As we prepare for careers in this ever changing media landscape, some of the most quintessential things to remember can be items that can easily be taken for granted. In this digital age we find ourselves in a competitive environment, trying to be the first to get the story to audiences, through as many platforms as possible, be it either social media or conventional means (radio, television or the web).
The same rule can apply to ethics — the bastion of journalism. It is important therefore to pause to remember the elements, though simple at first, that guide the production of ethical journalism. These lessons, at the core of the journalistic curriculum, are lessons that will be with you for the rest of your career. Though they are simple, they are the most important to remember.
These lessons, outlined in the SPJ Code of Ethics, are composed of four goals all journalists should strive for — seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. These are not just journalistic aspirations, but rather, they are good basic journalism practice. They can be accomplished in simple ways.
Be impartial: No matter the subject you’re writing, be it a local story, a political story, or an entertainment story, you need to tell both sides fairly, and allow for everyone concerned to have an opportunity to respond. The language you use in telling your story should be like telling a friend what happened. It is language that should not be editorialized. Your friend wants the facts, and your friend should be entitled to them.
Be accurate: It is better to be right than to be first, in spite of the competitive nature of today’s dissemination of news. The Ethics Code says that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. If you’re uncertain of something, make sure its right before reporting it. Tell your audience that you’re trying to verify it, or if you encountered trouble along the way. Take the time to ensure everything is correct.
Producing an accurate piece of journalism is like completing a research paper for a class — it is better to produce something that is thorough, instead of something that is incomplete.
Be considerate: While audiences want to know the story, there is a debate that plays out in newsrooms when it comes to certain stories. The Code of Ethics says: “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” You need to justify the reason for why a source or certain angle is pursued, and if it will benefit the public knowledge for that day’s particular story.
Be cautious: Don’t pay for access for information, and avoid special treatment for any source. Also be careful of outside activities that may affect your credibility. If the content is advertising, label it as such. It isn’t about the advertisers or special interests, its about your audience, and the ability to be informed, educated and engaged.
Be honest: Journalists are humans too. We make mistakes. We don’t like making mistakes, but it happens. When a mistake is made, own up and make the correction. Tell your audience what was wrong, and convey what was right. Honesty is the best policy, and a forthright journalist is an honest journalist, one that audiences will keep coming back to.
Even though the digital age is changing how we bring news to audiences, the rules of producing ethical journalism remain the same. They are simple at first, yet they are the most essential thing to remember in your careers — something to remember, not just today, but every day, and something never to be taken for granted.
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. He is also a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.
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.