Ethics Code Revisions – Our First Draft [Updated]

Update 7/3/2014: Second draft now available

The second draft of the revised SPJ Code of Ethics is now available, and you can review it here.

When the 2013 Excellence in Journalism National Convention ended in Anaheim, Calif. last August, the work of the SPJ Ethics Committee really began.

Tasked with revising the 1996 version of the Society’s code, the 18-member committee wasted little time getting philosophically engaged. How much should we change? Shorter? Longer? More specific? More general? Keep, change or add to the guiding principles? What’s missing as we march into 2014 and beyond?

Update: Download the mark-through draft

Want to see just how much has been changed for this first draft of the revised SPJ Code of Ethics? Download a copy of the mark-through draft [PDF, 546 KB], which includes both the existing code’s text and the proposed updates as a comparison. Highlighted items are new, while items with a strikethrough mark are slated to be removed.

2014 Code of Ethics revision: What’s new?

Compare and contrast with some help from this quick overview of what’s changed in the first draft. [PDF, 127 KB].

Shortly thereafter, a subcommittee was established to incorporate the views of the growing populace of digital media journalists. After several weeks of work, that group made its recommendations to the committee-of-the-whole and work began.

In late January, the overall committee was divided into four groups, each responsible with revising a principle component of the code: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable. Each group worked through February and into March to revise the code language. When members completed their work it was handed to another group for editing.

What appears below is the FIRST DRAFT of the committee’s work. We are posting it here and it will be made available to you in various mediums as we begin the spring regional conference schedule. You are invited to place comments here, with your regional or local professional or student chapter, or contact me directly, the Ethics Committee chairman at

I can’t emphasize enough that this is an on-going process. It is our intention to solicit as many comments and recommendations as possible over the spring season and meet as a committee again in May to consider your suggestions. So, please comment. As we move this process forward, we hope to produce a final version from the committee in mid summer, giving members/delegates about six weeks prior to convention to read and consider the code that will come to this year’s convention.

So, enjoy the read. Engage and be a part of the process.

Kevin Z. Smith
SPJ National Ethics Committee Chairman




Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that justice and good government require an informed public. The journalist’s duty is to provide that information, accurately, fairly and fully. Responsible journalists from all media, including nontraditional providers of news to a broad audience, should strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Responsible journalists think ethically before acting, and make every effort to get the story right the first time.  Integrity is the foundation of a journalist’s credibility, and above all, responsible journalists must be accurate. The purpose of this code is to declare the Society’s principles and standards and to encourage their use in the practice of journalism in any and all media.

 Seek Truth

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should:

Aggressively gather and update information as a story unfolds and work to avoid error. Deliberate distortion and reporting unconfirmed rumors are never permissible.

Remember that neither speed nor brevity excuses inaccuracy or mitigates the damage of error.

Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of stories. Verify information from sources before publishing. Information taken from other news sources should be independently verified.

Work to put every story in context. In promoting, previewing or reporting a story live, take care not to misrepresent or oversimplify it.

Clearly identify sources; the public is entitled to as much information as possible on source’s identity, reliability and possible motives.  Seek alternative sources before granting anonymity. Reveal conditions attached to any promises made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

Seek sources whose views are seldom used. Official and unofficial sources can be equally valid.

Diligently seek subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to criticism and to allegations of wrongdoing.

Avoid publishing critical opinions by those seeking confidentiality.

Never alter or distort news images. Clearly label illustrations.

Avoid re-enactments or staged news events.

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

Never plagiarize. Always attribute information not independently gathered.

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.

Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be clearly labeled.

Avoid stereotyping. Examine your own cultural values and avoid imposing those on others.

Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection. Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.


Minimize Harm

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. Journalists should:

Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort.  Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or an invasive behavior.

Be sensitive when seeking or using information, interviews and images of people affected by tragedy or grief. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

Recognize the harm in using photos or information, including any photos and data from social media forums, for which the source is unknown, or where there is uncertainty regarding the authenticity of the images or information.

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish. Journalists should balance the importance of information and potential effects on subjects and the public before publication.

Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention.

Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. Avoid following the lead of others who violate this tenet.

Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects, criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges, and victims of sex crimes. Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

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


Act Independently

A journalist’s highest and primary obligation is to the public’s right to know. Journalists should:

 Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations that may conflict with an impartial approach to information-gathering.

Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for news or access.

Deny favored treatment to advertisers and donors, or any other special interests, and resist pressure to influence coverage.

Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not. Distinguish news from advertising and marketing material. Shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.

Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.


Be Accountable

Journalists should be open in their actions and accept responsibility for them. Journalists should:

Clarify and explain news coverage and encourage a civil dialogue with the public over journalistic practices.

Admit mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently wherever they appeared, including in archived material.

Expose unethical conduct in journalism.

Disclose sources of funding and relationships that might influence, or appear to influence, reporting.

Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.


Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


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