Journalism ethics define the moral rights and responsibilities that journalists should adopt in their work. Together with specific principles of good practice, they make up a “professional code of ethics”.
The increasing competition of being first with a story can pressure a journalist into bypassing some rules of good journalism. In particular, the rise of digital and social media and the growth of citizen journalism can erode these principles. The thirst to be first often supercedes sound judgement.
This is making it necessary to reconsider how media law and good ethics can be preserved and responsible journalism maintained. An ethical framework aims to improve the integrity of journalists as well as the quality of news reporting. These rules are freely available so that the public may know what to expect from journalists in their work.
Law or ethics
Many of the essential ethical principles in journalism are enshrined in national and international law. These are based on universal values, such as respecting humanity, truthfulness, freedom from violence and solidarity between people.
However, what is defined within the law does not cover all the rules of good practice. So, more detailed ethical codes of conduct and guidelines have also evolved.
In Western society, the basic codes and rules of good journalism usually appear in statements drafted by:
- professional journalism associations, such as trade unions
- individual print, broadcast and online news organisations
Journalism ethics, therefore, have a range of aspects. These include everything from instructions or directives and professional standards, as well as basic guidelines on good manners and politeness.
Some journalistic codes of ethics, notably the European ones, are concerned with avoid discrimination. They refer to issues, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, and physical or mental disabilities.
A code of ethics provides journalists with a framework from which they can monitor and correct their behaviour.
Six key principles of good journalism
Journalists must be:
- truthful and accurate. Getting the facts right is the cardinal principle of journalism. Always strive for accuracy. Work hard to gather all the relevant facts and make sure they have been checked. Never make up or share news that gives a wrong impression of events.
- independent. Journalists must be independent voices. Avoid topics in which you have a conflict of interest. Never act on behalf of political, business or other corporate bodies.
- impartial and fair. Most stories have at least two sides. Your writing should be balanced and put in context. Avoid publishing information if it is undertaken with a bad intention. Impartial reporting builds trust and confidence.
- watchful. Journalists have a special duty as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to make sure public business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.
- mindful of their duty of care. Journalists should never knowingly cause physical or emotional harm to their readers. What you publish or broadcast may be hurtful. So journalists should be aware of the impact their words and images may have on the lives of others.
- accountable. When you commit errors, you must correct them and issue an apology. Your expression of regret should be sincere, not cynical. Listen to what your audience is saying and encourage feedback. Be proud of your work and be ready to accept all credit and criticism alike.
News values as ethical standards
Some news organisations use the term News Values to describe ethics in journalism. However, this term is more widely used to describe the criteria for an interesting and eye-catching news story.
News organisations as guardians of journalism ethics
Reputable news organisations adopt a code of journalism ethics which they expect from their employees. So, to check out their reliability, simply read their statement of ethics and good practice. All you have to do is use your favourite search engine to look up a news source, for instance Google Thomson Reuters and its ethics.
Here are a few for starters:
AP is an American not-for-profit news agency headquartered in New York City. It is among the largest and most trusted source of independent news and information in the world. Associated Press emphasise their commitment to five so-called news values. Put simply, this is a list of “do’s” and “don’ts”:
- no plagiarising
- not misidentifying or misrepresenting themselves to get a story
- avoiding conflicts of interest that may compromise accuracy
- no paying newsmakers for interviews
- maintaining their commitment to fairness.
Reuters, who are owned by Thomson Reuters, have their headquarters in London. Like AP, they are among the largest and most reliable international news organisations worldwide. Their Handbook of Journalism sets out their commitment to a code of standards and values.
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
The BBC is a public service broadcaster. Its headquarters are at Broadcasting House in London. It is the world’s oldest and largest national broadcaster.
The BBC lists the following values:
- Truth and accuracy
- Impartiality and diversity of opinion
- Editorial integrity and independence
- Serving the public interest
- Balancing the right to report with respect for privacy
- Balancing the right to report with protection of the vulnerable
- Safeguarding children
- Being accountable to the audience
This list appears on the BBC website – Editorial Guidelines.
National Public Radio
NPR is an American privately and publicly funded non-profit membership media organisation based in Washington, D.C. It serves as a national syndicate for a network of over a thousand public radio stations in the United States. You can view their code of practice in their Ethics Handbook.
New York Times
The New York Times is an American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide influence and readership. Here are their Standards and Ethics.
Los Angeles Times
Another American newspaper is the Los Angeles Times. It is is a daily newspaper which is published in Los Angeles, California. Their Ethics Guidelines places the responsibility on every staff member to make sure their news and information is of the highest quality.
The Guardian is a British daily newspaper. Along with its sister papers, The Observer and The Guardian Weekly, it is part of the Guardian Media Group. All the papers are held in trust to secure their financial and editorial independence. Their Editorial Code states: “A newspaper’s primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted.”
The International Fact-Checking Network Code of Principles
The IFCN is an umbrella organisation dedicated to bringing together fact-checkers worldwide. Their Code of Principles lists five commitments to an open and honest corrections policy of non-partisanship, fairness and transparency.
So draw your own conclusions. What does it tell you if a news organisation does not publish its ethics for all to access?