Nature of Journalism Ethics

By Stephen J. A. Ward

The previous section, Approaches to Ethics, explained ethics in general. This section uses those general ideas to explain the nature and aims of a special part of ethics -- journalism ethics.

Applied journalism ethics
A traditional model of journalism ethics
Problem areas in journalism
Ethical reasoning in journalism

Staking the papers as they come off the folder in El Salvador. Photo by Sean Hawkey

Applied journalism ethics

Journalism ethics is a species of applied (professional) ethics. It is the application and evaluation of the principles and norms that guide journalism practice, with special attention to the most important problems in the field. Journalism ethics contains both applied analysis and theory. In the analysis of specific cases, journalism ethics may appeal to theoretical matters, such as the nature of ethical assertion.

Beyond journalism: Ultimately, the basis for journalism ethics transcends journalism -- its principles are justified by reference to broader social and political principles. For example, the journalistic function of acting as watchdog on government is justified, ultimately, by a commitment to liberal democracy.

Ethical sphere in journalism
Ethical questions are not reducible to questions of etiquette, prudence, financial gain or law. Similarly, questions about journalism ethics are not reducible to questions about what is commonly done (etiquette), prudence (what is in the journalist’s self-interest?), financial gain (what enhances profits?) or law. Nor are ethical values reducible to “craft” values, such as the aesthetic quality of an image, or how well a story is written.

A question about journalism conduct is ethical only if it evaluates the conduct in light of the fundamental ethical principles of journalism. These are the principles that express journalism’s most important social functions. Journalism ethics depends on one’s conception of the public functions of journalism as a professional practice, and the principles and standards that promote those aims.

A question in journalism is “ethical” if it asks the following questions:
• Is the action consistent with journalism’s public purpose, which is based on some view of the good for citizens and society?
• Does it violate or enhance the principles that express this public role?


Three sources of “duties” in journalism
Why do journalists have special duties?

1. General ethical duties: Like any person or citizen, journalists should conduct themselves in accord with general ethical principles such as being truthful, keeping promises, avoiding harm and serving the public good. However, these principles receive specific interpretations in reporting and editing.

2. Journalism’s social role: Like all professionals, journalists use their skills to fulfill a social role(s) and to meet public expectations. The role is sometimes understood as arising from a social contract between journalism and society. In many Western countries, journalists are granted a constitutionally protected freedom to promote social goods, such as a diversity of views and a comprehensive analysis of events.

3. Impact and influence: Even if journalism lacked a special social role, journalists would incur ethical responsibilities due to their impact on the individuals and groups they report on, and on the society they serve.

The aims of journalism ethics
• Understanding: Deepen our understanding of journalism’s ethical functions and its principles.
• Ethical reasoning: Improve the ethical reasoning of journalists.
• Reforming: Re-define existing standards and construct new ones.
• Promoting: Promote ethical behaviour and decision-making in news media.
• Discussion: Promote public discussion of journalism ethics

“Micro” and “macro” ethics
Journalism ethics can be divided roughly into two levels:

1. Micro level: What an individual journalist should do in a particular situation; or the problems that surround a specific type of story. Micro issues include whether a journalist should use a hidden camera in a specific situation, or whether the failure to attribute an idea is plagiarism.

2. Macro level: What the news media in general should do, given their role in society. Macro issues include diversity of media content and ownership, and freedom of the press.


A traditional model of journalism ethics
The many principles, standards and values that surround the discussion of journalism can be confusing. One way to organize these ideas is to start with the “traditional ethical model” of journalism in North America, a model that goes back to the emergence of the modern, professional journalist at the end of the 1800s.
(See History of Journalism Ethics)

A traditional definition of an ethical journalist is, "An impartial communicator of important news and views to the public and from the impartial perspective of the public; using responsible and accurate methods of newsgathering, for the sake of a self-governing citizenship."  

Some of the main functions that come under this aim are:
• Inform the public on important events so as to allow self-government
• Act as a watchdog on abuses of power, both private and public
• Provide an open forum for the expression and critical discussion of issues, viewpoints and values.

Using the code of the Society of Professional Journalists in the United States, we can divide the principles that support these functions into two categories:

1. Pro-active principles and standards that direct journalists (or news media) to actively seek out and investigate truths, in an independent manner.

2. Restraining principles and standards that direct the journalists to use that freedom responsibly, by avoiding unnecessary harm and by being accountable.

Pro-active principles include:

Seeking the truth -- Journalists should pursue and investigate important truths within the constraints of daily journalism. Standards that fall under this principle include accuracy, balance and diversity, completeness and context, proportionality, fairness and objectivity.

independently -- Journalists should seek and report the truth without fear or favour. They serve the public as a whole, not factions or special interests. Standards that fall under these principles include the avoidance of conflicts of interest, independence from other institutions, refusal of special favours and the courage to criticize the powerful.


Restraining principles include:

Minimizing harm -- Journalists, in seeking truth independently, should avoid causing unnecessary harm to the subjects and sources of their stories, such as children and victims of violence or tragedy. It is impossible for any professional to avoid doing any harm. The duty is to reduce harm in the carrying out of one’s legitimate professional duties, such as not violating someone’s privacy without reason.

Being accountable -- Journalists should be able to explain and justify their actions and their stories, especially where stories are controversial or have negative impact on individuals or groups. Accountability means articulating the standards that guide one’s journalism, and providing the means through which the public can question and complain.

Relationship of the four principles: In any complex situation, journalists will have to balance two or more of these four principles. Where serious public truths are at stake, pro-active principles trump restraining principles. For example, the privacy of a politician may be violated to investigate a serious abuse of power.

