Journalists’ Code of Ethics: Time for an update? » Article », Digital Journalism

Journalists’ Code of Ethics: Time for an update?

During a Twitter chat Thursday about journalism ethics in social media, I tweeted that the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics could stand an update.

Scott Leadingham, editor of the SPJ magazine The Quill, responded that SPJ’s Ethics Committee is always open to suggestions. Scott asked what I would update. This is my answer.

The code’s basic principles – seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; be accountable – remain the heart of good journalism ethics. But the explanations following those principles are rooted in an age of print and television.SPJ’s website explains that the society borrowed the code of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1926. SPJ developed its own code in 1973 and revised it in 1984, 1987 and most recently in 1996, when digital journalism was in its infancy. It’s odd that the longest gap between revisions since SPJ wrote its own code would come during a time of such profound change for journalism. The code should reflect the challenges, realities and values of good digital journalism.

I don’t like long ethics policies for newsrooms. Too many of them exist mostly to document reasons to fire people. Too many of them are mostly lists of do’s and don’ts (usually more don’ts), rather than helpful guides to making ethical decisions in situations that aren’t as simple as the policies sometimes make them. For organizations, I prefer statements of basic principles:

But individual journalists need more detailed guidance in making ethical decisions. I think Bob Steele’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist (quite similar to SPJ’s code) are outstanding, and his 10 Questions to guide ethical decisions are even more helpful, because good ethics rest more in good decision-making than in rules. I have always liked the SPJ code, because it combines simplicity with detailed guidance. The four basic principles are clear and direct. Then the code elaborates in a way that is helpful for journalists trying to make decisions in a variety of situations. Technology and media innovation have presented some new decisions, so I think that detailed guidance could use an update. In addition, controversies over more traditional matters such as confidential sources and opinion, merit new discussions and possibly updating.

I have blogged extensively and often critically about newsroom social media policies. In the arguments about these policies, the SPJ code is seldom mentioned, because it offers no guidance on use of social media.

I encourage you to read the full code uninterrupted from the link above. But I will present it here, with my analysis and suggestions inserted in italics. Sometimes I’m suggesting possible language for revisions. Sometimes I’m just discussing the issue. Sometimes both. I’ve written more than 3,000 words here and I’m not suggesting journalists need a code that long. But they need lots of discussions and perhaps a longer code than we have now.

(Full disclosure: I haven’t been an SPJ member since I was in college, so SPJ should listen to its members closer than it listens to me. But Scott asked, so I’m answering. Nothing against SPJ; I just haven’t been aware of strong local chapters where I’ve worked and have been busy with other organizations or duties.)

Seek Truth and Report It

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

A timeless basic principle.

Journalists should:

—    Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

I know many might feel an urge here to say that journalists should be especially skeptical of tweets and other information from social media. I don’t think that’s necessary. Journalists should be just as skeptical of information from social media as they are of information from other channels, such as conversation, phone calls, other media and documents. No need to update, no need to single out social media. This passage holds up well with time.

— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.

This needs rewriting and expansion to cover the way journalists cover unfolding news stories. I’d suggest something like: Diligently seek out subjects of news coverage to give them the opportunity to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing. In unfolding coverage of breaking news, criticism or allegations may need to be published before a journalist can get a response. In these cases, the initial stories should reflect the effort to get a response, and the response should receive prominent play whenever it comes.

The update here needs to go beyond the technology-driven changes to how we cover breaking news. It also should recognize and address journalism’s widespread and lamentable practice of he-said-she-said stories that don’t get to the truth. The mere effort to report a “balanced” story with charge and response does not satisfy the obligation to report the truth, because this often boils down to nothing more than parroting of dueling lies. The journalist should fact-check, seeking documentation, videos, eyewitnesses and people with first-hand experience (always remaining aware of individual biases and the weakness of human memory) to come as close to the truth as possible.

Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.

Perhaps this should address the issue of anonymous story comments, though that might be difficult without a consensus among journalists.

— Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

Truly anonymous sources – people who won’t disclose their names even to the journalist – should never be used as anything more than tipsters. Anything a truly anonymous source tells a journalist must be fully verified before publication. Journalists should always question motives before granting confidentiality to a source whose identity they know. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information, and don’t accept the condition that you would never publish the information; you must remain free to seek other sources of the information, while protecting a source’s identity. Make clear to sources seeking confidentiality that this is a two-way deal: You are granting confidentiality in return for truthful information. If you learn that they have lied, misled or presented rumor to you as fact, they should know that you may have to identify them publicly. You should challenge what confidential sources tell you and skeptically seek to confirm or refute the information with other sources.

