Journalism ethics: 5 levels that bring broad principles down to real-life decisions

Most common words in the SPJ ethics code (image via wordle.net)

Most common words in the SPJ ethics code (image via wordle.net)

Over my years in newspapers, I went to many mandatory in-house seminars on copyright and libel issues. Had to attend annual sessions on how to evacuate our building in case of fire, and participate in fire drills.

Number of in-house formal discussions of ethics: Two. Not mandatory. And those were discussions I chaired.

I know my experience is not universal. But I suspect it’s common. Some of the newsrooms I’ve worked in didn’t even have written versions of their own ethics standards. Where written standards do exist, they may be a mishmosh of the specific and the general, of ethics and taste. The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code is frequently cited, and it does an admirable job of trying to be comprehensive. But it contains admonishments like this: “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

The SPJ is taking a hard look at its code. As digital journalism brings up new issues, the Online News Association is considering its own approach, as Steve Buttry explained on his blog recently. Buttry himself has led ethics seminars, and the post linked in the previous sentence was a follow-up to one calling for more detailed advice.

None of the high-level, national attempts to codify journalism ethics will accomplish much unless there are practical implications in each newsroom. For that to happen, each newsroom will need a four- or five-step approach.

Top level: Broad statements

First, we need broad ethical principles that acknowledge a hierarchy of duties. The SPJ provides some broad statements for each of several categories of rules, like this: “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” “Courageous” seems out of place there. And by placing the emphasis on a journalist’s behavior, it separates that behavior from the people it affects. And the lack of priorities suggests every rule is on equal footing. That doesn’t help when, inevitably, different rules clash in a specific situation.

It’s my impression that the broad principles of journalism ethics are something assumed to be universally known and universally agreed to. Much of the debate seems to start with that assumption and focus instead on the levels below that. Is being “fair” a universally agreed-upon principle? Without getting into arguments about whether U.S. media are fair and balanced, we only have to look at well-respected British papers — say, the Telegraph — to see that its news columns are regularly used to promote one side of an argument.

Second level: Applying principles to categories of issues

From the overarching principles we move down a level at which we apply them to general issues in the field. That’s where some you get statements like “Never distort the content of news photos or video.” A good rule, but one that cannot stand on its own. In the SPJ code, that rule is followed by a partial explanation of exceptions: “Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible.” One problem is that we’re still working at a fairly abstract level. Each person may have a different interpretation of “enhancement for technical clarity” or, even of what the “content” of a news photo or video is. This week, the Charleston Gazette apologized for the actions of a photojournalist who obscured a TV station’s logo on a microphone. According to the paper, the journalist said he did so to put the focus of the photo on the subject. A couple of sentences can’t explain how that logic is different from simply cropping the photo to eliminate the mic.

A few years ago, I surveyed ethics codes across U.S. media. This level was the one most represented; it also seemed to be the level least controversial. By sticking to these kinds of statements, organizations avoid establishing more concrete rules that might sting them in court. And getting more specific exposes the lack of consensus in newsrooms, as the many fights over social media ethics for journalists have made clear. (For more about social media ethics, check out a blog I established during a discussion of them at The Plain Dealer.)

Third level: Fleshing out the rules

But we need more specifics, better ways to distinguish what the Gazette’s photographer did from what the newsroom considers ethical. In one of Buttry’s recent ethics posts, he talks about the need to bring ethics codes down to specifics. Regarding the offer of confidentiality to sources, for example, Buttry writes that an ethics code:

… should recognize the difference between anonymity (reporter doesn’t know the source, who may be a phone caller who won’t give a name or someone using an anonymous email or digital dropbox to pass information to a journalist) and confidentiality (a Deep Throat situation where the journalist knows the source and can gauge his or her reliability but promises not to identify the source). The code needs to address some journalists’ and news organizations’ shameful practice of granting confidentiality of people for stating opinions. And it needs to recognize that technology has made protecting confidentiality more complex than simply keeping promises.

Fourth level: Ongoing learning

Now we’re getting to a level that has more specifics. But in order for those to be effective, there has to be a discussion level. Looking back, I wish my newsrooms had established regular, newsroom-wide continuing training on ethics. If we can live with requirements for fire drills, we can certainly carve out a few hours every year to discuss our ethical standards. When I say training, I don’t mean simply reading off a list, or lecturing the staff on what the bosses want them to do. These need to be real discussions with give and take. I don’t suggest that ethics with a newsroom be subject to majority vote, but only through an open discussion can we hope to get everyone on the same page, understanding rules in the same way.

They can take many forms: Dissections of ethical issues that cropped up over the last year; hypothetical cases with role-playing; picking one broad rule and talking about how to apply it in specific cases. But they should be regular — at least annual; mandatory for all staff, top to bottom; and led by someone who is capable of keeping the discussion on topic while allowing everyone to have a voice.

One might argue that these regular seminars aren’t a part of an ethics code, just a way to communicate it. But an ethics code without adequate communication is crippled. An effective code must be self-actuating; it must contain within itself the means to propagate and perpetuate its principles.

Fifth level: Actual decisions

Finally, we get to an actual incident requiring a decision based on ethics. No national code, not even a code specific to an organization, can address every specific instance and provide clear guidance. Newsroom leaders should avoid taking the easy way out by plucking one rule from a list and making a decision. There should be an organizational commitment to real discussions. Those won’t amount to much unless all of the levels above exist.

I have more to say. Coming up: My proposal for a set of broad principles; an example of how having a hierarchy of principles can have practical benefits; a discussion about the implications of one of my principles for the way news organizations approach their websites; and something, I think, about the difference between ethics, morals and taste.

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