Preamble: Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

  1. Seek Truth and Report it — Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
  2. Minimize Harm — Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
  3. Act Independently — The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
  4. Be Accountable and Transparent — Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.

(For the entire code, click here for a PDF download from or visit the SPJ website.)

Does such a code stand a chance in the real world under the pressure of high-profit business models and the whims of outside consultants? Not surprisingly, it’s hit and miss.

You can read the code for yourself to see who among your news providers approaches these ideals. (If they don’t, do what a journalist does: raise hell with those responsible.) For now I’ll just touch on one new detail of the code specific to this digital age.

  • Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.

In other words, Web content lives forever. For example think about most local crime coverage and galleries of jail mug shots with names like “I’m in the Jailhouse Now.” (no, wait, that’s a country/folk/blues song, but you get the idea) Except for federal arrests, those unflattering portraits generally are public records often available online for free. Mix one of those, a police report and scene video to make an easy story of danger lurking in your city.

But how much of a story? Not even a half. The people police arrest aren’t even guilty since a criminal charge is not a conviction here in the Land of the Free. Except for the bigger crimes, you rarely see the story updated months later with an actual outcome. Equally rare is deleting a mug shot, updating the original story or following up with a new report when a charge is dropped, reduced, dismissed, deferred or found to be false by a judge or jury.

(By the way, it’s almost impossible to fool judges and juries despite a lot of “cops-good, judges-bad” reporting and political posturing that overlooks the law and how courts work, but that’s another story.)

Given the permanence of web and social-media content, the implications of not updating stories can be immense if you’re wrongly accused or are the victim of a bad cop or overzealous prosecutor.

Bottom line: news ethics matter, and journalists can’t fight the battle alone. News consumers can join the fray by speaking up for fairness, honesty and integrity and loudly calling out ethically challenged news organizations.

(Disclosure: I’ve been a member of the Society of Professional Journalists since 1971.)

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