Remember Judith Miller’s absurd dismissal of responsibility for her false reporting about intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.” I think the SPJ Code of Ethics needs to state unequivocally: Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of the stories; you should verify thoroughly enough to refute false information from sources.

Do not publish critical opinions from people seeking confidentiality. People who wish to express opinions in the media should stand behind their opinions. Confidentiality should be granted only to gather important facts that could not otherwise be learned.

Consider power and eagerness in deciding whether to grant confidentiality. A powerful source volunteering information is trying to use a journalist and should be held accountable for what he or she says. A vulnerable source being approached by a journalist may express reluctance to talk at all without confidentiality. You still should examine motives, seek to get the source on the record and verify information provided, but this source is in a more acceptable position for granting confidentiality.

Use confidentiality as a means to find on-the-record sources and documentation that can be quoted. Quote the confidential sources only as a last resort.

Beyond those issues of a journalist’s sources, SPJ should consider whether the code should address anonymous story comments: Should journalists protect the identities of those commenters (even without a chance for this kind of vetting)? You can’t simply dismiss that as a matter of organizational policy that doesn’t need to be addressed in a code for individual journalists; many journalists are solo bloggers, so this is not an issue just for newspaper, broadcast or large online organizations.

— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.

I would add: Where brief reports can present only limited context, use links to provide full context. In print editions, refer readers to online links providing greater context.

— Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement is permissible only for technical clarity, not for altering content. Label montages and photo illustrations.

— Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.

— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.

This may need to specifically address situations such as online misrepresentation, as the Spokesman-Review did in 2005, through a former federal agent working on the news organization’s behalf (another issue to address?) to document Spokane Mayor James West’s sexual interest in teen-age boys.

— Never plagiarize.

Much as I love the direct simplicity of this passage, it’s no longer enough. I would add: Credit sources by name, not by vague descriptions such as “press reports,” “a blog,” or by indirect references such as “was reported” or “reportedly.” When crediting sources online, link to the original source. Be diligent in identifying source of information clearly in notes, whether digital or paper. Sloppiness is not an excuse for plagiarism.

— Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.

I would add: When using social media to connect with sources, be aware of the groups who might be unrepresented or underrepresented because they use social media less.

— Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.

— Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.

I’m tempted to add here that journalists should not stereotype Twitter users. But I don’t want to elevate the inaccurate reporting about Twitter to these more serious civil rights issues.

— Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.

I would add: The responsibility to support this open exchange does not override the responsibility to report the truth. When people are giving false information in support of their views, the journalist should fact-check and set the record straight.

— Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.

— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.

— Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.

— Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.

I would add: When reporting information from public documents, journalists should link to them or publish them online in pdf or other formats, so users can examine the documents themselves.

The heart of seeking the truth is verifying facts. Should SPJ advocate that journalists use a checklist, as Craig Silverman advocates. Craig notes that checklists are proven to reduce errors in crucial professions such as surgery and pilots. If we want to uphold the truth as a core principle, why shouldn’t we advocate a proven system to improve accuracy?

Minimize Harm

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

—  Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.

— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.

— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

— Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.

— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.

— Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

I would add: Understand that digital content remains available to search engines long after it was newsworthy. Journalists should consider this in deciding whether and how to identify juveniles and how to archive information, particularly about minor offenses.

Breaking-news reporting sometimes requires identification of people (when a child is missing, for instance, the name and photo are essential public information). Later developments, such as learning that the child was sexually assaulted, may provide strong reasons not to identify. As my friend Aly Colón said when we used to collaborate on ethics seminars: You can’t unring the bell, but you can stop ringing it.

Victims’ preferences should be a major factor, but not necessarily the only factor, in deciding whether to identify people in extremely degrading crimes such as sexual assault. Don’t let blanket policies such as “we don’t identify rape victims” add to the pain and anger of a victim who wants to go on the record, to fight back against the shame that society has too long misdirected at victims of sexual assault.

Act Independently

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

Journalists should:

— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

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

— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.

