Ethics Code Revisions: Our Second Draft

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that justice and good government require an informed public. The journalist’s duty is to provide that information, accurately, fairly and fully. Responsible journalists from all media, including nontraditional providers of news to a broad audience, should strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Responsible journalists think ethically before acting, and make every effort to get the story right the first time. Integrity is the foundation of a journalist’s credibility, and above all, responsible journalists must be accurate. The purpose of this code is to declare the Society’s principles and standards and to encourage their use in the practice of journalism in any and all media.


Download the mark-through draft

Want to see just how much has been changed for this second draft of the revised SPJ Code of Ethics? Download a copy of the mark-through draft [PDF], which includes both the first draft’s text and the proposed updates as a comparison. Highlighted items are new, while items with a strikethrough mark are slated to be removed.

Latest update on the process

Read about the second draft, the process of putting it together, and how you can help shape what happens next.

The first draft

If you would like to review the first draft for comparison, these links can help:

Ethics Code Revisions: Our First Draft [Updated]
Original mark-through draft [PDF]

Seek Truth and Report It

Journalists should be honest, fair, and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should:

Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Use primary sources to verify information before publishing when possible.

Gather and update information throughout the life of a news story to avoid error.

Pursue accuracy in reporting over speed of publishing. Neither speed nor abbreviated formats excuse inaccuracy.

Put information into context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify information in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.

Clearly identify sources. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.

Reserve anonymity for sources who could face danger, retribution or other harm for providing information. Consider alternatives in reporting before granting anonymity. Anonymity should not be granted merely as license to criticize. Reveal conditions attached to promises made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

When possible and appropriate, provide access to original documents and other information sources.

Diligently seek subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to criticism and allegations of wrongdoing.

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious reporting methods except when traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.

Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless. Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek nontraditional sources whose voices are seldom heard.

Avoid stereotyping. Examine your own cultural values and avoid imposing those on others.

Support the open exchange of views in news stories and among news consumers.

Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be clearly labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.

Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Clearly label sponsored content.

Never deliberately distort information.

Label rumors as unconfirmed in the rare occasions it becomes necessary to report one.

Never alter or distort news images. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.

Never plagiarize. Disclose sources of information not independently gathered.


Minimize Harm

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. Journalists should:

Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or invasiveness.

Consider the potential harm when seeking or using information, interviews and images of people affected by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects. Consider cultural differences in your approach and treatment.

Authenticate all photos, data or other information, including any gathered from social media forums, including those for which the source is unknown, or where there is uncertainty regarding the authenticity of the images or information.

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish. Journalists should balance the importance of information and potential effects on subjects and the public before publication.

Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing private information.

Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity or following the lead of those who do.

Consider the implications of identifying juvenile suspects and victims of sex crimes. Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

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


Act Independently

A journalist’s highest and primary obligation is to serve the public. Journalists should:

Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations that may conflict with an impartial approach to information-gathering and may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for news or access.

Deny favored treatment to advertisers and donors, or any other special interests, and resist pressure to influence coverage in any way, even if such pressures come from inside the media organization.

Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not. Distinguish news from advertising and marketing material. Shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.


Be accountable and transparent

Journalists should take responsibility for their work and explain their decisions to their readers, listeners and audiences. Journalists should:

Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.

Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly. Corrections and clarifications should be explained carefully and thoroughly and displayed with the same prominence as the original item.

Explain to audiences ethical choices made in reporting. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices and news content.

Disclose sources of funding and relationships that might influence, or appear to influence, reporting involving both journalists and their sources.

Expose unethical conduct in journalism by their own news organizations and others.

Abide by the same high standards they expect of public persons.

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  • CS

    Right on track! Good work …

  • Murphy888

    Good work. Sometimes PhD’s are used as primary sources on the history or character of a victim. Usually long ago child sexual abuse. How about including an explanation on why the victim wasn’t interviewed.

  • Fred B. Walters

    One of the points should be an obligation for editors and producers to determine priorities based on their own knowledge of issues and not be swayed by surveys of public opinion. It is assumed these gatekeepers to the airwaves and printing presses keep themselves well-informed on matters of public impact.

  • Ellen Eldridge

    Looks good!

  • Maureen Nevin Duffy

    Re: Pursue accuracy in reporting over speed of publication. Neither

    speed nor abbreviation formats excuse inaccuracy. [Are there similar requirements of editors? Most working journalists today are painfully aware of the type of pressure being applied, which puts speed as the main virtue. Of course, editors expect accuracy, too. But we have only to view the end-results in publications as prestigious as the "Gray Lady" to see which master -- speed or accuracy -- wins out most often. Ever observe the expanding nature of the corrections box? I think some genuine guidance here would be useful. And telling writers not to sacrifice accuracy without telling editors what is reasonable and really possible, and supporting writers, might go a long way here.]

  • John McClelland

    The advice to give corrections “the same prominence” as the original item surely gets widely ignored as hopelessly impractical. I recall _once_ in 20 years doing a follow-up story, a corrective rehash with little new info, to provide a platform for a headline similar to that on the original story. Other than a brokered deal to defuse litigation (this was not), who would even consider that now? Seek a better phrase, something like “with prominence appropriate to….”
    Corrections now need to be linked to lingering online versions of the originals. Some organizations do this reasonably well, considering. Too many probably do not even try. Find a way to encourage it.

  • Jacob Kanclerz

    “Label rumors as unconfirmed in the rare occasions it becomes necessary to report one.”

    Not sure how I feel about enshrining this in the code. What was the rationale for including this, and how many people felt strong enough to add it? I can understand the intent, given what we’ve seen breaking news coverage in this Twitter age. My only rebuttal would be that the Code sets a very high ethical bar in general. I feel like we’re lowering the bar a bit here to fit current trends in news delivery.

    I do like most of the new Code. It feels much more relevant and the additions fit for the digital age look great.

  • JHamer

    The original code said: “Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.” That sentence was deleted in the revised drafts. It should be reinstated. Journalists should actively seek and encourage feedback, criticism and suggestions from the public. Yes, sometimes it is unpleasant and annoying. But it is essential to earning public trust in the long run. Journalists are widely perceived as people who “can dish it out, but can’t take it.” They should be totally transparent about themselves, absolutely accountable if they make mistakes, and fully open to other points of view. SPJ should also form an Ethics Oversight Committee to publicly adjudicate complaints against media organizations or individual journalists in certain cases, if the complaints cannot be resolved in any other way. I say this as one who ran the Washington News Council for the past 15 years, where we heard complaints against media organizations in open public hearings. The SPJ Ethics Code was our “gold standard,” and we often quoted from it at the hearings. If SPJ is unwilling to “enforce” its own code, then the code will be seen as essentially meaningless, no matter how it is rewritten and revised. See http://wanewscouncil.org for details.


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