Top Five Ethics Codes for Journalists

19 Sep

I began writing for the teen section of my local newspaper, The Courier Post, in high school. If I was presented with an ethics code back in ninth grade, I don’t remember it. In college, my journalism course on ethics and First Amendment law was interesting, but very difficult; my memories of the semester are peppered with my classmates’ complaints about how unnecessary all of the information seemed. Out in the professional world, journalism ethics is frequently summarized, half-jokingly: “Plagiarism is bad. Don’t do it.”

This jaded approach to journalism ethics irks me. I became a journalist because I treasure people’s stories. I’m a writer because I relish words’ meaning and power. I’m a storyteller, I’m a communicator, I’m a reporter — and I take my craft seriously. “Plagiarism is bad” isn’t enough for me. Getting the facts right is essential, treating my subjects with respect is crucial, and thus, doing my work ethically and responsibly is paramount.

I went in search of ethics codes that reflect my take on journalism ethics. The following, in some shape or form, echo my concerns for journalistic responsibility and whet my craving for an in-depth understanding and appreciation for a journalist’s power.

  1. NPR’s Ethics CodeThis ethics code is, admittedly, not very dissimilar from many other journalistic entities’ lists of dos and don’ts. NPR’s opening statement, however, won me over: “We are always testing and questioning the credibility of others. We have to stand that test ourselves…” If only all journalistic undertakings began with such a clear, dedicated statement of purpose. If you’re going to agree to understanding various conflicts of interest and ethical conduct, you’d better start out by grasping why such things are so terribly important.
  2. ASNE’S Statement of Principles – This assemblage of journalism ethics is slightly old-school…but I think that’s why I like it. Its preamble, like NPR’s, sets an important tone for the rest of the piece; it also highlights the great, grave responsibility of the press. “The First Amendment, protecting freedom of expression from abridgment by any law, guarantees to the people through their press a constitutional right, and thereby places on newspaper people a particular responsibility,” it begins. The freedom of the press should not be taken lightly. It’s my job to go places and do things and share ideas that my readers (Users? Audience? Fellow community members?) cannot, to shed light on new perspectives as our world changes and evolves. That’s quite an undertaking, and ASNE seems to respect that.
  3. A Blogger’s Code of Ethics – This ethics code provides one approach to the drama about whether bloggers qualify as true journalists: Let’s hold bloggers to the same standards as professional journalists. The first paragraph of this code notes that not all bloggers consider themselves to be journalists, but I disagree with that mindset. If we’re all users, and if all of the information published on the web is going to be consumed by someone else in this giant virtual network, then all online publications have some level of equality. Consequently, I think both the New York Times‘ reporters and bloggers around the world are deserving of the same general respect and standards. This summer, former USDA official Shirley Sherrod lost her job over a blogger’s unethical excerpting of a video — it’s evident that bloggers need to be reminded of their impact and their need to minimize harm. No matter the medium, a journalist’s job is heavy with responsibility.
  4. ProPublica Code of Ethics – ProPublica’s unique approach to running a journalistic publication made me curious about what its code of ethics would be like. What I found impressed me greatly: “…While our entity is new, and our business model somewhat innovative, our ethics are neither.” Like the other entries on this list, ProPublica considers a journalist’s ethical and responsible behavior to be of the highest priority. My favorite part of this code, though, is the recurring statement: “When in doubt, ask.” If the essence of journalism ethics must be simmered down into a sentence, I prefer this one infinitely more than “Plagiarism is bad.” A journalist’s job is not to make her best guess about what’s right, but to keep searching until she finds the entire truth; a reporter’s responsibility is not to attempt not treating her sources horribly, but to ensure she is addressing her subjects fairly. Plus, I find that the tie-in between “When in doubt, ask” and ProPublica’s focus on investigative journalism nicely illustrates their dedication to their craft.
  5. BBC Editorial GuidelinesThe full pdf document of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines is over 200 pages! Brevity has its pluses, but I really love the in-depth approach that this ethics code takes. If a journalist wants an answer on how to behave ethically in practically any situation, from a volcanic eruption to a children’s television program, the BBC’s guidelines can help. The code recognizes the general journalistic philosophy of treating subjects fairly and not compromising standards, but it expands upon them greatly; it is hefty in order to drive home its point. I’ve read my fair share of journalism textbooks, and they tend to be dry, oversimplified, and, in a word, boring. The BBC’s code of ethics, however, is full of examples, explanations, and empathy for both its subjects and its audience. I used to think that the New York Times’ ethics policy was extensive (That ethics code deserves an honorable mention on this list. It was the first one that I was introduced to, so it’ll stick in my mind no matter how many other ethics codes I encounter.), but the BBC has redefined what it means to truly understand journalism ethics for me.
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