Problem areas in journalism
Typical ethical problems encountered in journalism include:
• Accuracy and verification: How much evidence is required to publish a story? How much verification is possible in war zones?
• Context: Have journalists provided important context for the facts? How much context is necessary for complex stories on science, health and technology?
• Deception and fabrication: Should journalists misrepresent themselves or use recording technology such as hidden cameras? Should literary journalists “invent” dialogue or composite characters?
• Graphic images and sensationalism: When should journalists publish graphic or gruesome images? When do images become guilty of sensationalism or exploitation? When is coverage not proportional to the importance of the story?
• Illegal acts: Should a journalist ever break the law to get a story?
• Sources and confidentiality: Should journalists promise confidentiality to sources? Should journalists refuse to reveal their sources to police or the courts? When should journalists go “off the record”?
• Special, sensitive situations: How should journalists cover hostage-takings, suicide attempts and other events where media coverage could exacerbate the problem, or lead to deadly consequences?


New areas of concern
The global communication revolution has changed radically the media environment and introduced new ethical problems. Some major factors are:

1. Proliferation of news media
• Increasing competition among media providers
• Pressure to find “content” to supply new programs and on-line sites
• Many ‘media’ converge on the story of the day -- wall-to-wall coverage

2. Changes in news media audiences
• Fragmentation of audiences: Smaller demographics; niche media
• Stronger demand for fresh news, live hits: less “appointment” news
• Audiences increasingly demand access to whatever photos or information is available, before traditional verification is completed
• Impatient, “remote control” audiences
• Audiences demand “interactivity” -- the chance to research their own stories, and question the mainstream news media

3. Convergence of news media
• News organizations attempt to “re-assemble” audiences across media platforms
• Multi-media newsrooms: journalists work in several media
• Global news corporations through acquisition and merger

4. Increased importance of business values
• News as one part of profit-driven corporations

These factors can have both positive and negative impact on journalism.

Some positive effects are:
• Citizens have more access to different media; greater interactivity
• Reduced “gatekeeping” powers of major news organizations
• New story-telling methods through multi-media
• Convergence can bring together many resources to probe an issue


Some negative effects are:
1. A “journalism of assertion”
• More opinionated reporting to attract audiences; less verification; less objectivity; more sensationalism and increased stress on conflict

2. Pressure to lower ethical standards
• “Dumbing down” and simplifying content; less serious context, or analysis
• Editorial resources spent on entertainment and celebrity news

3. Complaints about intrusive, ubiquitous media; information glut

4. Convergence and business values
• Concerns about diversity of views in mainstream media
Power of global media corporations
Priority of economic imperatives over ethical duties
Possible conflicts of interest
Lack of journalistic independence

5. Confusion about who is a journalist, and what standards are relevant
• Rise of new media and on-line journalism questions the traditional standards of objectivity, verification and pre-publication editorial control. It questions the need for professionalism and special education for journalists. See new media ethics section.

The result?


Ethical reasoning in journalism
An important assumption of teaching journalism ethics is that ethical reasoning is a skill that can be developed and improved through study and practice. In approaches to ethics, a variety of approaches to reasoning about any ethical issue are referenced.

In this section, I present my own model of how to reason ethically in journalism. Ethical reasoning in journalism is something one “does” -- applying one’s principles and standards to concrete cases, in light of the fundamental functions of journalism.

My model is consistent with these general models, and other journalistic models of ethical reasoning. My model is streamlined so as to be useful and understandable to journalists and non-ethicists. Consider it a starting point for developing your own model.

Four stages of ethical reasoning:

1. Awareness that an ethical problem exists: situation characterized by uncertainty; lack of clarity; conflicting views on what should be done.

2. Analysis of the case: Identify the ethical issue(s). Identify the conflicting values and most relevant facts.

3. Evaluation and considered judgment:
• Identify ethically permissible options: check for consequences, duties/rights, impact on one’s character and profession.
• Choose action after carefully balancing choices and weighing reasons. Construct a reasoned, principled, ethical justification. Be ready to explain one’s decision.

4. Take action and review one’s decision later: Learning from feedback to one’s actions is crucial to ethical development. Where appropriate, revise one’s principles.


Each of these four stages can be analyzed into a series of steps. Take, for example, the stage of analysis (stage 2). There are two steps in every analysis:

Step 1: What are the ethical issues?
• Identify the ethical values: distinguish ethical issues from commercial or legal issues, or self-interest.
• Consult your code of ethics for relevant principles and standards
• Estimate the likely consequences of various actions: Who will benefit or be harmed? Are any rights, duties or loyalties are involved (e.g. loyalty to source)?
• Consider the impact an action will have on one’s character or profession
• Can we minimize any unnecessary harm

• Can we explain and justify our actions to the public?
• Identify any conflicts between principle and values

Step 2: What are the relevant facts for ethics?
• Testing for facts: Are all important facts known? What facts don’t we know?
• Do we need to verify anything? How reliable are the sources of “facts”?
• Be consistent; think analogically: How is this case like other cases? How have I acted in the past? What is our newsroom policy? Would I expect another professional to act this way?

Once the analysis is completed, identify a number of options that appear to be ethically permissible -- not obviously wrong. Often, each option will have both positive and negative consequences. The task is to identify the best option, given one’s principles. What action comes closest to fulfilling our professional principles?

Good questions to ask yourself:

• What is the journalistic purpose or news value of this story?
• What are my motivations in doing this story?
• How does this decision fit my overall journalism values -- am I being consistent?
• Role-reversal as a check on fairness: How would I feel if this was written about me?
• Can I live with this? Does it affect my integrity?
• How would I defend this?


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