January 20, 1973 — Inauguration Day in Washington.
In the newsroom of The Washington Post, reporters discuss stories while Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward sit and type at their desks. Simultaneously, televisions in the newsroom air the scene of Richard Nixon being sworn in for his second term as President of the United States.
Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting had been the subject of national attention leading up to the final moments of the 1972 campaign for the Watergate Scandal, a scandal that would see Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
After his inauguration, the teletype machine shows the headlines and events that followed. That scene signifies the end of the film All The President’s Men, released 40 years ago, and it ranks as one of the top films about journalism that have been released over the course of the last century.
The 1976 film, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, invigorated a generation’s interest in the profession, believing in the value of public service journalism, the idea that holds all politicians and those in power to account, the idea that journalism can make a positive effort in society.
Though it showcases the fundamentals of journalism, it also presents a reminder that such journalism must be guided by ethics and judgment — that conscious, mindful journalistic ethics, including those at the center of newsgathering, help guide the construction of such a narrative, and that a level-headed judgment that is fair and impartial, and has no intention of malice, drive the language of such a story.
For those who are starting their careers in journalism, the idea of ethics is crucial. Ethics will guide you from story development and conception to putting it in its final stages, whether it will end up on the front page of a web site or newspaper, or take the form of a script that will end up as a broadcast on radio or television.
The SPJ Code of Ethics embodies the principles of ethics through 4 key values — seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. Even though the consumption and dissemination of journalism has evolved, the ideas at the core of this code applies, as I wrote over on the Net Worked blog this past April outlining it for Twitter.
The Code of Ethics is not mandatory, nor is it there to intimidate or designed to look down upon certain journalists. Instead, the role of the Code of Ethics is a guide to help you be a better journalist, to help you do your job better and to support your colleagues, either through collaboration on a story, advising, or other means.
In the film, Woodward and Bernstein exercised ethics, from their newsgathering and verification, to owning up to mistakes, notably the article from October 1972 in the Post, which said that the White House Chief of Staff at the time, H.R. Halderman, had controlled a fund within the Nixon Administration that had been at the core of the scandal and part of the contents found at the break-in, according to contents of court testimony to a jury from the treasurer of Nixon’s 1972 campaign, Hugh Sloan.
Even though the means of how journalism is presented are changing, the fundamental goals of journalism are not. Ethics therefore are a necessity to help guarantee fair, accurate, impartial reporting, to build trust with your audience, to enhance your credibility, to showcase the reason why journalism is regarded as ubiquitous with public life, and quintessential to the future of democracy.
Whether or not you are writing a 140 character message on Twitter, a script for a 3 minute radio segment, a 450 word web site piece or a 900 word piece that will end up on the front page of your newspaper tomorrow, a good story is a story that can be held to ethical standards, and a journalist that can be held to ethical standards can be a successful journalist.
It is why resources like the Code of Ethics are worth saving for reference. No matter what beat you cover or what medium you work, these resources are designed to help you be a better journalist, to ensure the narrative of your story remains strong, and the content that you produce can educate, inform, stimulate and enlighten, time and again.
Yet, the benefits of resources like the Code of Ethics go beyond the journalists themselves. They go toward the people who matter most of all in this line of work — our audience.
Editor’s note: Ethical queries on stories can be made to the SPJ Ethics Committee through the Ethics Hotline, either by telephone (1-317-927-8000 X 208) or by email. Inquiries and messages will be forwarded to the Committee for response.
Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of the SPJ Digital community, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and a contributor to the SPJ blog network.
The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Generation J community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.