Numerous guidelines exist regarding how journalists and the agencies they work for should do their jobs in an ethical manner.
- Evolution and purpose of codes of journalism
- Codes of practice
- Common elements
- Accuracy and standards for factual reporting
- Slander and libel considerations
- Harm limitation principle
- Self regulation
- Ethics and standards in practice
- Standards and reputation
- Genres ethics and standards
- Relationship with freedom of the press
- Variations violations and controversies
- Taste decency and acceptability
- Campaigning in the media
- Investigative methods
- Examples of ethical dilemmas
Evolution and purpose of codes of journalism
The principles of Journalistic codes of ethics are designed as guides through numerous difficulties, such as conflicts of interest, to assist journalists in dealing with ethical dilemmas. The codes and canons provide journalists a framework for self-monitoring and self-correction.
Codes of practice
While journalists in the United States and European countries have led in formulation and adoption of these standards, such codes can be found in news reporting organizations in most countries with freedom of the press. The written codes and practical standards vary somewhat from country to country and organization to organization, but there is a substantial overlap among mainstream publications and societies. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) launched a global Ethical Journalism Initiative in 2008 aimed at strengthening awareness of these issues within professional bodies. In 2013 the Ethical Journalism Network was founded by former IFJ General Secretary Aidan White. This coalition of international and regional media associations and journalism support groups campaigns for ethics, good governance and self-regulation across all platforms of media.
One of the leading voices in the U.S. on the subject of Journalistic Standards and Ethics is the Society of Professional Journalists. The Preamble to its Code of Ethics states:...public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility.
The Radio Television Digital News Association, an organization exclusively centered on electronic journalism, maintains a code of ethics centering on—public trust, truthfulness, fairness, integrity, independence and accountability.
The primary themes common to most codes of journalistic standards and ethics are the following.
Accuracy and standards for factual reporting
Slander and libel considerations
Harm limitation principle
During the normal course of an assignment a reporter might go about—gathering facts and details, conducting interviews, doing research, background checks, taking photos, video taping, recording sound—harm limitation deals with the questions of whether everything learned should be reported and, if so, how. This principle of limitation means that some weight needs to be given to the negative consequences of full disclosure, creating a practical and ethical dilemma. The Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics offers the following advice, which is representative of the practical ideals of most professional journalists. Quoting directly:
In addition to codes of ethics, many news organizations maintain an in-house Ombudsman whose role is, in part, to keep news organizations honest and accountable to the public. The ombudsman is intended to mediate in conflicts stemming from internal and or external pressures, to maintain accountability to the public for news reported, and to foster self-criticism and to encourage adherence to both codified and uncodified ethics and standards. This position may be the same or similar to the public editor, though public editors also act as a liaison with readers and do not generally become members of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen.
An alternative is a news council, an industry-wide self-regulation body, such as the Press Complaints Commission, set up by UK newspapers and magazines. Such a body is capable perhaps of applying fairly consistent standards, and of dealing with a higher volume of complaints, but may not escape criticisms of being toothless.
Ethics and standards in practice
As with other ethical codes, there is a perennial concern that the standards of journalism are being ignored. One of the most controversial issues in modern reporting is media bias, particularly on political issues, but also with regard to cultural and other issues. Sensationalism is also a common complaint. Minor factual errors are also extremely common, as almost anyone who is familiar with the subject of a particular report will quickly realize.
There are also some wider concerns, as the media continue to change, for example that the brevity of news reports and use of soundbites has reduced fidelity to the truth, and may contribute to a lack of needed context for public understanding. From outside the profession, the rise of news management contributes to the real possibility that news media may be deliberately manipulated. Selective reporting (spiking, double standards) are very commonly alleged against newspapers, and by their nature are forms of bias not easy to establish, or guard against.
This section does not address specifics of such matters, but issues of practical compliance, as well as differences between professional journalists on principles.
Standards and reputation
Among the leading news organizations that voluntarily adopt and attempt to uphold the common standards of journalism ethics described herein, adherence and general quality varies considerably. The professionalism, reliability and public accountability of a news organization are three of its most valuable assets. An organization earns and maintains a strong reputation, in part, through a consistent implementation of ethical standards, which influence its position with the public and within the industry.
Genres, ethics, and standards
Advocacy journalists — a term of some debate even within the field of journalism — by definition tend to reject "objectivity", while at the same time maintaining many other common standards and ethics.
Civic journalism adopts a modified approach to objectivity; instead of being uninvolved spectators, the press is active in facilitating and encouraging public debate, and examining claims and issues critically. This does not necessarily imply advocacy of a specific political party or position.
Creative nonfiction and literary journalism use the power of language and literary devices more akin to fiction to bring insight and depth into often book-length treatment of the subjects about which they write. Such devices as dialogue, metaphor, digression and other such techniques offer the reader insights not usually found in standard news reportage. However, authors in this branch of journalism still maintain ethical criteria such as factual and historical accuracy as found in standard news reporting. They venture outside the boundaries of standard news reporting in offering richly detailed accounts. One widely regarded author in the genre is Joyce Carol Oates, as with her book on boxer Mike Tyson.
