The common values that guide reporters are known as journalistic ethics. They give forth the goals and the responsibilities that journalists, editors, and others in the profession should follow to carry out their jobs appropriately.
The ethics of journalism have developed over time. Most news organisations, as well as professional membership groups, have their written codes of ethics. An experienced journalist or news organisation will lose credibility if they violate certain ethical norms.
What Are Some of the Different Ethics Codes for Journalists?
Media companies and journalism organisations each have their own ethics rules that apply to their employees or members. On top of the general principles, these frequently provide more specialised advice. Here are a few examples:
The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. The SPJ, the country’s oldest media organisation, works to promote the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, in part by urging reporters to follow the high ethical standards outlined in its ethics code.
The Code of Ethics of the Radio Television Digital News Association. This membership organisation in the United States is dedicated to digital media. Its ethics code addresses challenges that frequently arise in online journalism, such as handling viral news and how to handle sponsored content.
The Ethical Journalism Guidebook from the New York Times. The New York Times has earned a reputation for reporting “without fear or favour” on the news. It stresses more contextualised news coverage and careful fact-checking, and it publishes an ethics code to back it up.
What Are Journalists’ Standard Ethical Principles?
Several basic ethical norms are shared by all major news organisations worldwide. They urge journalists to seek the truth, behave in the public good, and minimize harm at the highest level.
Honesty. Journalists have a responsibility to seek out the truth and accurately report it, and this necessitates diligence, which entails making every attempt to gather all necessary data for a story. Journalists should double-check any information they receive from multiple sources.
Independence. Journalists should avoid taking sides in political debates and not represent special interest groups. Any political or financial investments that could create a conflict of interest with the subject they’re writing about should be disclosed to editors and readers. Some groups call this approach “objectivity,” whereas others, particularly non-profit civic journalism projects, reject the name since they expressly advocate for the public good.
Fairness. Journalists should be unbiased and balanced in their reporting and be independent. Most news stories include multiple perspectives, which journalists should note. However, they should not put two opposing viewpoints on an equal basis if one is unsupported by facts. Opinion writing, “gonzo” journalism and creative nonfiction are exceptions to the impartiality norm.
Accountability to the public. Audiences should be listened to by news organisations. Journalists should write under their bylines and assume responsibility for their remarks so that the public may hold them accountable. When news organisations make factual inaccuracies, they must fix them.
Minimization of harm. Not every fact that may be made public should be. Suppose the degree of damage that revelation could do to private individuals—particularly children—outweighs the public good that would follow from it. In that case, news organisations may choose not to publish the story. When it comes to public figures, this is less of an issue. However, it is enormous in areas of national security, where lives may be at stake.
They are keeping libel at bay. For journalists, this is both a legal and a moral obligation. Journalists are prohibited from publishing false claims that harm a person’s reputation. True remarks cannot be defamatory in most jurisdictions; therefore, journalists can protect themselves by thoroughly examining facts.
Appropriate crediting. Plagiarism is never acceptable in journalism, and if they take information from another journalist or media outlet, they must credit them.
In Practice, What Does Ethical Journalism Look Like?
It is simple to agree on ethical journalistic ideals, but putting them into practice is more difficult. Because the duty to limit harm might occasionally conflict to reveal the truth, it is up to journalists and editors to decide how to proceed.
For example, journalist Bob Woodward, who is most known for uncovering the Watergate story in the 1970s, goes to considerable measures to demonstrate his lack of political ties. He doesn’t display any favouritism toward news organisations, giving interviews to outlets on both sides of the political spectrum. To send the message that he is “in the centre of the road,” he does not vote in presidential elections.
What Role Did Journalism Ethics Play in the Pentagon Papers?
The Pentagon Papers, a significant investigative article published by The New York Times and The Washington Post, is an excellent example of the importance of journalistic ethics. The reports were based on classified papers leaked by military whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and published in 1971. The records revealed that the US government had intensified the Vietnam War while keeping the public in the dark about its true goals and activities.
On the one hand, journalists were responsible for revealing the truth in the public interest. They did, however, have a responsibility to protect the people listed in the confidential documents. These files may expose the names of secret operatives or military plans, information that, if made public, may cost lives and perhaps harm the country.
The public interest, in this case, guided the two newspapers, and they judged that the public’s desire to learn about the government’s deception outweighed the risks of disclosing specific facts. The US government attempted to prevent further publishing of the records, but the Supreme Court held that publications had the right to make their own decisions under the First Amendment.