Ethics Code Revision: Our Third Draft

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that democracy, a just society and good government require an informed public.  Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.


What’s changed?

The Ethics Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists met the weekend of July 11-13 in Columbus, Ohio to put the finishing touches on a code that will be presented to delegates at EIJ14 in Nashville, Sept. 4-6. As you make your way through the latest revision of code, here are some guidelines that can help explain the significant changes over the current version.

Download the mark-through draft

Download a copy of the mark-through draft [PDF], which includes both the second 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.

Watch the process

The entire July 12 meeting was streamed live on spj.org, and you are invited to watch the replay right here.

Blog post: Unveiling a New Code

We have a final ethics code to present to the membership. Allow me this time to offer my personal thoughts before I get into the nuts and bolts of this proposed code in a later blog.

Previous drafts

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

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

Seek Truth and Report It

Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair.  Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.  Verify information before its release.  Use original sources whenever possible.

Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.

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

Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.

Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.

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

Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm.  Anonymity should not be granted merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.

Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or 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 serve as watchdogs over government.

Provide access to source material when relevant and appropriate.

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

Avoid stereotyping.  Journalists should examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing them on others.

Label advocacy and commentary.

Never deliberately distort fact or context, including visual news content.  Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.

Never plagiarize.  Always attribute.


Minimize Harm

Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

Balance the public’s need for information against any harm or discomfort it may cause.  Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or undue intrusiveness.

Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish.

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

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

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

Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.

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


Act Independently

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism 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 avoid political and other outside activities that may conflict with an impartial approach to information-gathering, compromise integrity or damage credibility.

Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news.  Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.

Deny favored treatment to advertisers and donors, or any other special interests, and resist pressure to influence coverage, even if it comes from inside the media organization.

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


Be Accountable and Transparent

Ethical journalists should take responsibility for their work and explain their decisions to the public.

 Journalists should:

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

Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.

Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.  Corrections and clarifications should be explained carefully and thoroughly.

Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.

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

Adhere to the values in this code in all interaction with the public.

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  • Jane Kirtley

    Is this disclaimer that appeared appended to the end of the current code going to be used for the new version as well? The code is intended not as a set of “rules” but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.

    Jane Kirtley

  • AndySchotz

    Jane, I wondered about that when it didn’t show up in the first draft of the update. I was told that it’s still there. I don’t see it here, either, so I hope that’s correct.

  • EmilyK

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

    This should either end at “methods” or say “Do not use …” and end at “methods.” Otherwise we appear to endorse deceptive practices and we appear to endorse or validate people such as James O’Keefe.


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