Investigative journalism often takes an implicit point of view on a particular public interest, by asking pointed questions and intensely probing certain questions. With outlets that otherwise strive for neutrality on political issues, the implied position is often uncontroversial - for example that political corruption or abuse of children is wrong and perpetrators should be exposed and punished, that government money should be spent efficiently, or that the health of the public or workers or veterans should be protected. Advocacy journalists often use investigative journalism in support of a particular political position, or to expose facts that are only concerning to those with certain political opinions. Regardless of whether or not it is undertaken for a specific political faction, this genre usually puts a strong emphasis on factual accuracy, because the point of an in-depth investigation of an issue is to expose facts that spur change. Not all investigations seek to expose facts about a particular problem; some data-driven reporting does deep analysis and presents interesting results for the general edification of the audience which might be interpreted in different ways or which may contain a wealth of facts concerned with many different potential problems. A factually-constrained investigation with an implied public interest point of view may also find that the system under investigation is working well.
New Journalism and Gonzo journalism also reject some of the fundamental ethical traditions and will set aside the technical standards of journalistic prose in order to express themselves and reach a particular audience or market segment. These favor a subjective perspective and emphasize immersive experiences over objective facts.
Tabloid journalists are often accused of sacrificing accuracy and the personal privacy of their subjects in order to boost sales. The 2011 News International phone hacking scandal is an example of this. Supermarket tabloids are often focused on entertainment rather than news. A few have "news" stories that are so outrageous that they are widely read for entertainment purposes, not for information. Some tabloids do purport to maintain common journalistic standards, but may fall far short in practice. Others make no such claims.
Some publications deliberately engage in satire, but give the publication the design elements of a newspaper, for example, The Onion, and it is not unheard of for other publications to offer the occasional, humorous articles appearing on April Fool's Day.
Relationship with freedom of the press
In countries without freedom of the press, the majority of people who report the news may not follow the above-described standards of journalism. Non-free media are often prohibited from criticizing the national government, and in many cases are required to distribute propaganda as if it were news. Various other forms of censorship may restrict reporting on issues the government deems sensitive.
Variations, violations, and controversies
There are a number of finer points of journalistic procedure that foster disagreements in principle and variation in practice among "mainstream" journalists in the free press. Laws concerning libel and slander vary from country to country, and local journalistic standards may be tailored to fit. For example, the United Kingdom has a broader definition of libel than does the United States.
Accuracy is important as a core value and to maintain credibility, but especially in broadcast media, audience share often gravitates toward outlets that are reporting new information first. Different organizations may balance speed and accuracy in different ways. The New York Times, for instance, tends to print longer, more detailed, less speculative, and more thoroughly verified pieces a day or two later than many other newspapers. 24-hour television news networks tend to place much more emphasis on getting the "scoop." Here, viewers may switch channels at a moment's notice; with fierce competition for ratings and a large amount of airtime to fill, fresh material is very valuable. Because of the fast turn-around, reporters for these networks may be under considerable time pressure, which reduces their ability to verify information.
Laws with regard to personal privacy, official secrets, and media disclosure of names and facts from criminal cases and civil lawsuits differ widely, and journalistic standards may vary accordingly. Different organizations may have different answers to questions about when it is journalistically acceptable to skirt, circumvent, or even break these regulations. Another example of differences surrounding harm reduction is the reporting of preliminary election results. In the United States, some news organizations feel that it is harmful to the democratic process to report exit poll results or preliminary returns while voting is still open. Such reports may influence people who vote later in the day, or who are in western time zones, in their decisions about how and whether or not to vote. There is also some concern that such preliminary results are often inaccurate and may be misleading to the public. Other outlets feel that this information is a vital part of the transparency of the election process, and see no harm (if not considerable benefit) in reporting it.
Objectivity as a journalistic standard varies to some degree depending on the industry and country. For example, the government-funded BBC in the United Kingdom places a strong emphasis on political neutrality, but British newspapers more often tend to adopt political affiliations or leanings in both coverage and audience, sometimes explicitly. In the United States, major newspapers usually explicitly claim objectivity as a goal in news coverage, though most have separate editorial boards that endorse specific candidates and publish opinions on specific issues. Adherence to a claimed standard of objectivity is a constant subject of debate. For example, mainstream national cable news channels in the United States claim political objectivity, but to various degrees Fox News has been accused of conservative bias and MSNBC accused of liberal bias. The degree to which these leanings influence cherry-picking of facts, factual accuracy, predominance of non-news opinion and commentators, audience opinion of the issues and candidates covered, visual composition, tone, and vocabulary of stories is hotly debated.
News value is generally used to select stories for print, broadcast, blogs, and web portals, including those that focus on a specific topic. To a large degree, news value depends on the target audience. For example, a minor story in the United States is more likely to appear on CNN than a minor story in the Middle East which might be more likely to appear on Al Jazeera simply due to the geographic distribution of the channels' respective audiences. It is a matter of debate whether this means that either network is less than objective, and that controversy is even more complicated when considering coverage of political stories for different audiences that have different political demographics (as with Fox News vs. MSNBC).
