How to be a journalist and a human being in five easy steps

As the Society of Professional Journalists is vigorously combing through its Code of Ethics for revision, I am left pondering the deeper meanings of the Code.

I know, so intellectual of me. But, honestly, I think sometimes journalists forget in the craziness of deadline-meeting and note-taking and other juggling to throw in a little humanity. This is what I think SPJ’s Code of Ethics should be: A guide for the human journalist.

Yes, a feeling, compassionate, news-hound with a mission, but also a heart. The only problem is I kind of lied in my headline, because I don’t think there are five easy steps for the Code of Ethics to line up with this humanness. This is the journalist’s (aka human’s) job.

I’m not the only one in the SPJ family with some ideas swirling about regarding this long-overdue revision. Our Executive Director, Joe Skeel, wrote a great blog post outlining his feelings about the project and his conclusion that the Code of Ethics should be broad, rather than detailed in nature.

I agree.

In that post, he also spoke about the first time many journalists come in contact with the Code of Ethics, which mirrored my own experience with my first ethics code run-in.

I stumbled upon SPJ’s Code of Ethics in the mass amounts of papers I was handed for a media ethics class that I took at Purdue during my junior year. I spent my entire semester writing papers, having discussions and arguments, and simply sorting out how to take this Code of Ethics and apply it to real-life journalistic ethical problems.

There wasn’t ever a right answer, and it drove me crazy.

As a journalist I am used to absolute truth. Either the house caught on fire or it didn’t, and it is my job to find out which happened and report it. Not: Well it did catch on fire but it’s really up for interpretation. No! I don’t like this answer, nor what the Code of Ethics made me do:  think.

As I spent a year as opinions editor at The Exponent, I actually had to apply this thinking and decision-making process on a daily basis. Unbeknownst to me when I took the position, you can’t publish any opinion you feel like or are sent by readers. There is this whole minimize harm notion that applies. And, of course, libel. I learned this the hard way when I published a letter to the editor that made false claims about members of Purdue’s administration.

Oops. Big oops, actually.

I learned my lesson though, as every college journalist can relate at some point in their schooling, and started weighing the costs and benefits of publishing opinions that could be harmful in the future. That is what SPJ’s Code of Ethics taught me.

I started thinking like a human and a journalist, rather than just a journalist. And I think that’s the key to this whole ethics code revision “debate.”

It’s like running to the scene of a car accident to cover it and not helping the person bleeding inside the car when you are the only one there. If journalists put away the keyboard sometimes and remember how it feels to be on the other side of the computer screen, maybe just maybe whatever the Code of Ethics is revised to say can be interpreted fairly by human beings.

Some might believe that SPJ is not ethically revising its ethics code (ironic). Others won’t like it when it is revised, probably just like there are many who already don’t agree with its current incarnation. But, if it starts newsroom discussions, even just one, where the balance between printing and holding information is weighed in order to minimize harm or report the truth, then it has done its job.

The code could stay the way it is now and be fine, but as journalism is changing the code is too, and so should the journalists interpreting that code.

Make it detailed, make it broad, make it behind closed doors with everyone blindfolded and tied to chairs. I don’t so much care how the Code of Ethics revision process is done. Just interpret it as humans once it is complete.

Taylor Carlier is the communications coordinator at the Society of Professional Journalists. She is a 2014 Purdue University graduate of Mass Communication: Journalism and previously was the special projects editor at The Exponent. She can be reached at tcarlier@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @Taylorcarlier.

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