Missing Comma: Some Notes on Ethics

The Society of Professional Journalists is one of those institutions within journalism that can be counted on to almost never change. That’s why the release of their latest draft of their new ethics code is such a big deal.

If you remember back a ways, you’ll recall that I’ve brought up SPJ in the ethical context before – in the aftermath of Caleb Hannan’s “exposé” of Essay Vanderbilt, many turned to SPJ’s ethics code for guidance on what he should have done with the information he uncovered. It said, most notably:

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

This line has been edited to include members of the public.

The new version of the code is aimed at a media that is increasingly based online, but its infrastructure is the same. Under the section “Seek Truth And Report It,” for example, they added this paragraph:

Aggressively gather and update information as the story unfolds and work to avoid error. Deliberate distortion and reporting unconfirmed rumors are never permissible. Remember that neither speed nor brevity excuses inaccuracy or mitigates the damage of error. […] Work to put every story into context. In promoting, previewing or reporting a story live, take care not to misrepresent or oversimplify it. […] Seek sources whose views are seldom used. Official and unofficial sources can be equally valid.

Other points of awesome:

Avoid stereotyping. Examine your own cultural values and avoid imposing those on others. …

Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or invasive behavior.

And finally, my favorite:

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish. Journalists should balance the importance of information and potential effects on subjects and the public before publication.


Bonus round: here’s Jeremy Scahill talking about objectivity in journalism on MediaBistro’s Media Beat:

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