Why a Code of Ethics is Important

No one can split a hair like a journalist. You can fill an entire after-work happy hour with debates about the proper use of the verb “claimed” and whether a suspect should be a subject or a person of interest.

We are, after all, the profession that will go to war over the Oxford comma and whether or not “internet” should be capitalized.

As journalists, we spend a lot of time interpreting the Society of Professional Journalists‘ Code of Ethics for particular situations and debating the fine points of the Code as it applies to our work. That is an important discussion, one to which the Ethics Committee is dedicated and that will help shape and inform our work to come.

The changes in our profession have created new realms of ethical controversy, from the appropriate and compassionate treatment of subjects online to managing comment sections to the ethical use of social media for reporting and investigation to the questions of unpublishing, original source documents, and the wild world of online news video.

Still there is a common belief that journalism ethics should simply be innate, that if you’ve been a reporter or editor for a certain amount of time, you should be aware of the ethical constraints of our profession and follow the rules, whether or not they’re written down.

But the problem we find is that the real ethical quandaries are not the big yes-or-no questions that comprise the “duh” section of Journalism 101. They come in those little gray areas, the moments when the rush to get the news online fast washes away the perspective of ethical journalism.

This is why a code written down on paper is important. We must have clear boundaries to help us guide our decisions on deadline, a list of rules of the road to give us a framework for those decisions – and sometimes, to provide reporters with some cover when the editor is out of the office.

But I’d like to add another consideration: Ethics codes are not just for journalists.

Creating and following an ethics code is vitally important for our work, but almost as important is the public’s trust in us. As we all know, that trust has eroded greatly, whether deserved or undeserved. I know that I have grown weary of arguing against the latest idiotic meme alleging that we are all part of some vast corporate conspiracy and cover the news based on dictates from anonymous masters who are in the pocket of one party or another.

The problem is: people believe the memes more than they believe us.

And I feel we are partly to blame for that. Not because they are correct, but because we do a terrible job of publicizing the structures and ethical guidelines of our profession. So much of the news-reading population has no idea that ethics codes even exist or are adhered to by any newsrooms.

By writing our ethics codes down on paper, using them, revising them, and sharing them as much as possible, we educate the public about the work that we do. It provides the same transparency that we demand of our public officials, that the “how” and “why” of a story is as important as the story itself.

We must stop assuming that the readers know how a newsroom works, that they understand the strictures of the profession. They don’t know unless we tell them. They don’t trust us anymore, and we need to show them, by word and example, that they can.

And that means our Code of Ethics cannot stay stagnant. Our understanding of ethical values might not change over the years, but the practical application of those values can and will change as the world changes. Any code is only as good as the people locked in a room to write it, and the people who continue to interpret it and share it with colleagues and the public.

That means we aren’t done, and the conversation will have to continue – with or without happy hour. That conversation needs to be public, so that the readers can see that this is important, that we care, that talking heads on TV are not the sole representatives of the news media.

There are a lot of us doing this job. We care about what we do. And we have a code.


Elizabeth Donald is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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