By the mid-1800s, the main principles and standards
for journalism began to be codified into formal statements for newsrooms
and professional associations, especially in North America.
At first, the “codes” were hardly more than a set of instructions
by a newspaper publisher to staff to follow certain rules. The rules
were a combination of ethical principle and practical advice. By the
late 1800s, journalism associations in North America had systematic,
public-service codes of ethics for journalists as professionals.
Today, codes exist around the world for many types of entities: professional
and industry associations (national and regional), news organizations
and press councils.
"Ethical Journalism" guidelines
for writers and editors at the New York Times
Code writing was a sign of the
growing size, impact and professionalism of journalism. Codes were
written for many reasons: to meet public criticism of the press, to
avoid legal restrictions, to protect standards against business values,
to make journalism more professional, and to articulate what journalism
Codes in North America are voluntary, and often written in positive,
inspirational language. Many journalists, fearful of restrictions
to press freedom, oppose making these codes a law enforced by licensed
bodies of professional journalists. In Europe and elsewhere, it is
more likely that codes have been passed into law, enforced by high-level
History of codes
by U.S. and Canadian editors for specific newspapers
Codes for press associations in various states in the U.S.
Codes for national and regional press associations in North
Codes for broadcast media and film industry in North America
Codes expand to Europe (and elsewhere)
Efforts to construct international codes of ethics for media
In defence of codes
Journalism codes have many critics. Codes are criticized for being
too formal and general -- no principle can anticipate the complexities
of concrete situations. Only case-by-case judgments are possible.
Codes are said to be the creations of academics and are irrelevant
to the difficult, deadline decisions of the newsroom. Codes are
criticized as “legally dangerous” -- documents that
can be cited in lawsuits against journalists. Codes are dismissed
as an inflexible, negative set of “don’ts” that
attempt to force all journalists to follow the same rules. Finally,
codes don’t ensure good journalism, since many newsrooms that
have codes ignore them.
So what can be said in defence of codes?
1. Codes are helpful in ethical reasoning:
• They remind us of the issues, the questions to ask, the
• Codes encourage consistency in ethical thinking.
2. Codes increase public and professional accountability
• They articulates what journalists and newsrooms stand for.
• They allow the public to hold journalists accountable.
Principles as crucial component Even if principles cannot anticipate all
situations, principles can still play a useful role in ethical thinking.
No ethical philosopher has suggested that a list of principles constitutes
“ethics,” or that principles alone are sufficient for
making good decisions. Principles are a cornerstone of ethical conduct,
even if good conduct also requires practical wisdom and virtuous
The fact that principles are not “enough” only means
that journalists need to develop their practical reasoning skills
of adjusting principles to circumstances and circumstances to principles.
The other option is to rely on inconsistent “gut feelings”
or “case-by-case” judgments, where non-ethical imperatives
and bias can overwhelm ethics. “Gut feelings” presume
background values that need to be made explicit.
In addition, a “case-by-case” approach can be used by
unethical media to avoid ethical restrictions. How can the public
hold journalists accountable if journalists don’t state what
general ethical rules they follow? Principles are invaluable guides
amid confusing circumstances.
Codes as part of newsroom decisions It is true that a code is neither a necessary
nor a sufficient condition for ethical journalism. Codes may be
ignored, or out-dated. In addition to a code, ethical decision-making
requires the application of the code in daily editorial meetings,
specific guidelines for recurring problems, methods to check on
whether values are being adhered to, and a continuing dialogue with
the public on how the newsroom is adhering to these values. If codes
are not incorporated into the decision-making process, they will
exist as irrelevant, abstract entities. But that is not the fault
of codes. It is the fault of the journalists who ignore codes, or
it is the fault of an incomplete decision-making process in the