Ethics of Journalism: Definition, Code & Importance

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  • 0:04 Ethics
  • 0:50 Ethical Journalism
  • 1:25 The Four Key Concepts
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the ethics of journalism. In addition to providing a rough definition of ethical journalism, we also explore its key factors and how they instruct journalists to act.


The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a free press in our country. But most professional journalists believe that just because the press is 'free,' doesn't necessarily mean it should report, write, or publish anything it wants. Indeed, most journalists believe there are ethics, or a set of morally-driven principles and rules, involved in practicing journalism and that a certain set of values should be followed by all journalists while doing their work.

Though there is not one single code of ethics that's observed by all journalists, there are several organizations in the U.S. and around the world that have attempted to lay down a set of rules and guidelines for ethical journalists to follow. In this lesson, we'll discuss the ethics of journalism, using the four pillars laid out by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) as our guide.

Ethical Journalism

Just like with the guidelines we will discuss, there is no set definition for what ethical journalism is, but we can approximate one. Ethical journalists must seek out and report on the truth, no matter how difficult or unpleasant it might be. They must ensure the information they provide is accurate, whether that means cross-checking eyewitness accounts, doing independent research, or verifying a source's credibility. At the same time, they must balance the objective reporting they strive for with the impact that reporting might have on the story's subjects or elsewhere. This last point can be incredibly difficult to do, and make for some very tough decisions.

The Four Key Concepts

Now, let's take a look at the SPJ's four key concepts and what they mean.

1. Seek Truth and Report It

Simply put, journalists have a duty to get the facts straight. When journalists fail to accurately report the news or when they present facts in a manner that obscures the truth, this is bad journalism. Not only does bad journalism confuse and mislead its readers, but when it's exposed, it causes the public to lose faith in the journalist and sometimes the newspaper or website for which they work. Over time, this affects journalism as a whole.

Reporters have to ensure that what they report is the truth, period. If they have to do extensive research or interview 200 people just to do it, ethical journalists are required to do so. Additionally, journalists have to make sure they are telling the whole story and not just one side of it. If, for example, after a story is published, if the subject wishes to correct something they feel is not right, the journalist has a duty to meet with the subject and report any new developments.

Furthermore, ethical journalists should strive to be as open and transparent as possible, making clear in a story who their sources are and why they're credible.

2. Minimize Harm

There are different aspects that fall under this category, but the gist is that ethical journalists must balance their duties to report the news with the rights and needs of the individuals on who they report. This is especially true in legal matters or when dealing with minors. Minors aren't adults, of course, and shouldn't be treated as such. For example, should a minor who made a mistake have their name published in the paper as if they were an adult? Does the public have a right to this information, and what type of offenses warrant publishing a minor's name? Do any? These are all important questions with which journalists must wrangle.

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