Some digital media platforms can use criteria to choose stories which are different than traditional news value. For example, while the Google News portal essentially chooses stories based on news value (though indirectly, through the choices of large numbers of independent outlets), users can set Google Alerts on specific terms which define personal subjective interests. Search engines, news aggregators, and social network feeds sometimes change the presentation of content depending on the consumer's expressed or inferred preferences or leanings. This has both been cheered as bypassing traditional "gatekeepers" and whatever biases they may have in favor of audience-centric selection criteria, but criticized as creating a dangerous filter bubble which intentionally or unintentionally hides dissenting opinions and other content which might be important for the audience to see in order to avoid exposure bias and groupthink.
Taste, decency and acceptability
Audiences have different reactions to depictions of violence, nudity, coarse language, or to people in any other situation that is unacceptable to or stigmatized by the local culture or laws (such as the consumption of alcohol, homosexuality, illegal drug use, scatological images, etc.). Even with similar audiences, different organizations and even individual reporters have different standards and practices. These decisions often revolve around what facts are necessary for the audience to know.
When certain distasteful or shocking material is considered important to the story, there are a variety of common methods for mitigating negative audience reaction. Advance warning of explicit or disturbing material may allow listeners or readers to avoid content they would rather not be exposed to. Offensive words may be partially obscured or bleeped. Potentially offensive images may be blurred or narrowly cropped. Descriptions may be substituted for pictures; graphic detail might be omitted. Disturbing content might be moved from a cover to an inside page, or from daytime to late evening, when children are less likely to be watching.
There is often considerable controversy over these techniques, especially concern that obscuring or not reporting certain facts or details is self-censorship that compromises objectivity and fidelity to the truth, and which does not serve the public interest.
For example, images and graphic descriptions of war are often violent, bloody, shocking and profoundly tragic. This makes certain content disturbing to some audience members, but it is precisely these aspects of war that some consider to be the most important to convey. Some argue that "sanitizing" the depiction of war influences public opinion about the merits of continuing to fight, and about the policies or circumstances that precipitated the conflict. The amount of explicit violence and mutilation depicted in war coverage varies considerable from time to time, from organization to organization, and from country to country.
Reporters have also been accused of indecency in the process of collecting news, namely that they are overly intrusive in the name of journalistic insensitivity. War correspondent Edward Behr recounts the story of a reporter during the Congo Crisis who walked into a crowd of Belgian evacuees and shouted, "Anyone here been raped and speaks English?"
Campaigning in the media
Many print publications take advantage of their wide readership and print persuasive pieces in the form of unsigned editorials that represent the official position of the organization. Despite the ostensible separation between editorial writing and news gathering, this practice may cause some people to doubt the political objectivity of the publication's news reporting. (Though usually unsigned editorials are accompanied by a diversity of signed opinions from other perspectives.)
Other publications and many broadcast media only publish opinion pieces that are attributed to a particular individual (who may be an in-house analyst) or to an outside entity. One particularly controversial question is whether media organizations should endorse political candidates for office. Political endorsements create more opportunities to construe favoritism in reporting, and can create a perceived conflict of interest.
Investigative journalism is largely an information-gathering exercise, looking for facts that are not easy to obtain by simple requests and searches, or are actively being concealed, suppressed or distorted. Where investigative work involves undercover journalism or use of whistleblowers, and even more if it resorts to covert methods more typical of private detectives or even spying, it brings a large extra burden on ethical standards.
Anonymous sources are double-edged - they often provide especially newsworthy information, such as classified or confidential information about current events, information about a previously unreported scandal, or the perspective of a particular group that may fear retribution for expressing certain opinions in the press. The downside is that the condition of anonymity may make it difficult or impossible for the reporter to verify the source's statements. Sometimes sources hide their identities from the public because their statements would otherwise quickly be discredited. Thus, statements attributed to anonymous sources may carry more weight with the public than they might if they were attributed. (See also: news source.)
The Washington press has been criticized in recent years for excessive use of anonymous sources, in particular to report information that is later revealed to be unreliable. The use of anonymous sources increased markedly in the period before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Examples of ethical dilemmas
One of the primary functions of journalism ethics is to aid journalists in dealing with many ethical dilemmas they may encounter. From highly sensitive issues of national security to everyday questions such as accepting a dinner from a source, putting a bumper sticker on one's car, publishing a personal opinion blog, a journalist must make decisions taking into account things such as the public's right to know, potential threats, reprisals and intimidations of all kinds, personal integrity, conflicts between editors, reporters and publishers or management, and many other such conundra. The following are illustrations of some of those.
A partial listing of questions received by The Ethics AdviceLine:
Jesse Owen Hearns-Branaman of the National Institute of Development Administration, Thailand argued that journalistic professionalism is a combination of two factors, secondary socialization of journalists in the workplace and the fetishization of journalistic norms and standards. In this way, undesirable traits in new journalists can be weeded out, and remaining journalists are free to cynically criticize journalistic professional norms as long as they keep working and following them. This criticism is adapted from interviews of twenty political journalists from BBC News, Sky News, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post and MSNBC/NBC News, and from philosopher Slavoj Žižek's concept of ideology.