What is the Journalism Code of Ethics?

Mallory Ogea, Christopher Sailus
  • Author
    Mallory Ogea

    Mallory Ogea has taught various English, Communications, and business technology courses in grades 9-12 for over 5 years. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Louisiana State University. She also has her Louisiana and Texas teacher certifications for English grades 6-12.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Sailus

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

Explore the journalism code of ethics. Learn about journalism ethics and standards, ethical issues journalists face, and the importance of media ethics. Updated: 03/10/2022

What is Journalism Ethics?

Ethics are principles that a person uses as a guide when deciding between what is right and what is wrong. What is journalism ethics? Ethics in journalism can be defined as the code of conduct to which a journalist is held accountable to and lives by when performing duties. This ethical code of conduct helps maintain a trusting relationship between consumers and news outlets, as well as improves a journalist's credibility. While there is no specific code of ethics written that all journalists live by, journalistic professional societies, such as the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), have adopted their own code of ethics. No one society dictates the code of ethics for journalism.

Ethics

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.

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  • 0:50 Ethical Journalism
  • 1:25 The Four Key Concepts
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History of Journalism Ethics and Standards

The history of journalism ethics and standards can be broken into five stages. The first stage is known as the matter of fact, where the creation of ethical discourse began prior to the 18th century. In the second stage of journalism history, journalists were seen as watchdogs of truth and provided a balance against government control. In this stage, journalism was referred to by Edmund Burke as "the fourth estate," implying that it is as significant as a branch of government. At the end of the 18th century, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution granted freedom of the press. In the third stage, 20th century journalists created the term objectivity, which is the rule journalists follow to report accurate and unbiased information. Journalists that disagreed with objective journalism created investigative reporting and activist journalism, the fourth stage in journalism history. The fifth stage of journalism is known as mixed media. This stage has given rise to citizen journalism and has put the purpose of traditional journalism and its validity into question.

The term media convergence best sums up today's journalism. Today's journalists are not only up against maintaining a valid code of ethics and objectivity, but are also faced with the challenge of reaching audiences on broader platforms and with quick, engaging content. Technology has tremendously sped up the communication process, making it more challenging for journalists to maintain objectivity while getting news out quickly. On the other hand, crowdsourcing, which is the use of everyday citizens for news or media, has made the instantaneous need for news easier for journalists to access.

Journalism ethics and standards have evolved through the Web. The rise in the Web as a source for news has created a more responsible press and holds journalists to higher journalism ethics and standards. The Web has required journalists to become clearer in their writing by discussing their errors openly. Social media platforms, such as Twitter, have allowed citizens to become watchdogs of the press; they are quick to call out inconsistency in news coverage. Thanks to these watchdogs the seven standards of journalism are top priority among journalists and news organizations now more than ever. The seven standards of journalism are: avoiding bias, maintaining fairness, presenting clear and accurate facts, providing documentation, creating a balance that represents multiple sides of an issue, fact checking, and using credible sources.

Ethical Issues in Journalism

Ethical issues in journalism include deceit, conflicts of interest, advertising pressure, invasion of privacy, withholding information, incorrect and incomplete information, and plagiarism.

Deceit

This ethical issue can be seen when journalists lie to get a story. For example, concealing the fact that the person is a journalist when pursuing a story or hiding a camera to record or gather information. Some journalists have tried to justify deceit as a way of gathering all of the necessary facts to report a factual and complete story.

Conflicts of Interest

Conflicts of interest can include friendships, payola, freebies, and checkbook journalism. Stories involving friends should be reassigned to another reporter in order to avoid this conflict. Payola is when a journalist accepts some form of payment from a person other than their employer to report a story. Freebies are gifts that journalists receive for writing a story. It is important to remember that all gifts come with a price. Checkbook journalism is when a journalist pays a person for information they intend to use in a story.

Advertising Pressure

In order to maintain a clear balance of "separation of church and state," journalists should not write and publish a story for the purpose of advertising convenience.

Invasion of Privacy

Journalists struggle to find the fine line between the "right to know" and the "right to privacy." This concern includes, but is not limited to, naming survivors of a crime, naming juvenile offenders, forcing survivors to speak out against their abuse, and revealing a person's sexual orientation.

Withholding Information

Is it ever justifiable for a journalist to withhold information from their audience? In some instances, it may be. An example of this is the BTK serial murder case in Wichita, Kansas, in the 1970s. The police investigating the murders asked Cathy Kenkel, a Seattle Times reporter, not to disclose details that may hurt their chances of catching the killer. Withholding information, even in situations such as this, can still leave reporters wondering where the fine line of "right to know" is.

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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Video Transcript

Ethics

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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Frequently Asked Questions

What is media ethics in journalism?

Media ethics in journalism are a set of principles, or a code, that a journalist uses when reporting news. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) provides journalists with the following ethical codes: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable.

What is ethics in simple terms?

In simple terms, ethics are morals that a person lives by. Ethics are principles that a person uses as a guide when deciding between what is right and what is wrong.

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