The Secret to a Successful Journalism Career Is Strong Ethics

Joseph Pulitzer’s bust is displayed alongside his quote in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in New York City.

That might sound old school or boring but for me it is true: developing, adhering and staying true to journalism ethics has helped me every step of the way throughout my career.

When you are adhering to ethical standards you are able to build and keep your community’s trust. As I have moved around the United States pursuing my career, I continue to receive tips from people living in the previous markets I have worked. 

Why? They trust me. Now, they don’t necessarily mention that it is because I was ethical, but they use other words like “fair,” “responsible” and “respectful.”

You may hear those words and think what does that have to do with being an ethical journalist? What’s important to remember about journalism ethics is that it’s different than what is legal. Something that is legal may not always be ethical. If you start to think about the issue of what is legal and what is ethical separately, you’ll begin to see why the words “fair,” “responsible” and “respectful” apply to ethics.

Fair is probably the most obvious. At a basic level it means providing all (not just two) sides and individuals involved in the story an opportunity to be heard. For me though it also means going above and beyond to add context to our stories. When you’re putting together stories you are anticipating what answers may be. If you don’t receive those answers from those involved it’s still important to include and explore them in stories.

Being responsible means being honest with your users. Telling them when you get something wrong, when you don’t know something, when you couldn’t get answers, etc. Be transparent and let them into the storytelling process. If you receive information after the story airs that changes what the story was about, share that with your users and engage in the debate. As journalists we have a responsibility to inform our communities. Don’t hold back because of sweeps, competition or pride.

The old adage, “treat people how you would like to be treated,” has taken me far. That doesn’t mean I back down when there are complaints or pressure from powerful agencies or leaders. It does mean that I always encourage and welcome a conversation about the stories I produce. It means I reach out to individuals named in the story, even if a public information officer has asked me not to. I my team to do the same because I know I would want the same if my name was being mentioned in a story. 

Being ethical has not always been the easy choice. It’s also not always made me a lot of friends. But, when I have been faced with tough decisions or questioned for the ones I have made, I have been able to defend and standby my choices because I made them based off of ethical guidelines I believe in.

So, as the Society of Professional Journalists celebrates Ethics week, I encourage you to revisit your ethics, read our Code of Ethics and develop a set of guidelines you can defend.

If you’re an ethical and responsible journalist, more tips will come your way, you’ll produce better stories and you’ll be rewarded with opportunities. 


Lynn Walsh is the president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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  • Andy Schotz

    Excellent recap and turnaround. Thanks.

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