I find it interesting that the second and third points here really just elaborate on the first. But the code doesn’t elaborate further and address the controversial issue that resulted in Keith Olbermann’s suspension from MSNBC: whether a journalist can ethically contribute money to a political candidate or cause. Olberman is not an isolated case;’s Bill Dedman reported in 2007 on how widespread political contributions by journalists are. Why does the code address what journalists may receive but not how they may donate? SPJ should discuss whether the code should go further and address non-political charitable contributions (if you can truly distinguish such things)? Or should the code say journalists may donate money to any cause or candidate but must disclose all contributions relating to anything they cover?

— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.

— Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.

— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

— Be transparent about their business models and sources of revenue, disclosing any areas of potential conflict or discomfort.

— Report on their own organizations as aggressively as they would cover a similarly important business.

I would add: As entrepreneurial journalists and innovative organizations seek new business models for news, journalists should discuss ways to protect the integrity of editorial content and should be transparent about revenue streams and relationships with revenue sources. The ethical need to remain free of advertiser influence should not hinder journalists from working to develop healthy business models to support and sustain independent journalism.

The SPJ Code of Ethics interestingly and perhaps wisely avoids the issue of journalists stating opinions. I wonder how many journalists know or would even guess that the words “opinion” and “objective” never appear in the code. The truth is that opinions have long been an important part of journalism. Columnists, editorial writers and commentators are journalists, as well as just-the-facts reporters.

But opinions are controversial in journalism ethics now, key to the resignation ofDave Weigel and the firing of Juan Williams. Should SPJ address the issue of whether journalists should acknowledge their opinions (some call that transparency, some say that hurts their credibility)? Should SPJ give guidance on whether journalists should express opinions among themselves (Weigel’s offense)? Should SPJ weigh in on the debate over whether journalists should try to remain objective (I argue that that’s impossible and that acknowledging humanity is a better approach) or whether that results in deceptive reporting that Jay Rosen criticizes as the “view from nowhere“? I tend to like that the code doesn’t try to dictate right and wrong on an issue where journalists are so divided. But it should at least be discussed if you’re updating the code.

SPJ also should address the question of whether some journalists have taken independence to the point of aloofness, and whether that goes too far. Many journalists feel that community involvement is important for journalists, especially insmaller communities. Should SPJ provide some guidance here? Or do general principles of independence suffice?

Be Accountable

Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

Journalists should:

— Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.

I would add: Journalists should not hide behind arguments that the public doesn’t care about internal matters. Many in the public do care, and journalists should be accountable to them.

— Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.

— Admit mistakes in full detail and correct them promptly, giving the correction similar play to the error.

I would add: Corrections should clearly and specifically say what was wrong. A reference to the topic of the error is not sufficient. Recognize that errors can spread swiftly on digital channels. A journalist who published or promoted an erroneous story on multiple platform should make at least similar efforts to spread the correction. For instance, if a story was promoted twice on the organizational Twitter account and by several staff members on personal accounts, the correction should be noted twice on the organizational account, as well as on the personal accounts.

— Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.

— Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.

I would add: With rare exceptions, journalists should identify themselves fully in social media profiles and in direct contact with sources. One regular exception would be in consumer reporting, sunshine law tests or restaurant reviews, where the journalist is trying to report how a business or agency treats the general public. In those cases, the journalist does not have to actively identify, but should not misidentify if asked his or her purpose or profession.

Should the code address one of the most common questions I hear in discussions of social media ethics for journalists: Should we maintain separate private and public accounts? I personally think the code should allow flexibility on this issue. But it should admonish journalists to identify themselves (and their organization, unless they are freelancers) in any accounts they might use professionally. And a reminder might be in order that personal accounts should not be used in a way that compromises their professional integrity.

What do you think? Perhaps you disagree with my suggestions. Perhaps I have missed some points where the SPJ Code needs to be updated. I’ve probably said more than the ethics code should in some areas that I raised. I think the Code of Ethics is perhaps SPJ’s most important contribution to journalism and I don’t hear it cited very often in today’s debates. If it doesn’t need an update, at the least SPJ could serve journalists well by leading a discussion of the current ethical issues and decisions and how this code can guide us.


This article originally appered on Steve Buttry’s blog, The Buttry Diary.

Photo Credits: Flickr CC sparktography, R_A_L, Blue Mountains Library – Local Studies, ecstaticist


Author: Chilleh Penguin

A frisky penguin.

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